There has been a good deal of weeping over the Pentagon’s newly unveiled strategy, much of it focused on concerns that the military will no longer be prepared to fight two wars, or two “major regional conflicts,” at once.
But the notion that the military ever was prepared for such a mission is in many ways a great strategic myth.
Among others, Rep. Howard (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.) lashed out at the administration over the new strategy on Thursday, saying that it was walking away from a bipartisan policy whereby military forces were sized “to respond to two near-simultaneous major contingency operations.”
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said the two-conflict standard was a necessary deterrent, not unlike the nuclear weapons that the nation has on alert. “The changes outlined today greatly increase the risk that an adversary would calculate that we would not necessarily devote maximum effort to fighting back against them while raising questions among our allies about the depth of our commitment to their defense,” Lieberman said.
But the suggestion that the country was ever braced for two wars at once was shattered over the past decade, beginning in 2001, when the George W. Bush administration had to establish a supplemental budget to pay first for Afghanistan and later for Iraq. A decade later, spending for “overseas contingency operations” in fiscal 2012 totaled $115 billion above the $525 billion allocated for the core Defense Department budget.
The military also didn’t have a big enough force for two wars. Beginning with the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration had not only to increase the size of the existing active-duty force but make extensive use the National Guard and Reserves.
Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Pentagon official under Ronald Reagan, said: “The debate of the number of wars is not inherently ridiculous but it comes close.”
“We entered Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003,” Cordesman said, “and became engaged in long land-air wars that required so many resources that we could not provide the ground forces to fight in both conflicts at the same time, and had to starve Afghanistan of resources to surge in Iraq.”
In its new strategy, the Pentagon retains the concept that, while handling one large but short-term stabilizing operation, U.S. forces could also deny an enemy success in a second region. But the strategy also makes clear that, given the types of threats now foreseen, the forward basing of small but agile forces would be a better deterrent than maintaining a large force at home.
On Thursday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to preempt criticism that the Pentagon was walking away from some core two-war tenet.
“There has been much made about whether this strategy moves away from a force structure explicitly designed to fight and win two wars simultaneously,” he said. “Fundamentally, our strategy has always been about our ability to respond to global contingencies wherever and whenever they happen. This does not change.”