The Strategy’s Last Stand?

July 1, 2009

“If God really hates you, you may end up working on a Quadrennial Defense Review—the most pointless and destructive planning effort imaginable,” warned Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cordesman, a renowned defense expert, was referring to the Pentagon’s major, once-every-four-years assessment of US national defense. He guarantees it will waste time producing empty plans disconnected from reality. We offer another guarantee: It will re-examine, in stupefying detail, the nation’s “two-war” defense strategy—with the presumption it must be changed.

In recent weeks, the Pentagon has launched a new QDR. It is advertised as a deep look, as were others in 1993 (the Bottom-Up Review), 1997, 2001, and 2005. Those all turned out to be naked budget-cut drills, but maybe this one will be different.

When it comes to the two-war issue, however, nothing will be different. Note the remark, on June 18, of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates: “If there is one major aspect … that I have insisted that we try and get away from, it is this construct that we’ve had, for such a long time, that we size our forces to be able to fight two major combat operations. I think that is not a realistic view.”

With Gates having declared his skepticism, it may be worth recalling how the policy came to be. The two-war “strategy,” so-called, is not a strategy at all. It is a force-sizing standard, committing the US to maintain defense forces sufficiently large and well-equipped to fight and win two big conventional wars, more or less at the same time.

From this plan flows requirements for conventional forces such as warships, tanks, fighters, bombers, and more.

Washington has long accepted a generalized need to field forces to fight in several theaters. In 1990, however, with Soviet power collapsing, the US faced basic questions about its forces, especially their size and mission. Gen. Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proposed a 1.6-million-man base force able to fight two “major regional contingencies” at a time.

His point was that the US should not, by going to war in one area, make itself vulnerable to aggression on other fronts. This idea prevailed, and has stood ever since. However, it has been a lightning rod for criticism and serious challenges.

The first challenge came in the Clinton Administration’s 1993 Bottom-Up Review. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, having cut the defense budget, could not project force levels sufficient to cover two wars at the same time. Aspin tried to bridge that gap with a cut-rate idea called “Win-Hold-Win”—full armed response in one “major regional conflict” at a time, with a “holding” action in between. The idea was laughed out of town.

Because Clinton never ceased cutting defense spending, the 1997 QDR revived consideration of a new, less demanding standard. Pentagon leaders, failing to come up with a plausible alternative, kept the two-war yardstick, though they changed MRC to MTW, for “major theater war.” Another furtive effort—this one emanating from the National Security Council in 1999—fizzled under fire.

In 2001, as the Bush Administration carried out its first QDR, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was said to be ready to kill the two-war standard. He was, in fact, skeptical. Even so, he wound up accepting it. Yet there was a twist. DOD said it would no longer preserve the option for two massive occupation forces—composed mostly of Army troops—but only one. Thus, the standard had become “two wars” with “one regime change.”

Rumsfeld—who once claimed the two-war concept reflected an “obsession” with “few dangers” that “may be familiar rather than likely”—tried again in the 2005 QDR. In the end, he kept the standard, but, once again, it was with a twist. The final QDR report reaffirmed the need for a force able to “wage two nearly simultaneous conventional campaigns”—formerly known as “major theater wars.” However, it said engagement in one large-scale, long-duration irregular campaign—Iraq, for example—would be scored as equal to a conventional war.

From this history, we may draw several relevant conclusions.

It is painfully obvious that the two-war standard survived because—only because—no credible alternative existed. Planners could not shake the specter that a President, saddled with a one-war force, might be self-deterred in a crisis.

Equally obvious, the concept has shielded the military, to some degree, from tempting but unwise cuts in forces and programs.

Most dissatisfaction stems from cost, not strategic factors. To the extent that they exist, military complaints stem from the emergence of new threats such as mass-destruction weapons.

The concept can be adapted to fit new circumstances. Rumsfeld, for example, altered the structure twice, yet maintained a basic capability to fight two theater wars.

None of this is an argument for standing pat. It is sound strategy to prepare broadly for a range of threats, even if they cannot always be specified exactly in advance. All evidence is that Gates intends to do just that.

The question, however, is this: Can Secretary Gates find a way to cover all of his preferred military needs without, at the same time, falling back to a one-conventional-war standard? All signs are he does not think that would be a bad thing.

Evidently, some still do. One of them is David Ochmanek, the Pentagon official with day-to-day control over the QDR. Ochmanek, a former Air Force officer and RAND analyst, recently met with Christopher J. Castelli of Inside the Pentagon, a reliable trade publication. Ochmanek had this to say:

“We are a superpower. We have important interests in the Persian Gulf, in Europe, in Northeast Asia, and the East Asian littoral. We face challenges to those interests. So if we’re going to continue to underwrite security alliances in those regions, we can’t just focus on one part of the world at once.”

That is reality. Any new strategy that ignores it runs the risk of becoming—to quote Cordesman—pointless and destructive.