“Two Wars” No More

The discarding of the two-war planning factor for the 2010 QDR will have significant repercussions for our treaty obligations and OPLAN execution. Part I in a series.

This is the first post in a three-part series on the DOD decision to shift away from the “two-war” planning scenario that has been used as the predicate for the size and composition of the US armed forces since the end of the Cold War.  This somewhat arcane force-planning factor is likely to have significant repercussions for national security policy.


In testimony last week remarked mainly by defense professionals, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Senators that DOD is coming up with a new force-sizing paradigm for its latest Quadrennial Defense Review.  For the QDR due in 2010, DOD is discarding the “two theater war” concept in use since 1990 for designing America’s armed forces.

For the purposes of this concept, the two theater “wars” in question have been defined as nation-based conflicts with “peer competitors” (or near-peer competitors or sponsors), occurring with at least some time overlap.  Different conflicts have functioned as the models, with the most popular in the 1990s being an overlapping outbreak of conflict with Iraq in the Middle East, and a North Korean threat against South Korea, or a Chinese threat against Taiwan.  The latter threats were mostly assumed to require suppression, with a credible demonstration of force, rather than actually erupting as attacks or invasions.

A key thing to keep in mind about the “two theater war” concept is that it has been used not as a linchpin of strategy, but as a means of projecting the size and types of force the US armed forces will need.  Strategy is developed through the separate operational planning process; the sizing and composition of our total armed force are the outcomes directly affected by the two-war construct.  The amount of force it would take to effectively address overlapping contingencies of this kind, and achieve projected objectives without compromising American or allied security, is the force baseline planners won’t want to go below.

Cartwright’s testimony made it clear that although DOD acknowledges the possibility of major war with a peer/near-peer competitor, the force “sizing construct” for the new QDR envisions one, not two, of these wars exerting a demand on DOD assets at a given time.  In addition to the one major conflict, planners favor anticipating multiple smaller-scale contingencies.

“The military requirement right now is associated with the strategy that we are laying out in the QDR, and it is a departure from the two major theater war construct that we have adhered to in the past and in which this aircraft grew up. I mean it grew up in that construct of two major theater wars, and both of them being of a peer competitor quality,” Cartwright said.

“The strategy that we are moving towards is one that is acknowledging of the fact that we are not in that type of conflict, that the more likely conflicts are going to be the ones that we—similar to the ones that we are in in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that we do need to have a capability against a major peer competitor and that we believe that the sizing construct, one, demands that we have fifth generation fighters across all three services rather than just one and that the number of those fighters probably does not need to be sufficient to take on two simultaneous peer competitors, that we don’t see that as the likely. We see that as the extreme.”

The “two theater war” basis for force-sizing has been a post-Cold War holdover for some years, and came in for strong criticism before the QDRs that reported out in 2002 and 2006.  Donald Rumsfeld eventually decided, for both QDRs, to continue with the two-war concept, but he was as dissatisfied with it as many DOD planners.  The prospects for actually discarding it this time seem good, however, given that Defense Secretary Gates affirmed his commitment to doing so in an 18 June press conference.  In his words:

“[it is] my belief, that conflict in the future will slide up and down a scale, both in scope or scale and in lethality. And we have to procure the kinds of things that give us — the kinds of equipment and weapons that give us the maximum flexibility, across the widest range of that spectrum of conflict. 

“And frankly I think that there is broad agreement, on the part of the senior military leadership, that that kind of a construct going forward is what we ought to be looking at. If there is one major aspect of the QDR 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 of the world. We are already in two major conflicts. So what if we have a third one or a fourth one or a fifth one? And how do you — along that spectrum, how do you — where do you characterize a Hezbollah that has more missiles and rockets than most countries or a violent extremist group that may acquire a weapon of mass destruction?”

This shift is viewed by most commentators through the prism of its specific implications for force size and composition, particularly relating to weapon systems (e.g., the F-22) and warfighting concepts.  The latter debate typically centers on conventional, “linear” combat – force on force, fighting for land, or control of a battlespace (which could include sea or air and space) for political objectives – versus the models of post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan, in which non-linear guerrilla combat, counterinsurgency, stabilization operations, and extensive civil contact with local nationals (including a civil protective function) are prominent.  As the debate is shaking out in military journals, and even more in the popular press and the blogosphere, the posited alternative is between lots of high-tech, big-ticket weapon systems for the conventional combat concept, and lots of manpower and infantry-smartening gadgets for the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict model.

