For two decades, the Pentagon has maintained that it could fight two wars at the same time. But as the Obama administration releases its new military strategy Thursday, some question whether the Pentagon will abandon that long-held commitment.
An early draft of the Pentagon's new strategy, The New York Times reported, said the military would only be able to win one war and spoil an adversary's efforts in a second war.
"I'd be worried about an administration using that term which is really pretty ridiculous," said Elliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University. "I'm a military historian and I've never heard that word used as a strategic objective of a national power."
That word — "spoil" — may not end up in the final version of the Pentagon strategy. Officials tell NPR the Pentagon is unlikely to scrap the two-war scenario. Part of it is politics, they say: The White House doesn't want to make the president look weak on defense in an election year. Another reason: It sends the wrong message to adversaries like Iran and North Korea.
"Abandoning a two-regional-conflict strategy is a recipe for disaster," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who designed the air campaign for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "All it does is encourage adventurism on the part of ... potential adversaries out there who want to take advantage of any sign of weakness in the U.S.' commitment."
The notion the U.S. could fight two wars at once always had more to do with politics and budgets than with strategy. Defense Secretary Robert Gates dismissed the idea of putting a ceiling on the number of wars the nation could fight.
"I think that is not a realistic view of the world," he said in 2009. "We are already in two major conflicts. So what if we have a third one or a fourth one or a fifth one."
Reality intrudes on the best-laid plans. Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the military never had enough troops to handle the two conflicts of this past decade.
"Going into the surge and Iraq, we realized that we did not have sufficient numbers of ground forces to carry out both the surge in Iraq and the ongoing operations in Afghanistan," Harrison said.
So the Pentagon had to increase the size of the Army and Marines Corps by tens of thousands to fight the two wars that its strategy said it could fight.
"We've been through these two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan," Cohen of Johns Hopkins said. "You can argue that while we've been doing that we haven't paid nearly as much attention at bolstering our forces in Asia, particularly our naval forces."
The military strategy that will be unveiled Thursday is expected to focus on Asia, and that means more money for the Air Force and Navy to build aircraft and ships. The question is how to afford any new hardware. The White House has called for half a trillion dollars in Pentagon spending cuts over the next decade.
Deptula complained that the Pentagon's strategy is being driven by number crunchers at the Office of Management and Budget.
"Some midlevel career bureaucrat in OMB figured out a dollar number to reduce the Defense Department by and so we jump to that number," he said.
Deptula said the right way to come up with a strategy is to ask this question: "What does the nation want to do in the context of security? And then making the determination in the adjustment of budget."
That Pentagon budget for that new strategy will be released next month. The Army is expected to be the big loser. Those tens of thousands of troops that were needed for Iraq and Afghanistan will be cut to pay for the ships and planes needed for Asia.