The Measure of a Superpower: A Two Major Regional Contingency Military for the 21st Century

Section II: The Evolving Character of the Two-MRC Standard, 1991–2012

The two-major-theater-war standard for sizing the U.S. military is hardly a new idea. It has its roots in the geopolitical situation that developed in the late 19th century. The United States had achieved the status of the world’s leading industrial power, acquired a set of overseas territories as a consequence of the Spanish–American War, and finally settled the Western frontier, knitting together a transcontinental dominion from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In this context, the U.S. discovered that it had growing political, commercial, and security interests in geographically distinct regions. America’s first tentative steps onto the world stage occurred during the first wave of globalization generated by rapid technological change, coupled with increased competition among the Great Powers to expand their investments in, influence over, and outright control of large parts of the world. The same conditions that called the United States out of its comfortable isolation also ended the sanctuary status the United States had enjoyed for the past century.

Alfred Thayer Mahan first articulated this new reality in his seminal work The Influence of Seapower on History. According to Mahan, the combination of expanded international commerce and the growing capability of the world’s leading nations to project power globally required the United States to abandon its treasured notions of isolationism and the security afforded by two oceans. The United States needed to consider the possibility of involvement in conflicts in two widely separated regions of the globe as well as sorties by major adversaries against the East and West Coasts. The U.S. experience in the Spanish–American War, most notably the USS Oregon’s circumnavigation of the globe and the acquisition of former Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and Western Pacific, appeared to confirm the correctness of the new doctrine. Mahan’s thesis also resonated with the belief among political and military leaders in American exceptionalism and the requirement that the United States needed to prepare to address threats from both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. [10]

What were the implications of this new perspective on national security for the size and composition of the U.S. military? At the time, in the beginning of the 19th century, Mahan could argue that the United States required a Navy that could meet the greatest of any naval threat regardless of the direction from which it might come—the Pacific or the Atlantic. The construction of the Panama Canal reduced the risk of guessing wrong on which was the greatest threat by enabling the Navy to more easily “swing” ships to the other ocean as the magnitude of the threat changed. As a result, according to the prevailing military doctrine, the United States did not need a two-ocean Navy, although it had to focus on potential strategic threats from both the Atlantic and Pacific.

However, in the 1930s, with the rise of new regional powers such as Japan and the decline of the British Navy as a bulwark against threats to the United States, it became necessary for defense planners to consider the possibility of confronting threats in two theaters simultaneously. The result was the 1940 Vinson–Walsh Act, also known as the Two-Ocean Navy Act, which funded a 70 percent increase in the U.S. Navy, including construction of 18 aircraft carriers and construction or expansion of air and naval facilities across the Pacific. Proponents of the act argued that its fundamental purpose was to strengthen U.S. naval power to deter aggression by Japan and/or Germany.

World War II was a multi-adversary, multi-theater conflict and seemed to confirm Mahan’s basic thesis. For many U.S. decision makers, this conflict also underscored the consequences of failing to acquire a military capable of meeting more than one adversary at a time. [11] Notably, the Roosevelt Administration and the Joint Chiefs of Staff struggled to manage the flow of men and materials to both the European and Pacific Theaters. They made the strategic decision to give priority to winning the war in Europe, a choice ratified by the Allied powers. [12]

Within a few years of defeating Germany and Japan, growing antagonism between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union and the ensuing Cold War resurrected the strategic requirement that U.S. forces be able to fight multiple, geographically dispersed, and possibly simultaneous conflicts. The early history of the Cold War—which involved a series of small wars beginning with the Korean conflict, insurgencies, and direct confrontations between the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact and United States/NATO, such as over Berlin—underscored the centrality of a multi-conflict force-sizing standard. Even where Soviet forces were not present, there was growing concern that Moscow was directing the actions of revolutionary movements and fraternal communist regimes, such as the People’s Republic of China and Cuba, to tie down U.S. forces and weaken the West’s ability to confront Soviet aggression.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States struggled to define a relevant and affordable force-sizing standard. The fundamental strategic problem of the era was deterring central conflict between the two superpowers and their alliances, while still dealing with regional conflicts against Soviet forces or regional proxies. Faced with the growing Soviet strategic nuclear threat, U.S. defense planners abandoned reliance on nuclear weapons alone for deterrence and planned instead to counter, at least initially, conventional aggression at the regional level. Thus, under the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, the United States formulated the two-and-a-half war sizing construct. One conflict would be in Europe, the decisive theater in the East–West standoff. A second would be in the Far East and could involve China or North Korea. The “half war” was a major counterinsurgency operation against a Soviet proxy. The U.S. deterrent strategy of graduated escalation relied on the ability to hold at bay, albeit temporarily, a Soviet attack on Europe or a proxy in the Far East, thereby creating intrawar firebreaks. Because it was never assumed that the United States and its allies could defeat a determined Soviet onslaught with conventional means alone, the force structure constructs deemed adequate to satisfy the requirements to fight in multiple theaters were lower than what a war-winning strategy would have necessitated. [13]

