The U.S. military is discussing significant changes in its war plans to adhere to President Obama's strategic guidance that downplays preparing for conflicts such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and counts on allies to provide additional troops.
War planning for Iran is now the most pressing scenario, or what the Pentagon calls a contingency.
U.S. Central Command believes it can destroy or significantly degrade Iran's conventional armed forces in about three weeks by using air and sea strikes, according to a defense source familiar with the discussions.
This option could be a response to Iranian strikes on U.S. and international ships in the Persian Gulf and attempts to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz, through which about one-fifth of the world's oil is transported.
The Pentagon is conducting a step-by-step surge of forces in the Gulf. It is maintaining two aircraft carriers in the region and increasing the number of mine-detection ships and helicopters.
Aviation Week reported that the Air Force recently dispatched its premier penetrating strike fighter, the F-22 Raptor, to a base in the United Arab Emirates across the Gulf from Iran.
A smaller, more agile force
Army Lt. Col. T.G. Taylor, a spokesman at U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Gulf, said the command does not discuss war planning.
"We plan for any eventuality we can and provide options to the president," Col. Taylor said. "We take our guidance from the secretary of defense and from our civilian bosses in D.C. So any kind of guidance they give us, that's what we go off of."
The defense source said the U.S. would respond to an invasion of South Korea by the North primarily with massive air and sea power. It would be up to the South Korean army to do most of the ground fighting, and it would have the lead in stability operations for a defeated North.
The U.S. military is reducing the overall number of U.S. ground troops who would be needed in a major conflict and is counting on allies to fill the gap.
It also is expanding the number of days it would have to begin fighting one war and blunt an aggressor in another region.
Mr. Obama presented his eight-page strategic guidance in January as his vision of smaller, more agile armed forces that would focus on air and sea power in two regions - the Pacific and the Persian Gulf.
He presented the document a month before the Pentagon announced how it would grapple with $487 billion in budget cuts over the next 10 years. The hallmark savings: a reduction in ground forces by 90,000 soldiers and Marines.
The Obama guidance lists 10 "primary missions" for the armed forces. The guidance for counterinsurgency missions, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, is significant as much for what the military will not do as what it will do:
"The United States will emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations," it states.
"U.S. forces will nevertheless be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible."
'Doing less with less'
"U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations," it says. "Whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives."
Conservatives have called the Obama plan too risky in its assumptions that the U.S. will not face a protracted ground war and can rely on significant numbers of allied troops if it does.
"I think it's just rubber-stamping the budget cuts," said James Carafano, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "Basically, what they are doing is dumping any scenarios that require long-term commitment of forces on the ground.
"The problem is the enemy gets a vote. I don't think this will mean much in the long term on doctrine, but it will speed hollowing out the force."
An analysis by the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of Congress, states: "On the surface, the guidance appears to call for doing less with less. ... It includes willingness to assume some greater risk, without specifying the scope and scale of that risk, to accomplish simultaneous missions."
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta says the strategic guidance will lead to a "smaller and leaner" force that "will be agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced. ... The joint force will be prepared to confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world."
A spokesman for Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the general is holding a series of strategic seminars to discuss the Obama strategy and how the force will be postured over the next five years to carry it out.
Gen. Dempsey has held two such meetings with the Joint Chiefs and combatant commanders, and will hold another this month.
"We made some assumptions about changing capabilities, technologies and policies of both adversaries and allies in 2017, and to take a rough look at the supply and demand for our forces worldwide in 2017," said Marine Col. David Lapan.
"We're testing our assumptions and testing our ideas. As expected, we've come up with many questions to explore in future seminars. We'll keep doing that."
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