Before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Pentagon's worst land war scenario was a Red Army thrust into the heart of Western Europe. Since then, the US military has seen its toughest potential conventional challenge as the outbreak of two wars at almost the same time - one on the Korean Peninsula, the other in the oil-rich Gulf.
Thus during the Clinton years Pentagon planners have made the ability to fight and win two "nearly simultaneous" conflicts in different areas of the globe the yardstick by which it has configured the size, structure, and budgets of post-cold-war US forces.
But could the Pentagon really handle this load if it had to? Right now, the so-called two major regional conflict (MRC) strategy is being hotly debated as part of a big Pentagon study.
The congressionally mandated review, the third of its kind since 1992, is to be completed by May and is intended to serve as the military's blueprint for protecting the nation's interests well into the next century. At issue is whether the two-MRC strategy should remain the central tenet of military planning. By retaining it, the quadrennial defense review (QDR) is not likely to call for major changes in defense policies. But a new standard could mandate sweeping alterations in the size, shape, and tactics of the US armed forces.
Some experts argue that with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea expected to pose the gravest threats to US geopolitical interests for the foreseeable future, there should be no change in basic strategy. Others believe the QDR should take a revolutionary approach combining cost-saving cutbacks with innovative uses of advanced technologies to ensure the US remains the world's top military power.
"It takes a long time to transform a military organization. It takes a long time to research, test and develop new systems, the doctrine of how to use them, and to restructure the forces," says Andrew Krepinevich of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, a think tank. But such an approach runs counter to the politically safe status quo the Pentagon has embraced. "The tendency is to kick the can down the road," he says.
Pentagon officials reject such assertions. They also dispute concerns that the QDR will be used to insulate the Pentagon's $267 billion budget from the effort to balance the federal budget. They say that changes could be proposed should they be needed to preserve an adequately funded military. "The QDR is not about protecting today's force. It is rather about shaping tomorrow's force," says Deputy Defense Secretary John White. "Everything is on the table."
Mr. White is one of those who believe the two-MRC scenario is flawed. In a recent speech, he noted that the strategy fails to make room for the peacekeeping and other nontraditional operations in which the US military has become increasingly engaged. His comments have prompted expectations that the QDR could suggest some ways in which US military strategy could be better adapted for nontraditional missions.
But resistance within the government to changing the basic two-war strategy appears to be strong.
"We don't have the option in the Quadrennial Defense Review of saying we'll just take out of the strategy one of the MRCs to save money," says Robert Bell, a senior National Security Council official. "Not only was the decision right when it was made, it's not clear to me ... today that the world has changed ... in terms of a two-MRC requirement."
But even if it doesn't want change, the administration may be compelled by slim resources to embrace an alternative strategy before its term ends. Such an alternative might involve a smaller force that relied on greater participation of US allies in major combat operations.
The two previous defense evaluations - the 1992 "Base Force" and the 1993 "Bottom-Up Review" - embraced the two-MRC strategy and reduced the size of the armed forces from 2.3 million personnel to 1.4 million. Even so, the Pentagon budget remains at cold-war levels and added financial pressures have been fueled by contingency operations in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Meanwhile, plans call for massive spending beginning in the next fiscal year for purchases of next-generation weapons systems, such as the F-22 fighter and a new nuclear-powered attack submarine.
As a result, forecasts abound of a growing "mismatch" - ranging from $50 billion to $100 billion annually - between expenditures and the size and structure of the armed services. In an effort to find new revenues, the QDR is considering acquisition reforms, privatization of military base functions, and purchases of off-the-shelf technologies.
But Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert with the Brookings Institution says while those savings will be welcome, they will be insufficient. "Regardless of whether you keep the active force of 1.4 million with the two-war strategy, you are going to need to increase spending in the next decade because Reagan era equipment is going to wear out," says Mr. O'Hanlon. "When you think out to the next decade, you have a problem."