Next National Defense Strategy Should Return to Two-War Force Construct

As the Biden administration updates the National Defense Strategy, it should return to the force-sizing construct of preparing to fight two major theater wars, and not just one; and selectively increasing the kinds of forces most urgently needed for more demanding future fights, according to a new paper from AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Failure to prepare for two wars—one in the Indo-Pacific and one in Europe—“sends the exact wrong message” to America’s adversaries, Mitchell’s Mark Gunzinger, director of future concepts and capability assessments, said during a livestream release of the new paper. He and Lukas Autenreid are the authors of “Building a Force That Wins: Recommendations for the National Defense Strategy.”

Failure to prepare for two wars may actually “invite” China and Russia to take advantage of a conflict in the other’s sphere of influence, Gunzinger said, and strike before the U.S. has time to build the wonder weapons envisioned in the research and development-heavy fiscal 2022 budget. The danger exists that China may perceive an opportunity for a fait accompli invasion of Taiwan while Russia might capitalize on the situation to move on Ukraine or the Baltics, Gunzinger said.

In the next NDS, the Pentagon should “not assume away” the idea that China may take advantage of the U.S.’s current reduced force structure and deferred modernization by entering a protracted war in which it will be the “home team,” which also would “exhaust our capacity to fight,” Gunzinger argued. Sizing and shaping the military for a short war with China “is a recipe for failure,” he said.

The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies rolled out its newest study, “Building a Force That Wins: Recommendations for the 2022 National Defense Strategy,” by Mark Gunzinger, director of future concepts and capability assessments, and Lukas Autenried, senior analyst at the Mitchell Institute. They are joined for a panel discussion regarding the report’s findings by retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute; Jim Miller, former undersecretary of defense for policy; and Elbridge Colby, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development.

The Defense Department also needs new concepts of operation that will “inform service tradeoffs that are going to be critical in developing a cost-effective, war-winning force of the future,” he said.

The U.S. must “selectively increase the size of some of its forces,” with an emphasis on swift-striking, flexible, survivable capabilities and command-and-control that will restore a credible conventional deterrent. The new capabilities already in hand—such as fifth-generation aircraft—are “critical” to defeating great power adversaries, he said.

If the U.S. is unwilling to do this, “we may have to seriously consider” compensating for conventional weakness by pursuing low-yield nuclear weapons, said retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, Mitchell Institute dean, in the event.

“I’m trying to get people’s attention,” Deptula said. If the resources aren’t provided “to allow us to deter and, if necessary, fight and win conventionally, then we’re going to have to start considering low-yield nukes. Maybe that would get people’s attention,” he said.

“The bottom line is, there’s no time for DOD to ramp up production of new capabilities and grow its forces,” Gunzinger asserted. By the time it does, “China or Russia will have achieved their objectives, and the consequences would have a devastating impact on the United States, its allies, and friends.”

In that context, the fiscal 2022 defense budget request exacerbates the “say/do gap” between the administration’s existing strategic guidance and “the actions it is taking to address its priorities.”

The 2022 budget calls for “the slowdown in fielding of some next-generation priorities, the failure to defend our forward bases against air and missile attacks, and more cuts to forces that are already too small to fight a single great power conflict” as well as defend the homeland and deter nuclear attacks, Gunzinger said.

Fighting a war of the near future requires extreme speed of action, he continued, because waiting to build up an overwhelming force—as was done in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm—will take too long and give China or Russia time to achieve a fait accompli in Taiwan, or possibly Ukraine or the Baltic states, respectively.

As the “home team,” in these conflicts, China and Russia could quickly mass power in the conflict zone while the U.S. will have to sustain operations over very long distances. Moreover, adversaries can already extend their air defense exclusionary zones over these areas, deterring an intervention.

But defeating a fait accompli is “far better than trying to evict or roll back an enemy that has seized its objective,” Gunzinger said.

“China and Russia are not Iraq” in 1991, he asserted. Evicting them from a consolidated position would take “massive forces” and require a campaign that would be “prohibitive, … especially against a nuclear–armed opponent.” The forces the U.S. needs can quickly deploy and operate inside contested air space, he said. The U.S. in the next war “will not be able to quickly gain and maintain control” over sea, air, and space, he added.

All this means the U.S. needs more long-range strike systems, fifth-generation aircraft that can survive in contested airspace, electronic warfare capabilities “to degrade enemy threats,” and missile defenses to protect theater airbases, Gunzinger said.

The Pentagon has “failed to invest … sufficiently” in these capabilities over the past 30 years, he added, and “the latest budget indicates it’s still not serious about going faster.”

In an attempt to defeat a fait accompli invasion of Taiwan, the U.S. would suffer far more aircraft losses than it has experienced since the Vietnam conflict, as this Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies slide shows.

Showing a chart illustrating potential aircraft losses in a fight over China, Gunzinger said the U.S. would have to deploy 60 percent of its combat aircraft, and after 19 days, only 236 of them would remain operational, assuming five percent attrition per day. At higher rates of attrition, the trend “gets uglier,” he said.

