Drop the 'two-war' plan

Pentagon expert Michael O'Hanlon says that in an age of austerity, the U.S. needs a military framework that's less ambitious but more flexible and realistic

December 15, 2011|By Michael O'Hanlon

As defense strategists at the Pentagon carry out their review of how to make roughly $400 billion in cuts over 10 years, and Congress considers the possibility of reductions twice as large as required by the supercommittee's failure to reach agreement, one clear change in policy is appropriate: It is time to drop the longstanding assumption that U.S. ground forces must be capable of fighting two overlapping regional wars. Rather, ground-force planners should adopt a "1+2" framework, planning for one major war together with two smaller (but perhaps longer) multinational stabilization missions.

This is not a prescription for savaging the U.S. Army and Marine Corps or eliminating the nation's capacity to carry out counterinsurgency operations altogether. No such decisions would be prudent given a now nuclear-armed North Korea, a Middle East in tumult, a Kashmir capable of igniting all-out India-Pakistan war, or an American military still focused on the important and ongoing Afghanistan mission. But it is an appropriate change in light of budgetary and economic challenges, together with happier developments: the demise of Saddam Hussein, the growing strength of the South Korean military and the ongoing conventional military weakness of Iran for classic ground operations. It might lead to savings of up to $150 billion over a decade, making major headway toward the $400 billion goal (but hardly toward the nearly trillion-dollar figure that some in Congress are considering).

During the Cold War, defense planners continuously assumed the need to prepare for a possible major war against the Warsaw Pact plus at least one other conflict. After the Cold War, the big scenario went away, and U.S. ground forces were sized and shaped primarily to maintain what was called a two-regional-war capability. The wars were assumed to begin in fairly rapid succession (though not exactly simultaneously), and then overlap, lasting several months to perhaps a year or two. Three administrations and five defense secretaries, starting with President George H.W. Bush and defense chief Dick Cheney, endorsed some variant of it. And to some extent, they were all vindicated in recent years as the nation fought two overlapping regional conflicts, even if one of them was in Richard Haass's memorable phrase a "war of choice," and even if the wars went on far longer than standard planning scenarios assumed.

To date, the Obama administration has stuck with such thinking. Its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report states that, after successfully concluding current wars, "In the mid- to long term, U.S. military forces must plan and prepare to prevail in a broad range of operations that may occur in multiple theaters in overlapping time frames. This includes maintaining the ability to prevail against two capable nation-state aggressors." And this fall, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta repeated this planning assumption.

But a two-land-war capability is no longer appropriate for the age of austerity. A "1+2" framework for sizing ground combat forces is a better way today. It is prudent because it assumes that ground war is not obsolete however much we might like to think so given national fatigue over the Iraq and Afghanistan missions. It also provides some additional capability if and when the nation again engages in a major conflict, providing a combat cushion should that war go less well than initially hoped. Yet it is also modest, economical and cognizant of today's economic challenges to American power, because it assumes only one such conflict at a time and does not envision major ground wars against the world's major overseas powers on their territories.

Specifically, if there ever was conflict pitting the United States against China or Iran, it is reasonable to assume that the fighting would be in maritime and coastal regions. That is because the most plausible threat that China would pose is to Taiwan, or perhaps to neighboring states over disputed sea and seabed resources; and because the most plausible crisis involving Iran would relate either to its nuclear program or to its machinations in and about the Persian Gulf waterways. It is reasonable for the United States to have the capability for just one ground war at a time as long as it can respond in other ways to other, possibly simultaneous and overlapping, challenges abroad — primarily challenges for naval, air, intelligence and special forces capabilities rather than main ground combat units.

This proposal should not lead to a drastically smaller ground force. Having the capacity to wage one major regional war with some added degree of insurance should things go wrong, while sustaining two protracted if smaller deployments, is only modestly less demanding than fighting two regional wars at once. Unfortunately, in today's world, prudence would not permit an even less demanding strategic construct or an even smaller force.

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