Changes in the global threat environment allowed subsequent Administrations to make adjustments to the two-and-a-half-war standard. The Sino–Soviet split enabled the Nixon Administration to reduce the standard to the ability to fight one-and-a-half wars simultaneously. However, as the Soviet Union expanded its conventional military capabilities beginning in the 1970s, the Reagan Administration found it advisable to resurrect something akin to the old two-simultaneous-war standard. The Reagan Doctrine envisioned countering aggression by the Soviet Union or its proxies anywhere in the world. In addition, in the event of a conflict between the two superpowers in Europe or Asia, Reagan defense plans included options for expanding the scope of hostilities by escalating horizontally along the periphery of the Soviet Union. [14]

Beginning in the late 1980s, U.S. defense planners began to rethink the character of a possible conflict with the Soviet Union, the central feature of U.S. force planning for more than four decades. Monumental political changes in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact and Moscow’s withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan caused the incoming Bush Administration to rethink the likelihood of a deliberate attack on Western Europe. Political changes elsewhere in the world, including an improving relationship between the United States and China and the rise of political Islam, suggested that future threats to U.S. security lay elsewhere than a classic East–West confrontation. In addition, the Reagan-era defense buildup was clearly coming to an end, and significant reductions in defense spending were in the offing. [15]

President George H. W. Bush framed the relationship between U.S. defense planning and future force structure and the strategic changes brought by the incipient Soviet reforms in advance of the collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the fragmentation of the Soviet Union. Ironically, President Bush gave the speech on the same day that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Our task today is to shape our defense capabilities to these changing strategic circumstances. In a world less driven by an immediate threat to Europe and the danger of global war, in a world where the size of our forces will increasingly be shaped by the needs of regional contingencies and peacetime presence, we know that our forces can be smaller. Secretary Cheney and General Powell are hard at work determining the precise combination of forces that we need. But I can tell you now, we calculate that by 1995 our security needs can be met by an active force 25 percent smaller than today’s. America’s Armed Forces will be at their lowest level since the year 1950. [16]

The Department of Defense put forward a force-sizing construct termed the “Base Force.” This was the first attempt to define both a post–Cold War national security strategy and an appropriate force structure. It was motivated also by a desire to avoid a repeat of the precipitous drawdowns that had occurred after World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. It was also informed by the U.S. experience in the first Persian Gulf War when the U.S. deployed 500,000 soldiers. The experience of Desert Shield/Desert Storm profoundly affected the evolution of the two-MRC force-sizing metric. Among the most significant features of the 1991 conflict were:

  • The location, scale, and speed of the crisis and conflict, which all came as a surprise to the U.S.
  • The adversary possessed a large, well-equipped, and seemingly battle-tested conventional military supplemented by ballistic missiles and WMDs;
  • The U.S. lacked significant forward-deployed forces in the Persian Gulf;
  • Early arriving U.S. ground forces were by necessity light and, hence, vulnerable;
  • Available airlift and sealift determined the campaign’s time line;
  • Early attainment of air dominance was absolutely critical to the unfolding of the campaign;
  • Precision-guided weapons made a contribution out of proportion to the number employed;
  • Reserve Component units were not deployable on the required time line; and
  • The availability of high-demand/low-density enablers was critical to operational success.

The Base Force was described as the minimum force structure to enable the United States to address its continuing global security interests and to project the aura of a global superpower. In addition, the Base Force provided the foundation for a “reconstitution” of capabilities in the event of Russian “backsliding” into a Cold War–like confrontational posture or the rise of a new peer competitor. [17]

The Base Force proposed a 25 percent reduction in conventional forces and reductions in the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal. The total size of the armed forces would shrink from 2.1 million to 1.6 million active-duty end strength and from 1.6 million to around 900,000 reserves. The changes to the service components were equally dramatic. Instead of 20 active divisions, the Army would consist of 12 active and eight reserve divisions. The Air Force would make do with 16 active and 12 reserve tactical fighter wings versus a Cold War structure of 24 active and 12 reserve fighter wings. The Marine Corps would decline from an active-duty end strength of 195,000 to approximately 150,000 personnel in three active divisions plus 38,000 reserves. The Navy, which had spent the previous decade building up to nearly 600 ships, including 15 aircraft carriers, would shrink to 450 ships, including 12 carriers.

