Two at a Time

Sept. 1, 1993

Back in the olden days, some thirty years ago, the United States set as its standard for planning conventional armed forces the capability to fight 2.5 wars. The idea was that the nation should be ready to engage, simultaneously, the Warsaw Pact in Europe and the Chinese in Asia while handling a lesser, half-war contingency on the side. (The half war turned out to be in Vietnam, where we discovered certain abiding truths about “lesser” contingencies.)

Times have changed. Today the Clinton Administration is scrambling to make its new defense budget cover a strategy that is based on fighting, nearly simultaneously, two major regional conflicts. It is tough going, partly because regional conflicts are more complicated than they used to be and partly because the Administration took a blind leap with its budget proposal.

In March, the Administration announced a plan that cuts an already-emaciated defense program by another $131.7 billion over the next five years. It was left until later to decide what sort of force this budget would buy. It obviously won’t fund the “Base Force”-26.5 fighter wings, twelve carriers, and twelve active Army divisions-projected by the Bush Administration. The Department of Defense has made one adjustment already, eliminating two fighter wings from the plan. Further economies were required. Strategy and objectives had to be reconsidered as well, since a smaller force would cover less.

Among the ideas hit upon was “Win-Hold-Win,” a concept to prosecute fully one regional conflict and conduct a holding action on a second front until more forces were available. This strategy, widely ridiculed as “Win-Lose-Lose” and “Win-Hold-Oops,” did not live long. “After much discussion and analysis,” Secretary of Defense Les Aspin announced June 25, “we’ve come to the conclusion that our forces must be able to fight and win two major regional conflicts, and nearly simultaneously.”

Unfortunately, there are several catches. Forces discussed for the two-war strategy–reported as twenty fighter wings, ten carriers, and ten active Army divisions-are the same as those identified earlier with Win-Hold-Win. The next catch is that the budget may not even support a force sized to Win-Hold-Win. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warns that the reduced budget will provide, at most, nineteen fighter wings, eight carriers, and nine active Army divisions. A credible-sounding analysis by Dov Zakheim and Jeffrey Ranney of System Planning Corp. is more pessimistic. They figure the possible outcome of the budget to be thirteen wings, six carriers, and seven divisions, with total active-duty strength falling to 1.04 million by 1999.

What kind of force would be needed to fight two major regional conflicts nearly simultaneously? We have several indications to go on. For example, the Persian Gulf War (which the strategy rated as a major regional conflict) took the equivalent of eleven US Air Force fighter wings and eight more from coalition partners. By that measure, a two-conflict strategy calls for more wings than the 26.5 projected in the Base Force. Indeed, the 1992 Joint Military Net Assessment, published during the Bush Administration, said that “the Base Force is capable of resolving quickly–with low risk–only one major regional crisis at a time.”

A study by the Rand Corp. computes the force for a single regional conflict as including ten fighter wings, eighty heavy bombers, three carrier battle groups, and five Army divisions. Two conflicts would require twice that, but there are complications. Some assets, such as Stealth fighters and B-2 bombers, are in short supply and would have to be shuttled from one conflict to the other.

The first conflict ties up ninety percent of the airlift fleet. Rand says, however, that there is a conceivable way to cover a second conflict, provided it does not begin for three weeks. After twenty-one days, fast sealift ships might be able to sustain the first conflict, releasing eighty percent of the available airlift for the second front. Planners comfortable with that, please raise your hands.

Thus, assuming the budget can field a twenty-wing force–which seems doubtful–we must pull everything that can fly out of the United States and the overseas theaters, then play shift and shuttle to make the two-conflict strategy work. Rand adds one more chilling reminder: “The US ability to forecast future force needs has been far from perfect. Peak US deployments in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq exceeded planners’ prewar expectations by a factor of two in critical areas.”

It is said that technology will allow us to do more with less, but, concurrent with the force reductions, we see powerful factions working to cancel the C-17 airlifter, cut the Stealth fighter program, and curtail other system developments. If they succeed, the assumptions behind current planning no longer apply.

The Pentagon would have to pull an extremely large rabbit out of its hat to make the Administration’s budget proposal match the two-conflict strategy. For that matter, it seems a little short for Win-Hold-Win.

It’s time for a reality check. Mr. Aspin is noted for his attention to strategic analysis. From his long tenure as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, he knows a great deal about military operations. He sincerely wants a force that is adequate to its task. We hope he will conclude, and make the case where it counts, that this deep-drop budget won’t do it.