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U.S.: Strategists Debate U.S. Military Policy

  • Roman Kupchinsky --> U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (file photo) Pentagon planners have begun reviewing one of the pillars of U.S. military strategy: Should the United States maintain its long-standing policy of being prepared to fight two wars concurrently while maintaining a sufficiently effective counterterrorism/homeland defense?

The debate comes as 138,000 U.S. combat troops are stationed in Iraq, fighting an asymmetrical war against Iraqi rebels at a cost of $5 billion per month.

The current doctrine as described in the "National Military Strategy of the United States of America 2004" (NMS) reads as follows:

"Protecting the United States, preventing conflict and surprise attacks, and prevailing against adversaries will require forces appropriately sized and shaped in accordance with the NDS [National Defense Strategy] force-planning construct. The force must be sized to defend the U.S. homeland while continuing to operate in and from four forward regions to deter aggression and coercion and set conditions for future operations. Even when committed to a limited number of lesser contingencies, the Armed Forces must retain the capability to swiftly defeat adversaries in two overlapping military campaigns. Additionally, when the president calls for an enduring result in one of the two, the force must have the capability and capacity to win decisively."

Key Question

The proposition that Pentagon policymakers are debating is the following: Does the United States have the capability to produce an "enduring result" in one of two "overlapping campaigns"? The outcome of that debate could have a fundamental impact on the way the United States conducts its foreign and defense policies in the years to come.

The NMS states that such a review is needed: "Our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq highlight the need for a comprehensive strategy to achieve longer-term national goals and objectives."

The "Quadrennial Defense Review" is a reevaluation mandated by Congress every four years. The coming study should be presented to Congress in February and will presumably touch on such fundamental issues as:

* Are U.S. forces prepared and capable of winning a conventional war against Iran or North Korea while maintaining current troop levels in Iraq?

* Does the Iranian or North Korean military and political leadership believe that the United States is willing and prepared to attack; and, if so, is this moderating their behavior?

Credible Power?

At stake in today's debate is the fundamental question of the perceived limits and credibility of U.S. military power. Can U.S. power be used as a deterrent to discourage conflicts from becoming hot wars? The NMS states: "The United States requires a broad set of options to discourage aggression and coercion. Nuclear capabilities continue to play an important role in deterrence by providing military options to deter a range of threats, including the use of WMD/E and large-scale conventional forces."

China, Iran, and North Korea were named by "The New York Times" as states that the Pentagon debate has suggested are possible opponents in a future conflict. Can any combination of two of the above be defeated in a conventional war while homeland security is maintained at a high level against terrorist attack?

Furthermore, analysts and tacticians need to consider whether two concurrent major conflicts are winnable without the deployment of nuclear weapons? Could they be lost even with the use of nuclear weapons by the United States?

In its report on this policy debate, "The New York Times" reported on 5 July that: "In effect, the unusual mission in Iraq, which could last for years, has not just taken the slot for one of the two wars; it has upended the central concept of the two-war model. It is neither a major conventional combat nor a mere peacekeeping operation. It does not require the full array of forces, especially from the Navy and the Air Force, of a conventional war, and it takes far more troops than peacekeeping ordinarily would."

This debate apparently does not attach any great significance to the role of NATO in any future major conflict and seems to assume that, in a future conflict, the United States would be expected to fight without significant support from its allies. "The New York Times" does not mention NATO; nor does it specify whether the use of nuclear arms is included in the discussion and only talks about "conventional" warfare. This seems unusual, since both China and North Korea are known to possess nuclear weapons and delivery systems and might be inclined to use them if they felt threatened.

"The New York Times" quoted an unnamed Pentagon official who stated: "After years of saying American forces were sufficient for a two-war strategy, 'we've come to the realization that we're not,' said another Defense Department official involved in the deliberations, who was granted anonymity because he could not otherwise discuss the talks, which are classified. 'It's coming to grips with reality.'"

Conceivable Risks

The cost of fighting two conventional wars and maintaining an effective homeland security defense against terrorism could conceivably run over $10 billion per month. Such a sum could prove unsustainable if two theoretical opponents were not defeated quickly. Two prolonged conventional wars would have a serious impact on the U.S. economy, and past experience has shown that -- unlike theoretical nuclear conflicts, which are expected to conclude quickly -- conventional wars last much longer.

In addition, the current strategy of fighting two conventional wars at the same time involves a number of risks:

* It could lead to a huge increase in taxation with predictable political consequences for the party occupying the White House if the wars are seen as not filling legitimate national security needs.

* The U.S. armed forces would be under strain to find the manpower needed to maintain regular combat operations without reintroducing the draft, an unpopular measure unless the nature of the conflicts were clearly popular.

* Any war involving China or North Korea, two states with nuclear weapons, might conceivably bring Russia, also armed with nuclear weapons, into the conflict -- thus escalating it beyond control.

The current strategy held by the U.S. Department of Defense holds that to be successful, the armed forces cannot rely on overwhelming numbers: "Force application focuses more on generating the right effects to achieve objectives than on generating overwhelming numbers of forces. The application of force against widely dispersed adversaries, including transnational terrorist organizations, will require improved intelligence collection and analysis systems."

The military's experience so far in Iraq -- unlike during Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait -- has shown that the application of force alone cannot defeat even a far weaker and poorly armed enemy.

How it might fare in the event of another, concurrent, conflict with a better-armed and highly motivated enemy is the crux of the current review.