By Charley Keyes
In Pentagon speak the policy is "2MTW": two major-theater wars. Depending where they line up, observers of the U.S. policy of being ready to fight two major conflicts simultaneously see it as either a myth or a solid-gold guarantee of world peace and U.S. military dominance.
(Read also Battleland blog's take: Mythical Canard?)
When Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta unveils his vision for U.S. military posture on Thursday, the expected decision to end the two-war posture, part of the effort to deal with the billions of dollars in defense cuts, could be one of the most controversial aspects.
Two big reasons: Iran and China.
Supporters of the present policy say any retreat from the two-war policy spells danger.
"It's a ticket to World War III," warns James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation. "It is the worst idea ever."
On the flip side, experts say times and enemies have changed and scoff at the gloom-and-doom warnings.
"No way," says Larry Korb of the Center for American Progress. "We already spend more than the next 17 other countries combined. We've got to put this in perspective: Who are we going to fight? What are their forces?"
For some, when it comes to the U.S. military, the policy has been right up there with Mom, the flag and apple pie.
At Heritage, Carafano points to what he calls the unprecedented economic growth of the post-World War II era and the decline in worldwide political violence, saying they were directly linked to the U.S. security posture. Take it away, he says, and "you've essentially taken off the table the U.S. guarantor of global stability."
But people on both sides of the argument admit that the-two war strategy already is a bit of a myth, pointing to the strain on the U.S. military of the 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Carafano says the change is an effort by the Obama administration to camouflage reductions. "It is an excuse to cut defense," he says. "If the president of the United States wants to run defense off a cliff, there is no one who stop him."
The argument over two wars is part of the larger national debate over how the United States will act internationally.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates liked to joke about how cloudy the crystal ball actually is.
"I must tell you, when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect," he said on numerous occasions. "We have never once gotten it right."
And Gates also said that the days of full-scale mobilization of land forces are gone. "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it," Gates said.
His successor as defense secretary already has warned of dire consequences if Congress doesn't manage to avoid automatic budget cuts. Panetta dramatically said the result of such cuts would be a hollow force.
"It's a ship without sailors. It's a brigade without bullets. It's an air wing without enough trained pilots. It's a paper tiger," Panetta said in November. "It's a force that suffers low morale, poor readiness and is unable to keep up with potential adversaries. In effect, it invites aggression."
But Winslow Wheeler, an outspoken critic of present levels of defense spending and of Panetta, says it is an exaggeration to say that the United States has a two-war capability, pointing to the strain on the U.S. military in fighting Saddam Hussein's forces in 2003 and a poorly equipped Taliban in Afghanistan, which of course had no armor, air force, air defenses or navy.
Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, blasts both Panetta's critics and Panetta himself.
"Unless he deconstructs the two-war baloney, he will simply be engaging in more sausage-stuffing for prevailing conventional wisdom in Washington and its hapless efforts to avoid the inevitable," Wheeler says. He portrays a Pentagon that is hooked on mega projects and lacks the proper managerial oversight and the agility to meet future threats.
"We decayed our forces with more money; now we're going to do more of the same thing with less," he says.
Korb at the Center for American Progress says the new defense calculus needs to look at how U.S. forces are meshed with allied forces. For instance, it isn't just U.S. forces based in South Korea that will deter, everyone hopes, any North Korean attack. There are South Korean forces. And over the horizon, the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington, the U.S. Marines in Okinawa, long-range U.S. bombers in Guam and more and more layers of defense.
But conservatives on Capitol Hill and in the think tanks around Washington hammer the point that strength, and the commitment to fighting two wars, is the only proper path.
"Anybody can be a strategist if you don't want to solve the problems you confront," Carafano says. A change from two war policy, he says, "is strategy by wishful thinking."
He likens it to people choosing health insurance. On one hand is the consumer selecting the best health plan available, whatever the cost. On the other side is the person trying to see into an uncertain future while saving a buck.
"It is like people buying insurance for the diseases they think they are going to get," he says.
Yet one lesson of recent years is that large ground armies may be a part of the United States' history, but not its future. An American president will turn to air and naval power when confronting another major power - for instance China or Iran or Russia - and will rely on small Special Operations Forces or counter-insurgency forces for combating non-state actors or rogue regimes.
"I can't imagine another ground engagement with 160,000 American troops," says Caroline Wadhams, an analyst at the Center for American Progress who studies Afghanistan and Pakistan. "That is not the way we will fight from now on."
"We still have the ability to target and punish an enemy in ways that don't require major ground forces," Wadhams says. "This new thinking has caught up to the realities of our enemies and how we would fight them."