Top Pentagon officials are thinking about changing the basic U.S. military strategy to require that the armed forces be prepared to fight not two wars at the same time—as current doctrine has it—but rather just one war and some small counterterrorist campaigns.
This development, reported in Tuesday's New York Times, raises three questions: Does it matter? Did anybody ever think we could really fight two major wars simultaneously? And will a change in doctrine change the way the Pentagon buys weapons or otherwise does business?
If history is any guide, the answer in all three cases is: No, probably not.
The current strategic doctrine, which Donald Rumsfeld issued in his Quadrennial Defense Review of early 2001 (before the 9/11 attacks), is a package of U.S. military requirements known as 1-4-2-1. The first 1 refers to defending what has since come to be called the homeland. The 4 refers to deterring hostilities in four key regions of the world. The 2 means the U.S. armed forces must have the strength to win swiftly in two near-simultaneous conflicts in those regions. The final 1 means that we must win one of those conflicts "decisively," toppling the enemy's regime.
The debate going on now, in preparation for this year's review, is whether the armed forces can really accomplish that "2"—fighting and winning two major regional wars at once. Given the troubles they're currently having in Iraq and Afghanistan (neither of which would have been called "major wars" in Cold War days), it's a pertinent question.
But let's say that the current review does result in a revision of strategic doctrine. Will that affect the size or shape of the military?
In the mid-1970s, when James Schlesinger was secretary of defense under Richard Nixon and (briefly) Gerald Ford, he asked the Navy to calculate how many aircraft carriers it would need if the United States decided no longer to defend the Indian Ocean; how many if it decided no longer to defend the Mediterranean; and so forth. In each case, the answer came back: We would need 13 carriers—the same number the Navy had at the time.
In other words, the military services—the Army, Navy, and Air Force—have their cherished weapons. Civilians, who come and go, might change the rhetoric—drop or add missions, alter the number of wars to fight—but the brass will fight to preserve their treasures.
This shadowboxing has been going on for over 40 years. When John F. Kennedy appointed Robert McNamara as his defense secretary, McNamara filled his inner circle with "whiz kids"—systems analysts who subjected the generals and admirals to a hazing they'd never endured before. Before McNamara, a president would impose limits on overall defense spending but rarely on specific weapons. If the brass said a weapon filled a "military requirement," that was good enough. McNamara and the whiz kids examined the requirements. They whacked away at a host of Air Force programs in particular—the B-58 and B-70 bombers, the Skybolt, Snark, Jupiter, and Hound Dog cruise missiles—arguing that they were more vulnerable or less cost-effective than intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos or submarines. In the first year of the Kennedy administration, the Air Force lost every battle with McNamara—and it waged a lot of them.
Then the military services decided to learn systems analysis, too. The smartest colonels were assigned to "murder boards," which picked apart the rationales for a weapon before McNamara did—then tweaked the rationales. In short, they tried to beat McNamara at his own game—and increasingly won. After a while, they perfected his art of finding the right numbers to defend whatever position they wanted to take.