The Pentagon “hasn’t had to think about high attrition rates for years,” and it hasn’t structured its budget and force structure accordingly, but it must do so, he argued. It’s reasonable to expect such losses in a 2030 fight, Gunzinger said—In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel, even with an air force superior to that of its enemies, suffered nearly five percent aircraft attrition in the first week of that conflict. A 1974 Defense Science Board study said that in a war with the then-Warsaw Pact, U.S. air forces would be “decimated in two weeks,” he said.

Those grim numbers also assume that 44 percent of the 2030 air force will be fifth-generation fighters; optimistic, he said, because they only comprise 20 percent of the fleet today. The calculus also didn’t take into account Chinese ballistic missile attacks on allied bases, which could “easily double these loss rates.”

The paper says this is a major concern since “the Army refuses to defend U.S. air bases against air and missile attack,” Gunzinger said.

Long-range missiles are also no panacea, he observed. If half of the Air Force and Navy’s AGM-158 JASSM and LRASM stealth missiles are allocated to the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. will have used up all such missiles within nine to 13 days of combat, depending on the rates of bomber attrition. The B-52 alone “could use up half the Air Force’s total planned inventory” of JASSMs “against Chinese targets, in a little over a week,” but in reality, JASSMs would be launched by other bombers and fighters, as well, accelerating JASSM exhaustion. Strike aircraft would then have to use other kinds of precision-guided weapons, get closer to enemy air defenses, and run a greater risk of being shot down.

All this means the Pentagon should “organize, train, and equip for a longer-duration fight with China,” Gunzinger said. Simply defeating a fait accompli on Taiwan “may not be enough,” he said, and may require a “punishment campaign” attacking China’s ability to project power. Targets could include bombers and seaports, industrial facilities, fixed radars, airfields, maneuver and amphibious forces, tunnels, bunkers, and command and control nodes, among others.

The forces best suited for these attacks are resident in the Air Force, Navy, and Space Force. Such a campaign would not be a “boots on the ground” conflict, Gunzinger asserted.

Capacity for two wars is critical, Gunzinger said. The DOD “should not ignore the risk that a second peer aggressor would take advantage of a situation where our one-war military is engaged in another theater.”

Toward having this capability, the Air Force should add five bomber squadrons by 2030 and grow to include at least 240 stealth bombers overall to remain credible, the authors argue. There are 86 deployable bombers now, Gunzinger said—“a major shortfall, … [and] an all-time low”—out of about 140 in the inventory. To perform the nuclear deterrence role and have enough for an Indo-Pacific conflict would require about 180 deployable bombers, and to have enough for two near-simultaneous conflicts would require about 310.

For two wars, the Air Force would need almost 1,800 fighters, a 600-aircraft increase over what it said it required in its “The Air Force We Need” analysis of a few years ago. With a shortage of aircraft and pilots alike, rebuilding the force after a major war would “take years,” Gunzinger said, underlining that USAF has “no margin” for loss.

“The Air Force and the other services have already traded capacity for capability numerous times” over the last 30 years, “and now, frankly, it needs more of both,” he said.

Rebuilding a two-war force “doesn’t have to be as costly as some might think,” Gunzinger asserted, if the Pentagon grows forces selectively and “based on the predominant forces that commanders will need” for a fight in the Pacific and Europe.

For the Pacific, the U.S. should invest in the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Space Force, because those forces are most applicable to the battlespace, while for Europe, the primary forces would be the Air Force and Army, Gunzinger said.

“DOD as a whole—and not every service—should have a two-war force,” he argued.

“The Air Force should be sized for both theaters,” he said, because combatant commanders in both theaters need the ability to “rapidly respond from inside and outside theater to launch high-volume strikes against invading forces” and perform other missions.

Autenreid said the Pentagon’s Joint Warfighting Concept of recent months misses the mark and allows too much spending on redundant capabilities, like long-range strike assets for the Army, while not spending enough on missile defenses for bases.

This kind of construct “will support instead of challenge the ambitions of the services that they need more top line to implement their individual visions, … and this is not going to be affordable given flat or declining defense budgets,” Gunzinger said. The institute believes the Pentagon should apply a cost-per-effect business case analysis of building an all-domain force rather than parsing out roughly equal shares to the services, because the missions are not equal in all circumstances.

In response to a question, Gunzinger said that the advent of hypersonic weapons is merely additive to the capabilities of the overall force and that he doesn’t see them as allowing any service to reduce its requirements. “We should not use that as an excuse to not pump our investments in long-range strike capabilities, including munitions,” he said.

Gunzinger said a broad roles and missions review that would distribute funding more appropriately to the most-needed capabilities is unlikely to produce the needed direction for DOD. Such reviews “challenge the services’ rice bowls … and programs of record,” he said, “but that’s exactly what needs to happen.” He would recommend a “focused review” on some roles and missions, but more important would be “some decisions on roles and missions” because the topic has been “studied to death over the years.”

Deptula said the U.S. will have to get allies to spend more on defense and suggested that some allies, such as the U.K., buy U.S. B-21s to expand alliance long-range strike capabilities.