For the next "five to 10 years," the military likely will remain engaged in the same kinds of conflicts it has been fighting since 2001, said Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright.
The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs on Thursday told a conference in Washington that "no one I know thinks we'll be out of" these kinds of conflicts any time soon.
"There is nothing out there that tells us we won't be wrapped up in these conflicts for as far as the eye can see," Cartwright said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies-sponsored forum.
In coming years, however, the military might be tasked with fighting these kinds of wars "in different places and at different levels," Cartwright said.
He did not point to specific nations into which U.S. forces or assets might be deployed over the next decade beyond Iraq and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
His comments come several days after Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters traveling with him to Kansas that he doubts Washington will soon launch another "protracted" operation like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. One reason, Gates said May 7, was the high cost of such missions, especially amid the ongoing economic crisis.
Meantime, the vice chairman echoed Gates in saying the Defense Department must change how it goes about buying weapon systems.
The duo's message is simple: If DoD continues pursuing expensive weapons packed with countless advanced subsystems, it will be able to afford only a handful of each platform.
Cartwright said this approach, unless corrected, has the military on a path toward lacking enough ships and aircraft to be in all the many places American presence is required.
"We need quantity more than quality," he said to a silent audience.
Cartwright panned a military-industrial complex that "thinks we must have the best capability."
That kind of approach, he said, is unaffordable, meaning the Pentagon must begin working more with U.S. allies to develop costly weapon platforms.
"We cannot do it," Cartwright said. "We cannot afford to do everything ourselves - we are not an island."
Further, the Pentagon must think beyond which weapons it must buy for current and future operations.
Asked about civil affairs troops, Cartwright said many more are needed for the kind of conflicts America is in and will be in for the some time.
"We have been growing that in onesies and twosies," he said, but faster growth and more robust numbers of such troops are needed.
"The question is, how many bomber squadrons do we need versus how many troops expert at stability operations," Cartwright said.
He did not answer his own question directly, but reiterated his belief that he doesn't see the United States moving away from the current kinds of conflicts "any time soon."
Cartwright drove home his point by adding: "People want to buy high-end" platforms, like bombers, "but the low-end is the war we're in."