The Two?-War Strategy Begins To Fade Away

Sept. 1, 2005

When the Pentagon released its new “National Defense Strategy” last March, it dropped a big hint that the armed forces might soon face major and painful force structure changes.

“To date,” the paper pointedly noted, US forces have been shaped and sized to defend the homeland, deter aggressors in four theaters, defeat two major regional enemies at more or less the same time, and occupy one of them, if necessary.

Then came the punch line. “This framework and these standards,” the paper declared, “will be reviewed” in the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review.

And so they have been—with potentially major effect. Pentagon officials have decided to overhaul the so-called “1-4-2-1” standard and, from now on, use a different yardstick to work out how many forces—and even what kind of forces—the country needs.

The move takes dead aim at the core principle that the United States must have conventional military forces large enough and powerful enough to fight and win two major regional wars more or less simultaneously. This bedrock requirement is the reason Washington still maintains a relatively large and well-equipped and expensive conventional force of some 1.4 million active troops and 861,000 organized Guardsmen and Reservists.

The decision to change things was made this summer, according to Defense Department officials. They suggested that the move could set the stage for wide-ranging revisions to war plans, weapons system investments, and military organization.

Ever since the early 1990s, the Pentagon’s standard for force planning has been based on the “two-war” formula, with emphasis on fighters, warships, armor, and other “traditional” combat systems.

Search for Flexibility

The new construct—being developed by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and the Joint Staff—aims to introduce more suppleness to US war planning, allowing decision-makers to consider a wider array of global engagements than can be contemplated in the traditional two-major-war construct.

“What we’re trying to do with this construct is to bring greater flexibility to the leadership,” said a high-level defense official engaged in the process.

Clark A. Murdock, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense on QDR matters, said, “The force planning construct is at the heart of defense planning.”

Lt. Col. Chris Conway, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed that the Defense Department “is exploring options to adjust the current force planning construct.” However, few will talk about the matter for the record.

Ever since the early 1990s, the services have prepared for two major regional wars, in the expectation that a force capable enough to handle that demanding scenario would be strong enough to handle all other lesser contingencies—from humanitarian relief to peacekeeping and counterterrorism.

To meet this standard, the Pentagon has funded 20 active, Reserve, and Air National Guard fighter wings for the Air Force, 12 big-deck Navy aircraft carriers, 10 active Army divisions, and three Marine Corps expeditionary forces.

The two-war formula was altered somewhat by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in summer 2001, at the end of a previous QDR. At that time, he broadened the strategy by adding a requirement to provide homeland defense and deterrence in four theaters. However, the Pentagon had rushed into making the determination, and Rumsfeld never was truly happy with it.

Momentum to dispense with the two-war standard built this spring during several high-level QDR “roundtable” discussions hosted by Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Paul D. Wolfowitz, who was then the deputy secretary of defense.

These meetings focused on four so-called “challenge areas” held by Rumsfeld to be critically important. These were building coalitions to defeat terrorism; defending the US homeland; countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and shaping the choices of countries at a strategic crossroads, the most important example of which was China.

During these deliberations, it became clear the framework did not account for the long-endurance missions such as the war in Iraq. The Defense Department wants to talk about new missions such as stability operations and “active partnering,” a term now used to describe what was once called “security cooperation.”

This summer, Pentagon officials produced a new, three-part force planning construct. It gave roughly equal attention to the demands of homeland defense, the global war on terrorism, and conventional campaigns. The standard was tested with computer tools collectively known as “Operational Availability-06.”

One, One, One

Plans called for the Pentagon in August to produce preliminary versions of this new construct—which unofficially is called “1-1-1” by some in the Pentagon. These versions were to give detailed alternative concepts about how much US military force would be needed to deal with each of these three problem areas.

Officials say that this new construct, when it is put in final form, will be the prism through which senior decision- makers will view force structure, weapons systems investment, and, possibly, service roles and missions.

It should be noted, said officials, that the Defense Department might actually wind up with armed forces sufficient to fight two major combat operations. However, it would not necessarily configure a conventional force for more than one major regional war at a time. The remainder of the force would be configured to take on a wider variety of duties and would offer a broader group of options.

The key point was put this way by a uniformed military official engaged in the planning process:“What we are trying to do is build a different structure so there are other ways you could think about it [the second regional war]. You could think about doing two major events. … You could do one major event and many smaller events. We don’t know what those numbers of smaller ones are yet. That’s what we’re hoping to get from the analysis.”

In more detail:

  • Homeland Defense. The first area of focus in the new construct is homeland defense. Forces would support the nation’s civil authorities dealing with the aftermath of a massive terrorist attack on US cities; assist in controlling the air, land, and sea approaches to US borders; and defend against enemy attacks with ballistic and cruise missiles.

In June, the Pentagon issued a long-awaited “Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support,” crafted by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense, Paul McHale, setting forth the most detailed blueprint yet for how US armed forces will contribute to protecting American soil.

“The core element of that strategy is a call for the creation of an active, layered defense in depth,” said McHale.

This entails military defense of the “global commons” of space and cyberspace, military intelligence and combat operations abroad, and armed protection of air, land, and sea approaches to the nation. Should these defenses fail, US forces would help mitigate the consequences of an attack.

James Jay Carafano, a retired Army officer and homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said of the new strategy, “I think it’s the first real clear sign—even more important than establishing Northern Command—that the Defense Department is serious about being a partner” with other federal agencies in protecting the nation.

Now, DOD must decide how much of the force to assign to homeland defense.