Reflecting the new focus on regional contingencies, the Base Force was segmented into a series of notional force packages. The Base Force was oriented around the historic, U.S.-centric, two-ocean view of the world, consisting of an Atlantic Force, a Pacific Force, a Contingency Force, and a Strategic Force. The Atlantic Force and the Pacific Force consisted of the bulk of all conventional forces. Each was tailored to the unique demands and threats of their respective portions of the world. The Atlantic Force, with primary responsibility for Europe and the Middle East, consisted of a relatively small set of units providing forward presence backed up by heavy conventional forces, including a large ground contingent. It was presumed that the largest threat that it faced was a resurgent Iraq. The Pacific Force provided naval and air forces to address threats across the vast expanse of the Asia–Pacific region with a continuing land force presence in Korea and Japan. At the time, the dominant conflict scenario in this region was a renewed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The Contingency Force was a rapid reaction capability maintained to deal with lesser contingencies. Because the majority of U.S. forces would be based in the Continental United States, the Base Force concept assumed additional investments in support capabilities such as lift, logistics, and intelligence that would enable the different force packages to deploy rapidly and operate effectively once overseas. [18]

A key assumption underpinning the Base Force construct was that the United States needed to be prepared to respond to more than a single regional contingency. [19] It was presumed at the time that either of the two likeliest conflicts, with Iraq or with North Korea, would require committing a full array of U.S. combined arms along with significant allied contingents. Yet at the same time, senior defense officials acknowledged that the Base Force would have difficulty managing even a single major regional contingency and that two simultaneous conflicts would place it “at the breaking point.” [20] The Base Force construct set up a fundamental mismatch between strategy and forces, which has persisted until the present.

The Clinton Administration perceived the Base Force as a temporary fix, designed largely to avoid precipitous actions in the period of uncertainty following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Les Aspin, the incoming Secretary of Defense and former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, had published a number of papers on future defense policy in which he had criticized the Base Force as “essentially ‘less of the same,’ that is, a downsized force largely shaped by Cold War priorities” and a “robust force that hedged strongly against the risk that the Soviet Union might be revived.” [21] Aspin had developed a series of alternative force structures based on different assumptions about the degree of future risk to U.S. security interests. Option C, the one he termed “the most prudent and promising,” called for cutting the Base Force by an additional three Army divisions, eight Air Force wings, 110 Navy ships, and 233,000 military personnel. [22] This force structure retained the capability to fight and win one major theater contingency, what Aspin termed “the Desert Storm Equivalent.” [23] In addition, the Clinton Administration was intent on achieving a “peace dividend” from further reductions in defense spending. Even before it had completed its review and force posture assessment, the Administration presented a budget to Congress that cut defense spending by some $112 billion over the 1994–1998 Future Years Defense Program. [24]

To better match available resources to force structure, the Clinton Administration undertook the Bottom-Up Review (BUR), which was advertised as “a comprehensive review of the nation’s defense strategy, force structure, modernization, infrastructure, and foundations.” [25] Yet in its description of the changing security environment, identification of new threats, and description of U.S. security interests, the BUR differed little from the ideas that underpinned the Base Force. Most subsequent studies of strategy and force structure, including the 2010 QDR, reflect the same ideas.

The BUR added two important sets of metrics to previous DOD assessments of future force structure: a characterization of the operational element phases of an MRC and a definition of the forces necessary to conduct such an operation. The BUR assumed that, by adopting a force posture strategy based on forward engagement rather than forward deployment, the U.S. would be reacting to aggression in conducting MRCs. Therefore, an MRC was defined as consisting of four phases:

  • Halting the invasion,
  • A buildup of forces in concert with actions to reduce enemy strength,
  • Operations to defeat the enemy decisively, and
  • Residual missions to ensure post-conflict stability.

The BUR also defined an MRC “building block” as a force consisting of four to five Army divisions, four to five Marine Expeditionary Brigades (MEBs), 10 fighter wings, 100 heavy bombers, four to five carrier battle groups, and special operations forces. Basically, a two-MRC force structure was twice this number of forces. This force construct also assumed the availability of large numbers of enablers, such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms; tankers and air transports; and well-stocked inventories of all munitions, particularly precision-guided weapons. [26]

Although the BUR endorsed the principle of maintaining a force structure capable of fighting and decisively winning two MRCs, it hedged on the question of simultaneity. In the policy and strategy discussions that preceded the BUR, Secretary Aspin floated the idea of conducting one MRC rapidly and decisively while holding a second aggressor at bay until sufficient forces could be swung from the first contingency to provide the decisive force. This variant of the two-MRC construct made a particular difference in the amount of airlift and sealift and the investments required in critical warfighting enablers. Dubbed “win-hold-win,” this trial balloon rapidly sank.

