The U.S. military has long been accused of always planning to fight its last war. But as the Pentagon assesses threats to national security over the next four years, a major blueprint being completed in the shadow of the Iraq war will do largely the opposite.
The military went into Iraq with a vision that a small, agile, and lightly armored force could win a quick preemptive war. Although the U.S. easily crushed Saddam Hussein’s army, the subsequent occupation has proven far costlier in lives, money and international standing than most expected.
As a result, the U.S. military has no appetite for another lengthy war of “regime change.”
And while some new lessons will be incorporated into the Pentagon review, the spending blueprint for the next four years will largely stick to the script Pentagon officials wrote before the Iraq war, according to those familiar with the nearly final document that will be presented to Congress in early February.
Iraq “is clearly a one-off,” said a Pentagon official who is working on the top-to-bottom study, known as the Quadrennial Defense Review. “There is certainly no intention to do it again.”
For more than two years, Army officials have been fending off questions about whether they have enough troops to complete their mission in Iraq and racing to get armor plates bolted onto Humvees and supply trucks to defend against homemade bombs.
But in the Pentagon blueprint, officials are once again talking about a futuristic force of robots, networked computers and drone aircraft. And they are planning no significant shift in resources to bulk up ground forces strained by the lengthy occupation of Iraq.
Regarding the Iraq war as an anomaly is in some ways convenient for Pentagon civilians and uniformed officers. An armored assault across miles of desert is hardly the vision that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s civilian team laid out when it took over the Pentagon five years ago. At the same time, the human and financial costs of the war have made many senior generals eager to turn the page on Iraq.
Yet some experts say that failure to draw broader lessons from Iraq is dangerous, especially if the U.S. military suddenly faces a new war in a hot spot such as North Korea or Iran that it has no choice but to fight.
“There is a logical disconnect between the lessons learned from Iraq and the conclusions that we can live with a smaller ground force,” said Michele Flournoy, a defense policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former top Pentagon official.
Members of both parties in Congress have supported a significant expansion of the Army’s ranks, and on Friday a bipartisan group headed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said it intended to fight the Pentagon’s plan to reorganize its combat brigades.
Rumsfeld has long opposed an increase in the size of the military, in part because of cost. The Pentagon estimates that permanently enlarging the Army by 30,000 troops would cost approximately $3 billion annually.
Instead, the Army made plans to increase the number of combat brigades from 48 to 77 without changing the overall number of soldiers. Dividing forces into smaller units would give military planners increased flexibility. However, in recent months they have decided to scale back to 70 brigades.
The Army also expects to gradually thin its active duty ranks over the next five years from more than 500,000 to a baseline of 482,000 while working to increase the number of combat forces available for overseas deployments by converting noncombat jobs into frontline slots.
The Pentagon’s last major review in 2001 concluded that the military would be large enough to simultaneously fight two major wars, and be able to carry out “regime change” and occupation in one of the two. In light of the Iraq experience, some in the Pentagon argued last year that this requirement was unrealistic, and advocated a change for the upcoming document.
But officials say that the requirements for the U.S. military will not be scaled back or changed drastically when the strategic review is unveiled next month.
The new blueprint does include some changes. According to Pentagon officials, it will place a new emphasis on “irregular warfare,” typified by the counterinsurgency battles U.S. soldiers and Marines have fought in Iraq since the summer of 2003. The Pentagon review will also endorse a large increase in the number of special operations troops, and more foreign language education and cultural-awareness training for all U.S. troops.
The Pentagon also plans a new emphasis on peacekeeping operations, which had been marginalized at the start of the Bush administration. A recently approved Pentagon directive elevates “stability” operations to a primary mission for the military, a recognition that the military was ill-prepared for the messy occupation after the fall of Baghdad.
The number of soldiers needed to fight ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, meet other foreign commitments and ensure that there is a large enough reserve force to respond to a future crisis has been the subject of intense debate inside the Pentagon.
Many Pentagon officials say privately that the military’s ability to take on another “major combat operation” besides Iraq in the near future is limited. While a large force could be assembled for a military operation of short duration, they say, another open-ended occupation without significant support from allies would likely break the all-volunteer military.
In addition to keeping an eye on threats throughout the Islamic world, the Pentagon is also spending billions to hedge against the rising military threat posed by China. The Pentagon is unable to significantly expand the Army’s ranks in part because it is funding futuristic Air Force and Navy weapons such as the F/A-22 fighter and the Navy’s DDX destroyer, which are primarily geared to taking on a large force like the Chinese military.
Even with more than 100,000 troops still stationed in Iraq, Army officials insist publicly that the Iraq war has not limited the Army’s ability to respond to any future crisis.
“We have the capability ... to surge to any crisis that the president may ask us to do,” Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey told reporters last week. “This force structure, we think, is appropriate to the threat.”
Last March, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers gave a classified assessment to Congress warning that the strains imposed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made it more difficult for the military to counter a future act of aggression, launch a preemptive strike or intervene to prevent conflict in another part of the world.
While Myers’ report stated that the military would be able to win any war the president asked the Pentagon to fight, it said that military was at “significant risk” of being unable to prevail against enemies abroad in the way that Pentagon war plans mandate.
As Pentagon officials put it at the time, there would be more civilian casualties and collateral damage. The military would have to “win uglier,” they said.
Some critics argue the Iraq experience has turned into the antithesis of Rumsfeld’s vision: Instead of moving toward a smaller, lighter force, the military has for the past two years become bigger and heavier.
“The Iraq war has been a nonstop embarrassment for the people who believe in military transformation,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based defense think tank.
“Some of the senior policy makers don’t want to believe what they’re watching on their television sets.”