  • Global War on Terrorism. Dealing with this second strategic requirement could bring big changes to the US military. Said one service official, “This category is going to be the major area for justifying or refuting systems and forces across all services. So this is [what] you should keep your eye on.”

This category accounts for the demands of increased force rotation. Planners hope to identify capabilities required to improve the US military’s proficiency against irregular warfare—terrorists, insurgents, guerrillas, and so forth.

Rumsfeld for more than a year has been pushing the services to think anew about capabilities needed to handle irregular challenges, those that aim to erode US power rather than take it on in a direct way. The services are taking steps to better prepare for irregular warfare.

The Navy in July established a bundle of new capabilities in a bid to recalibrate part of the fleet to better support ground operations in the global war on terrorism. The new capabilities include new units to operate on rivers, others to fight on land, and new career tracks for foreign area specialists.

“The Navy has been working hard to determine how it should align itself to support the global war on terrorism,” said Robert Work, a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “This is the first set of decisions based on all of the deliberations.”

This spring, the Air Force and Navy convened a classified conference to examine how best to employ airpower against insurgencies and in the global war on terrorism. The Air Force’s Checkmate division—a staff that focuses on optimizing airpower to support operational units—teamed with counterparts on the Navy’s Deep Blue staff and the wider Navy fleet.

“What we want to do is focus on how best to use airpower in the counterinsurgency fight we face in Iraq as well as the global war on terrorism,” said Air Force Col. William MacLure, chief of the Checkmate division.

The Army has crafted a new agenda to improve counterinsurgency skills, better define its homeland defense role and enhance capabilities to deal with post-conflict operations. The focus on these capabilities are among 10 “strategic imperatives” detailed in the “Army Strategic Planning Guidance” for 2005 issued in January by Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the service Chief of Staff.

Similarly, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee, in an April message to all marines, emphasized the need to improve proficiency against these kinds of threats.

  • Conventional Campaigns. The third category focuses on the “traditional” preparation for fighting and winning conventional campaigns. It includes all potential adversaries with conventional armed forces, including those with “disruptive” capabilities.

“We want to bring ‘campaign’ into the lexicon to convey the notion that there is more than just the kinetic phase of an operation,” said a uniformed planner. “We’re also talking about active partnering and deterrence tailored to the kind of threats we face.”

Recent QDR deliberations about the nature of conventional campaigns have included discussions on how best to manage future relations with China, which will likely play a key role in determining how to size US forces for major combat operations.

The introduction in recent years of precision weapons and force networking appears to have changed the calculation of how much conventional power is enough. “It’s clear [that today] there’s a lot more capability resident in a unit of US military force structure,” said Murdock. “It’s clear we can do more with less when it comes to major combat operations.”

Rumsfeld served notice last year that he aims to use the 2005 QDR to scale back investments in traditional areas—such as tactical airpower—where the US enjoys significant advantages over potential adversaries. He wants to redirect some of that money to investments that would improve US military capabilities to deal with a range of new challenges.

Rumsfeld wants to be able to deal better with “irregular” threats, “catastrophic” threats aimed at paralyzing the United States with surprise hits on symbolic and high-value targets, and “disruptive threats” that could end-run US military technical superiority in areas such as space. It appears that Rumsfeld aims to make good on that promise.

“What you will see is funding and emphasis … migrating out of traditional warfare areas,” said a defense analyst engaged in QDR work.

The new force standard could touch off an interservice debate about roles of missions. One proposal along these lines has already been advanced by Rand. It calls for the Air Force and Navy to focus on conventional campaigns and for the Army and Marine Corps to focus on irregular threats.

Whatever its final form, the new force planning construct is sure to have an impact in the months just ahead.

Two-War Standard Through the Years

1990: President George H.W. Bush

“The size of our forces will increasingly be shaped by the needs of regional contingencies.” [Gen. Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at that time, later elaborated: “We knew then (in 1990) … that prudent planning requires that we be able to deal simultaneously with two major crises of this type.”]

1992: National Military Strategy

“When the United States is responding to one substantial regional crisis, potential aggressors in other areas may be tempted to take advantage of our preoccupation. Thus we cannot reduce forces to a level which would leave us or our allies vulnerable elsewhere.”

1993: Bottom-Up Review

“It is prudent for the United States to maintain sufficient military power to be able to win two major regional conflicts that occur nearly simultaneously.”

1995: National Military Strategy

“The core requirement of our strategy … is a force capable of fighting and winning two major regional conflicts nearly simultaneously.”

1997: Quadrennial Defense Review

“As a global power with worldwide interests, it is imperative that the United States now and for the foreseeable future be able to deter and defeat large-scale, cross-border aggression in two distant theaters in overlapping time frames.”

2001: Quadrennial Defense Review

“US forces will remain capable of swiftly defeating attacks against US allies and friends in any two theaters of operation in overlapping time frames.”

2004: National Military Strategy

“Even when committed to a limited number of lesser contingencies, the armed forces must retain the capability to swiftly defeat adversaries in two overlapping military campaigns.”

2005: National Defense Strategy

“We maintain a total force that is balanced and postured for rapid deployment and employment worldwide. It is capable of surging forces into two separate theaters to ‘swiftly defeat’ adversaries in military campaigns that overlap in time.”

Jason Sherman is senior correspondent for, part of the Inside the Pentagon family of newsletters, based in Arlington, Va. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “On Rumsfeld’s ‘Terms,’ ?” appeared in the June issue.