STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Today President Obama visits the Pentagon to unveil a new strategy for the U.S. military. This overall plan for the military comes at a time of great change, cuts in defense spending, the end of the war in Iraq, the winding down of the war in Afghanistan. We'll find out today, if the new Pentagon strategy will abandon a long-held commitment to be ready to fight two major conflicts at once. NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: For two decades, the Pentagon has maintained that it could fight two wars at the same time. 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.
ELLIOT COHEN: I'd be worried about an administration using that kind of term, which really is pretty ridiculous.
BOWMAN: That's Elliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at John Hopkins University.
COHEN: I'm a military historian and I've never seen that word used as a strategic objective of a major power.
BOWMAN: That word - spoil - may not end up as in the final version of the Pentagon strategy. Officials tell NPR that the Pentagon is not likely to scrap the two-war scenario. Part of it is politics, officials 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.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAVE DEPTULA: Abandoning a two major regional conflict strategy is a recipe for disaster.
BOWMAN: That's retired Air Force Lieutenant General Dave Deptula. He designed the air campaign for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
DEPTULA: All it does is encourage adventurism on the part of potential adversaries out there that want to take advantage of any sign of weakness in the U.S.'s commitment.
BOWMAN: The notion that 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. Here he is in 2009.
SECRETARY ROBERT GATES: I think that is not a realistic view of the world. We are already in two major conflicts. So what if we have a third one - or a fourth one or a fifth one.
BOWMAN: Reality intrudes on the best laid plans. Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says the military never had enough troops to handle the two conflicts of this past decade.
TODD HARRISON: Because going in to a surge in 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.
BOWMAN: 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.
COHEN: We've been through these two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
BOWMAN: Again, Elliot Cohen.
COHEN: You can argue that while we've been doing that, we haven't paid nearly as much attention as we probably should to bolstering our forces in Asia, particularly our naval forces.
BOWMAN: The military strategy that will be unveiled today 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 a half trillion dollars in Pentagon spending cuts over the next decade. Retired General Deptula complains that the Pentagon's strategy is being driven by number-crunchers at the Office of Management and Budget.
DEPTULA: Some mid-level career bureaucrat in OMB figured out a dollar number to reduce the defense department by and so we jump to that number.
BOWMAN: He says the right way to come up with a strategy is to ask this question.
DEPTULA: What does the nation want to do in the context of security, and then making the determinations of the adjustment of budget?
BOWMAN: 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.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.