U.S. Can't Fight Two Wars at the Same Time Anymore

This week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is poised to deliver a humbling assessment of America's military capabilities in a budget plan to the White House, reports The New York Times

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This week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is poised to deliver a humbling assessment of America's military capabilities in a budget plan to the White House, reports The New York Times. The gist: The U.S. military of the future will no longer be able to fight two sustained ground wars at the same time. The strategic review will outline how the military can cut $450 billion from its budget, amid speculation that Congress may cut an additional $500 billion in the near future. Acknowledging an incapacity to wage two wars is not ideal, notes Andrew Krepinevich, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, but it's better than the alternative. "You may risk losing the confidence of some allies, and you may risk emboldening your adversaries," he says. "But at the end of the day, a strategy of bluffing, or asserting that you have a capability that you don’t, is probably the worst posture of all.” So what spending priorities are dragging down the military budget? Here are some of the major ones, highlighted this week by the The Times, The Washington Post and Time.

Military personnel costs "As it stands now, the Pentagon spends $181 billion each year, nearly a third of its base budget, on military personnel costs: $107 billion for salaries and allowances, $50 billion for health care and $24 billion in retirement pay," report Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker in the Times. "One independent analyst ... has calculated that if military personnel costs continue rising at the rate they have over the past decade, and overall Pentagon spending does not increase, by 2039 the entire defense budget would be consumed by personnel costs."

Troops in Afghanistan and beyond "Sometime this year, there must be decisions on how to downsize in Afghanistan," write The Washington Post's Walter Pincus, "and what arrangements can be made to keep U.S. forces there after 2014, whether to send military trainers back to Iraq, and how to respond if Congress authorizes dispatching Special Forces to Nigeria to assist in fighting a terrorist group, as it did when U.S. troops were sent to help battle the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa."

One-size fits all military vehicles Time's defense reporter Mark Thompson writes that building planes and tanks for a variety of different missions has cost the military dearly. One weapons program in particular is the F-35, one of the most expensive in history. "The military didn’t learn its lesson with the TFX ('Tactical Fighter Experimental,' which became the F-111) debacle 50 years ago, and it’s not learning it anew with the F-35. Building warplanes for three services through the Marine template – single engine (VSTOL requirement), compact design (Marine amphibs don’t have much room) – means the nation’s cutting-edge fighting fleet will be compromised in ways we only now are beginning to comprehend."

Research and development This is an area that Congress is looking to cut, notes The Post, but Panetta may try to maintain funding for it. "Do you modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad — strategic bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and strategic submarines? While dealing with these questions, Panetta must also protect money for operations, maintenance, and research and development, the favorite areas for congressional budget cutters."

Standing army sizes "The Army is now set to drop to 520,000 soldiers, beginning in 2015, although few expect that to be the floor," reports The Times.  "The reality is that the United States may not be able to afford waging two wars at once ... The Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, the former commander in Iraq, points out that the Army had 480,000 people in uniform before the Sept. 11 attacks, and at that number was supposed to be able to fight two wars at once. But the Army proved to be too small to sustain the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and was increased to its current size of 570,000."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.