Pentagon to abandon two-war strategy, but at what cost to US security?

The Pentagon has long said it must be prepared to fight two wars at once. Budget cuts and changing global threats mean that standard is no longer practical, experts say.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta boards a C-17 plane as he leaves Tripoli, Libya in December.

The Pentagon appears to be on the cusp of abandoning a long-held strategic principle: that the US military should have the ability to wage two conventional wars simultaneously.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to announce the results of a large-scale strategic overview Thursday that will instead call for the military to be able to fight one large conventional war, and act as a “spoiler” for potential enemies in any other conflict that might crop up.

In the new military parlance, it’s the “one-plus strategy.”

The news is expected to draw a great deal of buzz, but how important is this shift, really? And how will it impact America’s standing in the world? In practical terms, some analysts say that the “shift” has little meaning. In fact it’s less a shift, they argue, than a “no duh” announcement. 

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed the subject as he rolled out the Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s strategic way forward. “For years, US defense planning and requirements were based on preparing to fight two major conventional wars at the same time.” It’s a construct, he added, “that persisted long after it was overtaken by events. The department’s leadership now recognizes that we must prepare for a much broader range of security challenges on the horizon.” 

What’s more, the United States hasn’t been able to fight two ground wars simultaneously for quite some time, analysts point out. Nor would it want to, others add.

“Arguably, we already weren’t sized to fight two major wars simultaneously,” says Todd Harrison, a defense specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “We are just adjusting our formal strategy and the way we talk about our formal strategy. We’re just going to say openly and publicly that we’re not going to plan on getting into two major wars at the same time.”

How about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? These don’t really count, Mr. Harrison says. That’s because the Pentagon never actually had to fight them in earnest at the same time. The surge in Iraq peaked in 2008 then started declining. In Afghanistan, US troop levels reached their maximum in 2011. 

Even so, perhaps proclaiming such a warfare stance isn’t a great idea, others argue. Might it, after all, provoke an aspiring world power to strike when the United States is otherwise engaged in another conflict?

That depends on exactly what it means for the United States to act as a “spoiler” in another conflict. The strategy could amount to: “We’re going to fight and win the first war, and then we’re going to spoil a second aggressor long enough to give ourselves enough time to finish the war, then build up and fight the second,” says Harrison

Certain parts of US military structure, like ground forces, can be reconstituted more quickly than others, Mr. Harrison points out. “You can increase the size of your ground forces relatively quickly, but with air and naval forces, you need more time.”

But there are some additional questions, too, that involve not only where US forces will be fighting and who they will be fighting, but whether the Pentagon plans on forging ahead with a protracted conflict, for example.

Take two countries that many believe may pose a potential threat to the United States: China and Iran. The Pentagon is in little position to take on both of these forces simultaneously as it stands now. Nor would it need, say, Army infantry ground forces in a fight against China. What will shape the US military response in any event are the capabilities that each potential foe brings to the table. 

In the case of Iran, "that’s something that could start out small,” Harrison says. Iran doesn’t have sophisticated air defenses and has “virtually no air force to speak of.” That means it would likely be less of a threat going into Iran than it is to China, Harrison postulates.

That said, launching any war is about calculated risk – and expecting the unexpected. Iran has “means of retaliating through proxy forces – terrorist groups around the world," says Harrison. They could attack Libya, or act as a destabilizing force in Iraq and Afghanistan, he adds. They could also close the Strait of Hormuz by mining it. “If they did, that steps up the escalation ladder. We might have to go in and take ground along Hormuz – to put boots on the ground to the point where our goal becomes regime change.”

Operations against a country like China on the other hand, which has more sophisticated capabilities and great resources and manpower, would require the United States to operate largely from a distance, Harrison says.  “I don’t think we would try to put boots on the ground or anything like that. It’s not going to be about regime change and occupation – it’s going to be an air and sea campaign.” 

That means relying on longer-range bombers and stealth aircraft that can evade detection by China’s sophisticated weapons systems. In this event, “it would probably end up being a more protracted campaign – I don’t think any side could win quickly there.”

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