The seeming collapse of the North Korea summit and the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal have led top officials in the Trump administration to once again make veiled references to military action, with President Trump most recently touting American might in a speech Friday at the U.S. Naval Academy.
But beyond the saber-rattling is a sobering reality well known by strategists and planners at the Pentagon: The unlikely, worst-case scenario of sliding into open armed conflict with both Iran and North Korea simultaneously would strain the U.S. military to a degree few Americans could fathom.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has repeatedly warned that an open conflict on the Korean Peninsula alone would be catastrophic, resulting in the sort of warfare the U.S. military hasn’t seen in generations. The outside chance of a conflict with Iran at the same time would present Pentagon leaders with logistical, tactical and personnel challenges unenviable for any commander.
Former top Pentagon officials say the possibility of coinciding wars with Iran and North Korea remains extremely remote, and the United States could drift in the space between diplomatic breakthrough and all-out war for years. Still, if the dual wars were to occur, they would test decades of contingency planning that anticipates huge risks to the U.S. armed forces despite ultimate victory.
“Both fights would be costly,” said David Ochmanek, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp. and a former top Pentagon strategist in the Clinton and Obama administrations. “In the end you would expect the U.S. and its allies to prevail but at a human and material cost that would be almost incalculable, particularly in the case of the Korea example.”
For decades dating back to the Cold War, planners at the Pentagon have grappled with the question of how the U.S. military should prepare for the remote possibility of having to fight two full-scale regional wars at once. The new national defense strategy issued by Mattis, however, emphasizes the need to build up military capability for a possible great-power conflict with Russia and China, and largely backs off the focus on waging two regional wars at once that once consumed the Pentagon.