The two-MRC force structure served as a hedge against strategic surprise. The BUR declared:

[S]izing our forces for two major regional contingencies provides a hedge against the possibility that a future adversary might one day confront us with a larger-than-expected threat and then turn out, through doctrinal or technological innovation, to be more capable than we expected, or enlist the assistance of other nations to form a coalition against our interests. [27]

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Shalikashvili made a similar argument a few years later:

If we were to discard half of this two MRC capability or allow it to decay…it would take many years to rebuild a force of comparable excellence. In today’s turbulent international environment, where the future posture of so many powerful nations remains precarious, we could find ourselves with too little, too late. [28]

Thus, when it was published, the BUR appeared to hold to the two-simultaneous-MRC formula. In truth, the Clinton Administration proposed much less. The U.S. could not address second a MRC simultaneously with the first. It would require drawing extensively on forces deployed for other operations, reserve formations, and elements transitioning from the first to the second contingency. (See Table 1.) As the BUR openly admitted:

[C]ertain specialized high-leverage units or unique assets might be “dual tasked,” that is, used in both MRCs. For example, certain advanced aircraft—such as B-2s, F-117s, and EF-111s—that we have purchased in limited numbers because of their expense would probably need to shift from the first to the second MRC. [29]


In fact, the overall BUR force structure mirrored the force defined as adequate for a win-hold-win strategy. [30]

BUR policymakers stated their aim to accomplish with a smaller force what the Base Force could do only with great difficulty, and placing it near its breaking point—providing a capability to fight two nearly simultaneous major conflicts. Furthermore, this force would also be employed in peace, humanitarian, and other non-warfighting operations to a much greater degree than had been envisioned in the Base Force and was said to require $104 billion less than the Bush baseline had provided for the Base Force. This tenuous balance between strategy, forces, and resources struck in the BUR would set the stage for many of the problems encountered over the years that followed. [31]

The Clinton Administration’s subsequent strategic assessments reaffirmed the BUR’s focus on nearly simultaneous MRCs and the associated force packages. The BUR force construct had been developed rather hastily, without a guiding national security strategy and in response to the need to achieve a peace dividend. Over the next several years, the Clinton Administration put in place a long-term budget projection and a new national security strategy and conducted more detailed force capability analyses. This more deliberate process essentially reconfirmed most of the BUR’s conclusions. The 1996 National Security Strategy of Enlargement and Engagement reaffirmed the BUR force-sizing construct.

To deter aggression, prevent coercion of allied or friendly governments and, ultimately, defeat aggression should it occur, we must prepare our forces to confront this scale of threat, preferably in concert with our allies and friends, but unilaterally if necessary. To do this, we must have forces that can deploy quickly and supplement U.S. forward based and forward deployed forces, along with regional allies, in halting an invasion and defeating the aggressor, just as we demonstrated by our rapid response in October 1994 when Iraq threatened aggression against Kuwait. [32]

In 1997, the first Quadrennial Defense Review sought to meet the missions set out in the National Security Strategy and establish a balance between near-term and far-term risks under the assumption that defense budgets would grow, at best, modestly over the next five to 10 years. It provided the first detailed definition of the size and structure of a two-MRC capability based on detailed analysis and war gaming. The requirement to fight and win MRCs—rebranded as major theater wars (MTWs)—became a basic design condition, although the time lines associated with the two MTWs was again adjusted from “nearly simultaneous” to “overlapping time frames.” The QDR also recognized three critical challenges that could radically alter the ability of the proposed force structure to meet the two-MTW objective: rapidly defeating initial enemy advances short of their objectives in two theaters in close succession, the second following almost immediately after the first; achieving U.S. war aims against an adversary who uses or threatens to use WMDs, information warfare, terrorism, or other asymmetric means; and quickly transitioning from a posture of global engagement to fighting major theater wars. [33] The 1997 QDR concluded that based on extensive analyses:

[A] force of the size and structure close to the current force was necessary to meet the requirement set out in the strategy of being able to win two, nearly simultaneous, major theater wars in concert with regional allies. While slightly smaller forces were capable of prevailing without a significant increase in risk in the base case of the analysis, a larger force was judged necessary to conduct these operations with acceptable risk when either enemy chemical weapons were used or shorter warning times were played. Even with the current force, enemy use of chemical and biological weapons presents U.S. and coalition forces with considerable challenges. [34]

To apportion forces appropriately, the relevant Combatant Commanders based their contingency planning on the assumption that the two concurrent MTWs would develop sequentially. The first or priority MTW would be allocated forces sufficient to conduct decisive operations followed by counterattack operations. Forces sufficient for these two operations would include the “Presidential Selected Reserve Call-up” and “Partial Mobilization Reinforcements.” In the event of a second, concurrent, lesser-priority MTW, the supported theater commander would receive forces sufficient to defend successfully and, where appropriate, engage in limited offensive operations.