These posited dimensions of the debate are poorly drawn from at least some perspectives, in my view.  (Gates has repeatedly rejected them, as he did in the 18 June press conference.)  But more fundamentally, the shift away from the two-war construct has even larger implications than these.  While it is not inherently a bad thing to reject this construct, it has existed in the context of national strategic certainties that are thrown up for grabs by its dismissal.  And I do not see any deliberate or coherent decisions about those imperiled certainties on the political horizon.

There are two key categories of assumptions on which the two-war construct has been based, since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact that triggered its formulation.  One is the stability of our core alliances, and our commitment to honoring defense treaty obligations, and executing longstanding operational plans (OPLANs) kept updated to support them.  The other category is assumptions about our national “grand strategy” for security, and our “way of war.”  The two-war concept, although it has exhibited growing structural flaws for at least a decade, nevertheless remained a fit for these most major of national muscle movements.  Removing it has to imply a need for review of the higher-echelon concepts.

This necessity is most visible in relation to alliances, treaty commitments, and OPLANs (which Yanks, incidentally, pronounce “op-plans”).  The two-war construct has always been tethered to our standing commitments to the core alliances with NATO and Japan, our unique alliance with Canada for the defense of North America, our defense commitment to South Korea and the UN Armistice on the Korean peninsula, our commitment to Taiwan’s security and the peaceful resolution of her dispute with China, our long alliance with Australia and New Zealand, our alliance with Israel, and our declared national interest – affirmed with a steadily growing presence, both diplomatic and military – in the stability of the Middle East.

We can note that the establishment of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq adds a new dimension to these standing commitments, in indicating a US national interest in the integrity of Iraq’s borders and post-Saddam constitutional polity – an interest that is likely to have implications for defense agreements, operational contingency planning, and therefore defense force composition.  These implications will persist after the pull-out of American combat forces is complete, as long as the US is an ally of Iraq.  And as events unfold in Iran and the Caucasus, America’s interest in Iraq’s security may take the form of contingency planning for power projection, just as our interest in the security of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, and the Persian Gulf has done.

The potential for these latter developments will depend on both Iraq and the US, of course.  But it is important to highlight them, because we tend to forget that the evolution of allies and national interests is a process that was not suspended with the end of the Cold War.  The credibility of America’s will and capacity to fulfill treaty obligations, and to project power on behalf of our declared interests (e.g., in a stable Middle East), is a basic and enduring post-WWII concept that has been served explicitly by the two-war planning construct.  When the construct is eliminated, the first question our allies, clients, and potential allies are likely to ask is:  What does that mean about America’s commitment to them?

It is an entirely valid question, for example, what it means to the South Koreans and the Taiwanese that we are planning to be able to support only one major peer-competitor-level contingency at a time.  Even if the nexus of opposition were China, and one major regional war involved both of these Far Eastern clients – what if there is another, overlapping one involving a Russia-backed Iran in the Middle East?  What, indeed, is the likelihood that our force-sizing decisions, as a planning factor for rivals, could make the overlap not only possible but probable?

We can think of all sorts of reasons why events might not unfold in these simplistic terms, and why, if it did come to something like this, we could well be in a “world war” anyway, and would shift our whole basis for planning and operating.

But South Korea and Taiwan – and Iraq and the Gulf emirates – do not have the geographical separation America has from the nations that might start that “world war.”  Their territories are the defensive positions we might very well have to fall back from.  The prospect of the US fielding a force inadequately designed to keep all our treaty commitments, or to execute all our OPLANs, looks very different from their perspective, as opposed to how it looks from a planner’s cubicle in northern Virginia.

The argument here is not that we can never get away from the two-war construct because we have alliance obligations and standing commitments.  It is, rather, that discarding the two-war construct inherently means that, unless we come up with another construct that meets these requirements, we are, pari passu, deciding not to be able to meet them.  At least not on overlapping timelines.

NATO’s decision to review and rewrite the alliance’s Strategic Concept this year offers a significant opportunity for American planners to look at both our basic force-planning criteria (i.e., move beyond the two-war construct) and at a set of core alliance commitments (i.e., move beyond the two-war construct in a real-world-tethered context).  The NATO review holds the promise of being a good test, if it is used correctly, of the application of the emerging Gates-era concept, or what we might call a “family of wars”:  a Mama War and a flock of baby wars, if you will.

NATO planners expect the alliance deliberations to focus on a suite of issues – terrorism, WMD, nation-building, resource conflicts, NATO’s overall posture (shaping or reactionary) – that are likely to channel thinking into the “baby war” paradigm, more than yielding the outlines of a probable Mama War that needs to be prepared for.  That this watershed represents an absolute strategic inversion for NATO – once the core alliance for fighting the Mother of All Mama Wars – is emblematic of how we perceive the world to have changed in the last 20 years.  In any case, the NATO review holds the promise of dovetailing with the emerging Gates planning construct, which emphasizes a spectrum of conflict types, and no more than one major (conventional, peer-competitor) conflict – Mama War – at a given time.

