The military will have plenty to do in the four years of a second Bush administration. While the war in Iraq figures to dominate all else, as it has the past two years, other potential hot spots could demand attention.
And overshadowing all will be the questions of whether the military has enough troops – and money – to do everything the administration has planned.
“Conventional wisdom says that most of our assets are going to be involved in Iraq,” said Peter Brookes, an assistant defense secretary for Asia at the start of President Bush’s first term.
“But you’re just not sure what sort of things are going to develop … flare up,” the Heritage Foundation analyst said, wondering about the possibility of issues arising with China, Taiwan and North Korea.
Consider the tsunami in Asia. The Pentagon is devoting more than 13,000 troops, an aircraft carrier and dozens of aircraft to humanitarian relief.
As for new combat operations, the seeds of possible military conflict have been germinating for some time in Iran, Syria, Pakistan and elsewhere, analysts said.
Right now, some 150,000 American troops are trying to stabilize an increasingly violent Iraq, with no time table for when they can leave.
“At the Pentagon, policy-makers are utterly absorbed with Iraq,” said analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.
The military also must anticipate and plan for increased China-Taiwan tensions; troubled diplomatic efforts to halt suspected Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs; and the struggles by Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to hold his nation together while he allies himself with U.S. counterterror efforts in the face of violent disapproval from domestic Islamic fundamentalists.
Massive tasks that can’t be finished but on which defense officials need to make headway in the next four years include the transformation of the military and its weapons systems toward a more modern force, the moving and closing of some overseas bases, and another round of closings of domestic military bases.
“What happens is that they have all these things on their plate … things being nudged along like a peanut with your nose, and then there’s a fire you have to put out,” Brookes said.
Defense officials are trying to figure out how to offset the unexpectedly high cost of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among cost-saving ideas being discussed are retiring one of the Navy’s 12 aircraft carriers and reducing the Air Force’s purchase of F-22 stealth fighters, officials say.
But it could cost an additional $3 billion a year to expand the 512,000-strong Army by 30,000 soldiers, something a senior Army official this week said they may have to do. The Army has the authority to add the soldiers but arranged for it to be only a temporary boost because it did not want a long-term commitment to the cost of a larger force.
The fact that the military is severely stretched restrains those who might be tempted to use force in new places, Thompson said.
“Inner counsels at the White House – people like Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld – would very much like to do something about troublemakers like Iran and Syria, but in order to act on that impulse they would need a much larger” force, he said.
“We are not going to be looking for any wars of choice, that’s for sure,” The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon said. “But if some of these things happen,” he said of any flare-up surrounding Korea, Pakistan, Iran or Taiwan, “we won’t have a choice.”
Without new provocations, analysts see little chance the administration would use force against North Korea. In Iran, by contrast, some think it somewhat more possible that there could be U.S. or Israeli action.
On the issue of realigning U.S. forces around the world, Bush says he plans to move back to the states up to 70,000 uniformed personnel and 100,000 dependents, part of a worldwide plan to break down large Cold War-era bases and move smaller numbers of troops to places where they can more quickly respond to flare-ups.
That effort can either be complicated or hastened by the continued deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, analysts said.
“Any time you have a plan, you have to overlay with reality,” said Brookes, noting that the two campaigns could require much of the military to stay in the Middle East region. “Right now you may need the bases in Germany that you had hoped to close … this may have to be put off.”
“Alas, the current administration’s rebasing plan, like the rest of its defense program, has partly become captive to the hope that the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq are temporary,” American Enterprise Institute analyst Thomas Donnelly wrote in a recent paper.
O’Hanlon disagreed, saying a plan to decrease troops in South Korea over the longrun, for instance, might be made easier by Iraq’s needs. Troops sent from Korea this year to help temporarily in Iraq may never be built back up in Korea, he said.