A key variable in any judgment of the adequacy of the QDR force structure to meet the demands of two MTWs was the availability of significant mobility forces and prepositioned stocks of materiel and ammunition. With the shift from a strategy based on forward deployment to a strategy that emphasized forward presence and expeditionary forces, a much larger fraction of war equipment and supplies had to be moved to the location of future conflicts. The experience in Desert Shield demonstrated that limits on lift assets and the lack of prepositioned equipment affects the ability to deploy any but light land forces to halt the aggression. To allow for the rapid deployment of heavy forces required increases in both lift capabilities (air and sea) and the prepositioning of large amounts of heavy equipment. [35]

The QDR proposed that the minimum airlift capacity to support the two-war construct was approximately 50 million ton-miles per day with an additional surge sealift capacity of 10 million square feet. The Army needed six brigade sets of prepositioned equipment deployed forward in Europe, Korea, and Southwest Asia with an additional Marine brigade set in Norway. In addition, three Marine Corps Maritime Prepositioning Ship squadrons were to be available along with one heavy brigade set of Army equipment and selected munitions for the Air Force afloat. [36]

Despite prepositioning significant quantities of equipment and war materiel ashore and at sea, there were reasons to believe that the force’s logistical and sustainment capabilities could not meet the demands of two nearly simultaneous MTWs. For example, throughout the 1990s, airlift capacity was well short of what was deemed necessary to fulfill the requirements for two MTWs. Similarly, the quantity of specialized ISR and command and control platforms was insufficient to support both contingencies at the same time. [37]

Desert Storm demonstrated that airpower and precision munitions are integral to the ability of U.S. forces to halt aggression, create the preconditions for the decisive defeat of an adversary, and counter the potential threat posed by WMDs and their long-range delivery systems. However, the QDR’s critics pointed out that the proposed force structure and associated modernization program were inadequate to meet the anticipated requirements imposed on Air Force and Navy elements to achieve and maintain air dominance. Defense planners had failed to consider the implications of the proliferation of advanced surface-to-air defense systems and modern (late 20th-century) fighter aircraft. Significant investments in “fifth-generation” tactical aircraft and advanced air-to-ground weapons would counter this threat. Yet the proposed procurement of the F-22, the high-end tactical fighter designed to counter the emerging threat, was reduced to less than half the number initially planned. [38]

The U.S. Army faced similar problems in the composition of deployable force packages. The Army’s own analysis concluded that it needed 672,000 troops in deployable units (Active and Reserve components combined) to fight two nearly simultaneous MTWs. Although the Army had enough total manpower to conduct the two contingencies, the Army’s structure resulted in too few forces being available in combat support and combat service support units. Some 195,000 in combat forces were required out of 350,000 available, but more than 470,000 were needed in support formations and only 417,000 were available. [39] In addition, a significant portion of the Army’s combat power was resident in the Reserve component. These forces required significant time—in excess of 100 days—to organize, equip, and train. Unless a decision for full mobilization was taken simultaneously with the initial deployment of forces to the first MTW, the result would be a gap of at least three months before the Army had sufficient forces to conduct a second contingency. [40]

The continuing decline in real defense spending posed a larger problem for defense planners seeking to maintain a credible two-MTW capability. By the first QDR, defense spending had declined by 33 percent in real terms and procurement spending had fallen by 60 percent. This caused problems in both modernization programs and overall force readiness. Because of truncated modernization programs, the average age of the military’s equipment pool was increasing, which also increased maintenance costs. Throughout this period, U.S. forces were continually involved in a series of deployments throughout the world. During the 1990s, the DOD was repeatedly required to reprogram significant funds from modernization accounts to operations and support. Even then, a significant gap between available funding and the resources necessary to support steady-state equipping and training persisted. [41]

The combination of shortfalls in modernization funding and growing costs of operations and support increased the overall risk to the entire force, but particularly to the military’s ability to conduct two nearly simultaneous MTWs. While the 1997 QDR concluded that the proposed force was capable of conducting two nearly simultaneous MTWs with only “moderate risk,” other contemporaneous DOD documents characterized the risk as “moderate-to-high” or even “high.” Within a few months of the publication of the QDR, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Hugh Shelton admitted in congressional hearings that “the risks associated with the most demanding scenarios have increased. We now assess the risk factors for fighting and winning the 1st Major Theater War as moderate and for the 2nd MTW as high.” [42]