Two questions are naturally raised by considering our force-planning guidance in light of the NATO review.  One is whether such a sympathetic process is possible with our other allies, particularly in the Far East – and whether it holds the same promise of accommodating our evolving force-planning paradigm.  Is the construct that may mesh well with the trends in our NATO alliance a good fit for the security environment elsewhere in the world?  The Pacific Far East, and indeed Asia as a whole, constitute a classic balance-of-power theater more like pre-WWII Europe than the Atlantic-centered NATO of today.  We function as a tiebreaking bilateral ally there, not as the leader of a pack.  There is less latitude for rewriting the concept for South Korea’s defense than there is for rewriting NATO’s strategic purpose – a circumstance that may seem counterintuitive, but has significant implications for force baselines.  The military methodology for defending South Korea may change with time and technology, but, unlike the very purpose of rewriting NATO’s Strategic Concept, the basic task will not.

The second question is a very concrete and particular one:  is this sympathetic trend in NATO and American conceptualization based on an accurate core assumption? – namely, that Russia, or an axis of Russia and Iran, will either not be the source of a major conflict, or be the source of the only one that might occur at one time?  Would the latter be the case for both America and NATO?

I don’t propose to outline simple “answers” to these questions here.  But they arise with the rethinking of the two-war construct.  Our standing commitments and long-established interests predate any follow-on to the two-war construct, and must be served by whatever that follow-on is, if we are to have credibility as an ally and world leader.

In Part II, we will look at America’s grand strategy, and how its feasibility may be affected by elimination of the two-war construct for force-sizing.

9 thoughts on ““Two Wars” No More”

  1. How is a “peer-competitor” defined? Is a peer-competitor a country with similar resources, population, military capability or what? In contemporary military terms, the US has no peer-competitors. With eleven aircraft carriers and a total of 283 ships, the US Navy is unrivalled by the combined forces of literally the rest of the world. The idea that there are peer-competitors to the US in ordinary military terms is meaningless because it would be national suicide for any country to engage the US in those terms, as the Iraqi Baathists discovered. Even during the “Cold War”, the Soviets were well aware that their celebrated tank divisions facing Western Europe were simply armored coffins designed and deployed to fight a historical engagement. A replay of Agincourt with diesel fumes rather than horse manure. That doesn’t mean, of course, that force and violence can’t be used against the interests of the US by others in a different paradigm, as they are today. While we have our differences with groups across the world, the identity of those willing to engage us in a scenario of violence that has negative political ramifications for us and perceived positive ones for them, is well known. These are our adversaries but not our peer-competitors.

  2. It’s very questionable whether an aircraft carrier can survive within air strike range of any country close to being a “peer competitor” given the relative cheapness of anti-shipping missiles.

    Twenty some years ago the Enterprise and a couple of surface escorts along with (perhaps) a covert attack sub consort could (and did) approach India with relative impunity, almost eagerness on the part of the pilots, to apply pressure re the “tilt” toward Pakistan. today I suspect an admiral would want half or more of the at sea carriers before undertaking such a task.

  3. cm — your question (how is a peer-competitor defined) is of course an important one, and Sully gets at part of the answer with his point about aircraft carriers getting in striking range of another country.

    Purely in terms of our stacks of military “stuff,” America has no peer-competitor, and hasn’t had one since the late 1980s.

    But wars aren’t fought by ledger entries, they’re fought in times and places. If we have to try to avert a fully-prepped Chinese invasion of Taiwan, we are most definitely confronting a peer-competitor. There’s no way China could send a force over HeRE and project power that would make us give up a national purpose. But facing China in the South China Sea, we face a peer in that regional military context, for that particular purpose.

    Oddly enough, in a much less militarily developed area — the Georgian coast of the Black Sea — Russia, with her poor and shabby Black Sea Fleet, is a peer-competitor and more, in comparison to the US. We would have to get several times as much force as Russia has there to get a preponderance of force going — and it would take us days to do that, IF Turkey agreed to it. She has to, as the administrator of the Turkish Straits. Sure, Turkey is a NATO ally, but she also share the Black Sea with Russia. America is a long way away, our navy and air force don’t loom as close or large as they used to, and Europe tends to do the EU shuffle and retreat into a sanctimonious neutrality when Black Sea nations are intimidated by Moscow.

