Why the Pentagon May Revise Its Two-War Strategy

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An artist's conception of the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter

TIME.com: Why is the Pentagon reviewing the principle that America has to maintain military readiness to fight two major wars in different parts of the world at any one time?

Mark Thompson: Despite media reports, nothing has yet been decided. But they ultimately have to end the two-war strategy, because it makes no sense. Even though the ability to fight and win two wars has been the sizing mechanism guiding military spending since the end of the Cold War, in reality it's something of a fiction. In fact, the Pentagon says we have the ability to fight and nearly win two wars right now, but it's all in the "nearly."

In World War II, we fought two wars — one in Europe and the other in the Pacific theater. Our strategy there was not to win two wars at once; it was to keep the Japanese at bay in the Pacific without actually prevailing there while we won the war in Europe. Then we swung over and won the war in the Pacific.

Right now, we probably have more than enough aircraft carriers for two wars, but we don't have enough of the basic logistic capability, from airlift to water purification systems, to win two wars. Anyone who paid attention during the relatively tiny Kosovo conflict would have noticed that even there, we ran out of precision-guided munitions, we ran out of electronic intelligence-gathering aircraft, we ran out of airlift capability. So, plainly, we're not ready to fight and win two major wars. But the two-war fiction has been used and misused to justify spending on all kinds of advanced equipment coveted by the top brass. Scrapping it will make military spending more efficient, and bring our plans into line with reality.

If the two-war concept goes, what would the alternative strategic principle be to guide the development of the U.S. armed forces?

In 1993, President Clinton's first defense secretary, Les Aspin, suggested the principle of win-hold-win, as in World War II. But that was pilloried as a retreat by right-wingers. But now you have a Republican administration questioning the validity of winning two wars as the guiding principle. Inevitably, that means defaulting to win-hold-win. It's a war-and-a-half strategy: A major regional war and something akin to a Balkans peacekeeping operation. Then, if either war gets bigger, we have time to prepare.

But will the Pentagon look to fight that war and a half in a new way?

They're likely to distribute certain capabilities. In the past, for example, a tank scouted for the enemy, targeted its own artillery piece and fired the weapon. Increasingly, each of those functions will be done by a different platform. For example, the scouting may be undertaken by an unmanned drone aircraft, and the targeting and firing may be done by separate units.

But it's too early to tell what changes are afoot. There are 18 or 19 panels examining different aspects, and their recommendations are in conflict. The Defense Department is only now beginning to synthesize those, so media reports claiming the Pentagon is planning to do this or that are often based only on one or another panel's report, and premature.

The extent of military reform will depend on whether President Bush is able to leverage the combined weight of Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — assuming they're in agreement. But when Powell had the opportunity to press for major reforms in his 1993 Roles and Missions study as Joint Chiefs chairman, he took a pass. So the question is how far will Rumsfeld's 2001 review differ from Powell's 1993 report. Clues will be found in decisions on particular weapons systems. The military currently has three fighter planes in development that would run to a combined cost of $350 billion — the F-22; the Air Force Air Superiority Fighter and the Joint Strike Fighter being developed by the Navy, Marines and Air Force; and the F-18 E and F, the Navy aircraft currently in production. There's been talk for some time about scrapping one or two of those projects, which are after all a commitment to another 30 or 40 years of manned as opposed to unmanned fighter aircraft. If they go ahead with all three, it's a sign that we're unlikely to see a major remaking of the American military for the next few decades.