The National Defense Panel (NDP), an independent parallel study group designed to ensure the “honesty” of the QDR, also recognized the strategy–resource mismatch. The NDP argued that adversaries were unlikely to pose the kind of conventional threat for which the BUR and QDR force postures had been primarily designed. It was even less likely that the United States would face two such threats nearly simultaneously. Moreover, the NDP argued that the two-MTW construct along with the demands for significant forward presence requirements sapped the defense budget of resources needed to invest in transformational capabilities for the future:

The Panel views the two-military-theater-of-war construct as a force-sizing function and not a strategy. We are concerned that this construct may have become a force-protection mechanism—a means of justifying the current force structure—especially for those searching for the certainties of the Cold War era. This could leave the services vulnerable if one of the other major contingencies resolves itself before we have a transformation strategy in place, creating a strong demand for immediate, deep, and unwise cuts in force structure and personnel.

The two-theater construct has been a useful mechanism for determining what forces to retain as the Cold War came to a close. To some degree, it remains a useful mechanism today. But, it is fast becoming an inhibitor to reaching the capabilities we will need in the 2010–2020 time frame.

The issue is not whether the current posture is useful. The real issue is where we are willing to take risk. The current posture minimizes near-term risk at a time when danger is moderate to low. A significant share of the Defense Department’s resources is focused on the unlikely contingency that two major wars will break out at once, putting greater risk on our long-term security. While we cannot identify future threats precisely, we can identify the challenges. Our priority emphasis (including resources) must go to the future. [43]

President George W. Bush came into office determined to reverse more than a decade of declining defense spending and invest in transforming the U.S. military into a 21st-century force. Appearing to echo the NDP’s strategic argument, the new QDR rebalanced military priorities to provide additional attention and more resources to investments in “transformational capabilities.” While still appearing to adhere to the two-MTW strategy, the Bush Administration subtly altered the contingency planning guidance to affect the forces that the Combatant Commanders would need to achieve war aims. According to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:

We decided to move away from the “two major theater war” construct for sizing our forces, an approach that called for maintaining two massive occupation forces capable of marching on and occupying capitals of two aggressors at the same time and changing their regimes. This approach served us well in the immediate post–Cold War period, but it really threatened to leave us reasonably prepared for two specific conflicts and under-prepared for the unexpected contingencies of the 21st century.

To ensure we have the resources to prepare for the future, and to address the emerging challenges to homeland security, we needed a more realistic and balanced assessment of our near-term warfighting needs. Instead of maintaining two occupation forces, we will place greater emphasis on deterrence in four critical theaters, backed by the ability to swiftly defeat two aggressors at the same time, while preserving the option for one massive counter-offensive to occupy an aggressor’s capital and replace the regime. Since neither aggressor would know which the president would choose for a regime change, the deterrent is undiminished. But by removing the requirement to maintain a second occupation force, as we did under the old strategy, we can free up resources for the future and the various lesser contingencies which we face, have faced, are facing and will most certainly face in the period ahead. [44]

The Bush Administration’s first QDR was written in 2001, before the events of 9/11, but published in a slightly modified version soon thereafter. It focused on a broader set of strategic missions than those guided by the BUR and 1997 QDR, including enhanced protection of the U.S. homeland against both state and non-state threats, deterrence in multiple theaters not only of direct aggression but also of investments in disruptive technologies such as ballistic missiles. In addition, the 2001 QDR explicitly abandoned the focus of prior defense planning documents on two canonical MTWs, one in Southwest Asia and the other in Northeast Asia. Instead, the Bush Administration asserted the need to plan to conduct two generic MTWs and a range of other missions against any set of adversaries. [45]

The 2001 QDR proposed that for planning purposes U.S. forces be capable of “swiftly defeating attacks against U.S. allies and friends in any two theaters of operation in overlapping timeframes.” However, the report failed to define “swiftly defeating” and “overlapping timeframes.” U.S. operations in each MTW would emphasize fighting “from a forward deterrent posture with immediately employable forces, including long-range precision strike capabilities from within and beyond the theater, and rapidly deployable maneuver capabilities.” It defined the minimum conditions for a successful outcome in an MTW as the elimination of enemy offensive capability across the depth of its territory, restoration of favorable military conditions in the region, and creation of acceptable political conditions for the cessation of hostilities. In one of these two theaters, the U.S. would deploy additional U.S. forces to allow a decisive defeat of an adversary, which the QDR defined as imposing America’s will and removing any future threat it could pose. This could include the occupation of the adversary’s territory and setting the conditions for regime change. [46]


What is perhaps most interesting is, despite the rhetoric about the need for transformation and the desire not to be trapped into two large land campaigns, how little the 2001 QDR force structure differed from its predecessors going back to the BUR. (See Table 2.) In part, this reflected the impact of increased defense spending by the Bush Administration. It also was a function of the need to maintain significant forward presence in multiple regions of the world.