    As I’ll be discussing in Part III, the question of how to define a peer-competitor begs, in its turn, the question of how we plan to fight. If, for example, Nicaragua and Venezuela decide to invade Honduras, and we want to do something about it, what is our concept?

    Do we want to have the option to act decisively, as we did in Panama in 1989? Or are we content to let Costa Rica negotiate something in which Venezuelan and Nicaraguan troops get to stay in Honduras, and we contribute to a peacekeeping force that we get other OAS members to also contribute troops to?

    To perform the first task, we need to be able to fight in the manner we would in a major conflict: with warships off the coast, Marines (and perhaps Army) ashore, the Air Force overhead, and a sprcific outcome in mind. We would also have to be able to maintain our other military obligations around the globe while doing this. No one in Central America is a peer-competitor in terms of its stack of military stuff, but achieving a DECISIVE outcome, in the postulated situation in Honduras, requires fighting as if that were the case.

    If we don’t fight on that basis, any troop deployments will be for a very limited purpose — one that may be respected by the other actors simply because we are the USA, but that would not actually change the situation of Honduras for the better. We might, with this method, reinforce in place some arrangement that leaves other Central American troops in Honduras (a non-neutral prospect, no matter how you slice it) — or, we could simply accept a fait accompli by associates of Chavez and Ortega, and in fact end up guaranteeing it with our own troops, if we made them part of an OAS force.

    Raise your hand if you think there is any way to apply nuclear “deterrence” to this situation. Anyone?

    Raise your hand if you think America’s security would be enhanced by all of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, and then Honduras falling under the entrenched rule of Chavez, buddy of Castro, and his best pals. Anyone? How much of a chance would you give Panama in these circumstances? How long would Colombia hold out?

    The decision not to be able to fight on the basis of a major, peer-competitor conflict, to keep the remaining US-friendly democracies in Central America democratic and US-friendly, is a decision with substantial consequences.

    Anyway, more on this in Part III.

  4. J.E.,
    It seems to me that you are conflating two very different situations. Our ability to influence, or direct, events among such countries as Venezuela is very different than the Black Sea situation.

    With a trivial portion of our strength, and at almost certainly relatively small cost in casualties, we can do what we want in Central and Northern South America in short order with little risk of serious surprises.

    In sharp contrast, going into the Black Sea to do what we may want to do in Georgia or Azerbaijan, for instance, would require major redeployment of assets and a long effort potentially rising a good way toward the level of the European portion of WW2 if things go awry, even assuming that the Russians wouldn’t be tempted to threaten the nuclear option.

    The defense of Taiwan is at that level also given real seriousness on China’s part. If not already, sometime in the near future the whole existing navy might not be enough.

  5. Sully — You’d find military planners disagreeing with you about how much of our force it would take to deal with a scenario in which Venezuela and Nicaragua had combined to invade Honduras.

    The ease with which we have handled previous invasions of our own in Latin America has been a function of the isolation of the battlespace from outside actors, and the relative size and capability of our forces. In the most succinct terms, there was generally no one to fight, and an amount of force that, for us, was moderate, was overwhelming in the situation. We were able to concentrate on seizing presidential facilities in capital cities, and surrender followed quickly.

    If we were to try to use such force in Honduras today, that’s all it would take. But let troops from other Central American nations establish positions there, and the situation would be different. There are thousands of partisans with long histories of fighting guerrilla wars for our opponents to draw on (along, of course, with Hizballah).

    The emerging situation in Central America is much closer to producing an anti-US alliance than it has ever been before. We can’t discount the possibility of having to use force against an alliance, waging guerrilla warfare, and not just against an individual ruler in his presidential residence, here or there. That alliance, if it got going against us, could well be supplied by Russia. Embargoing the whole coast of Venezuela is not a task for one destroyer and the US Coast Guard.

    If we assume away the possibility of needing to wield comprehensive force in such a situation, our options will be severely constrained if it arises — and it becomes more likely to arise as well.

    Do I think we would need the same level of force to fully eject invaders from Honduras as we would need to defend Taiwan? No. It would be a different force mix as well as a different force level. But one Marine Expeditionary Unit (the standard package that deploys in an ARG, or ESG) could NOT perform this task. We could not just take a task of this magnitude out of whatever forces happened to be hanging around in routine readiness posture. This would be a full-blown operation — IF we wanted to have a decisive result from it.

    If we are willing to deploy small numbers of troops into operations with ambivalent purposes, and see what we can achieve with them — then it makes sense to anticipate only one major “war.” We must also recognize going into that posture that it’s the one we backed into Vietnam with.

    Deciding not to arm ourselves to respond DECISIVELY to contingencies is what we are really talking about. Again, there will be more on this in Part III.

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