The 2001 QDR’s statement of objectives in the event of major conflicts did result in substantial changes to the Combatant Commanders’ war plans, termed operational plans. The Combatant Commanders for Southwest Asia and Northeast Asia reportedly revised their contingency operations plans to reflect the requirement to attain the lesser objectives of defeating an adversary’s aggression if that theater became the second major contingency. [47]

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan dominated strategic planning during the remainder of the Bush Administration. The global war on terrorism was the number one priority. The new force-sizing standard proposed in the 2006 QDR to replace it was termed 1–4–2–1. This stood for defending the homeland, deterring hostilities in four areas of the world, defeating two adversaries in nearly simultaneous combat operations, and being able to decisively defeat one of those two adversaries. The QDR retained the yardstick of fighting two MTWs—conventional campaigns—but with modifications. One of the two campaigns could be a protracted stability operation. Both campaigns would require a surge of forces. One of the campaigns would be to remove a hostile regime and destroy its military capacity. [48]

In addition, it placed greater emphasis on “joint capabilities,” primarily aerial platforms and weapons. Although the number of F-22 fighters was capped at 187, the Air Force would increase its long-range strike capabilities by 50 percent and the penetrating component of long-range strike by a factor of five by 2025. Approximately 45 percent of the future long-range strike force would be unmanned. The capacity for joint air forces to conduct global conventional strikes against time-sensitive targets would also be increased. The Navy would build a large fleet with 11 carrier strike groups and modify its Fleet Response Plan to permit an increase in surge capability. [49] These investments were intended to significantly improve the DOD’s portfolio of capabilities to address a range of missions, including but not limited to conventional campaigns against regional adversaries armed with advanced weapons systems.

At the same time, both the 2006 QDR and the 2008 National Military Strategy argued that additional risk could be taken in the conventional force posture and even in some areas of advanced technology in order to harvest the additional resources needed to win the current fights. On a number of occasions, Defense Secretary Robert Gates beyond the official documents to question the likelihood of two major combined arms conflicts:

All told, this year’s National Defense Strategy concluded that although U.S. predominance in conventional warfare is not unchallenged, it is sustainable for the medium term given current trends. It is true that the United States would be hard pressed to fight a major conventional ground war elsewhere on short notice, but as I’ve said before, where on Earth would we do that? We have ample, untapped striking power in our air and sea forces should the need arise to deter or punish aggression—whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf, or across the Taiwan Strait. So while we are knowingly assuming some additional risk in this area, that risk is, I believe, a prudent and manageable one. [50]

In his last major speech to the U.S. Army Corps of Cadets at West Point, Secretary Gates went even farther, questioning the likelihood and wisdom of the U.S. conducting major contingencies in either the Middle East or East Asia. According to Secretary Gates, the Army should not plan on fighting protracted, large-scale counterinsurgency/stability operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq—invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country—may be low.” It also should not plan for a return to the good old days of major force-on-force conventional warfare:

The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions. But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it. [51]

The Obama Administration came into office facing a number of serious challenges: the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the desire to place U.S. foreign and security policies on a new footing, and a deep economic crisis. Secretary Gates developed a plan for acquisition reform that substantially changed the modernization plans that he had approved in the final years of the Bush Administration. In addition to shifting priority and resources to programs to support the current conflicts, Secretary Gates canceled or truncated major modernization programs in all the services, including the Army’s Future Combat System; the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle; the Air Force’s F-22 fighter, Combat Search and Rescue helicopter, and long-range bomber; and the Navy’s new missile cruiser and DDG-1000. [52]

The 2010 QDR was perhaps most noteworthy for its effort to avoid a commitment to the 20-year-old two-major-contingency force-sizing standard. The document explicitly acknowledged that past defense reviews have called for the nation’s armed forces to be able to fight and win two major regional conflicts in overlapping time frames, but the report argued that the nation faced a much wider range of serious security challenges that made the two-war standard no longer a useful metric:

Because America’s adversaries have been adopting a wide range of strategies and capabilities that can be brought to bear against the United States and its forces, allies, and interests, it is no longer appropriate to speak of “major regional conflicts” as the sole or even the primary template for sizing, shaping, and evaluating U.S. forces. Rather, U.S. forces must be prepared to conduct a wide variety of missions under a range of different circumstances. [53]

In truth, the force-sizing construct developed for the 2010 QDR varied rather little from that proposed in 2001 by the Bush Administration. As described by one if its architects, the test of the 2010 QDR force was its ability, inter alia, to meet the following challenges in overlapping time frames:

  • Conducting a large-scale stability operation, such as Operation Iraqi Freedom;
  • Defeating a highly capable state adversary in a distant theater;
  • Supporting civil authorities in response to a catastrophic event in the United States; and
  • Continuing to execute a global campaign against al-Qaeda and its allies. [54]

If anything, the 2010 QDR argued for a force-sizing construct that could be described as two MRCs plus. In addition to responding to multiple large-scale contingencies in geographically distant theaters, the U.S. military also was required to respond to “advanced cyber, nuclear, and antispace situations” and to meet the “increased demands for day-to-day global presence and partner capacity missions over a period of years.” [55]

The 2010 QDR made only marginal additional changes to the force structure inherited from the Bush Administration. It proposed a number of modernization programs to support both the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and to address the growing A2/AD denial threat.

The Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel provided a very different perspective on the two-MTW standard and associated force structure. This bipartisan group criticized the 2010 QDR for failing to define the forces required to meet the two-major-conflict force-sizing standard as well as the absence of any alternative metric for determining the adequacy of the DOD’s basic force posture:

In evaluating the QDR force structure, we were hampered by the lack of a clearly articulated force-planning construct that the military services and Congress can use to measure the adequacy of U.S. forces. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has measured the adequacy of its force posture against the standard of defeating adversaries in two geographically separate theaters nearly simultaneously. Between 1993 and 2006, that requirement evolved from the desire to maintain the capability to defeat two conventionally armed aggressors to the need to conduct a campaign against a conventional adversary while also waging a long-duration irregular warfare campaign and protecting the homeland against attack. The 2010 QDR, however, did not endorse any metric for determining the size and shape of U.S. forces. Rather, it put diverse, overlapping scenarios, including long-duration stability operations and the defense of the homeland, on par with major regional conflicts when assessing the adequacy of U.S. forces. [56]

The panel recommended an alternative force structure that would return the Air Force and Navy to the size proposed by the BUR almost 20 years earlier. In particular, the panel proposed increasing the size of the Navy to 346 ships, including 11 aircraft carriers and 55 attack submarines. The panel proposed an Air Force of 1,200 tactical aircraft, 180 heavy bombers, 32–33 airlift/aerial refueling squadrons with approximately 1,000 airplanes, three command and control wings, and eight space and cyber wings. [57] Perhaps more important, the panel stressed the need for the comprehensive modernization of the force. [ 58]

In less than two years, the Obama Administration was back at the drawing board, seeking to define a new defense strategy and associated force posture based on the 2011 Budget Control Act’s requirement to reduce planned defense spending by nearly $500 billion over 10 years. Somewhat surprisingly, one of the basic assumptions guiding the formulation of the new defense strategy was the need to conduct two major conflicts at the same time. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described the thought process behind the development of the appropriate force structure to support the new defense strategy:

We will have to look at force structure—and the size of the ground forces after Iraq and Afghanistan—recognizing that a smaller, highly capable and ready force is preferable to a larger, hollow force. While some limited reductions can take place, I must be able to maintain a sufficient force to confront the potential of having to fight more than one war. What can be helpful here is maintaining a strong National Guard and Reserve that can help respond to crises. [59]

The new defense strategy drew the greatest public attention for its proposal for a strategic “pivot” to the Asia–Pacific region. Equally significant, however, was the new strategy’s revalidation of the two-major-conflict metric. The Obama Administration had earlier argued that the most likely conflicts confronting the nation involved counterterrorist operations at home and abroad and counterinsurgency campaigns similar to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new defense strategy explicitly downplayed the likelihood of large-scale, protracted stability operations and placed much greater stress on the need to prepare for high-intensity combined arms conflicts with adversaries employing significant A2/AD capabilities. However, it explicitly acknowledged the continuing requirement to be able to engage in two widely separated major conflicts at the same time:

As a nation with important interests in multiple regions, our forces must be capable of deterring and defeating aggression by an opportunistic adversary in one region even when our forces are committed to a large-scale operation elsewhere. Our planning envisages forces that are able to fully deny a capable state’s aggressive objectives in one region by conducting a combined arms campaign across all domains—land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace. This includes being able to secure territory and populations and facilitate a transition to stable governance on a small scale for a limited period using standing forces and, if necessary, for an extended period with mobilized forces. Even when U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of—or imposing unacceptable costs on—an opportunistic aggressor in a second region. [60]

To a significant degree, U.S. defense strategy has come full circle. Over the past 20 years, military leaders sought to match their defense strategies and associated force structures to changing geostrategic circumstances. Successive defense reviews and analyses produced an evolution in strategic thinking away from the Cold War’s theater-spanning, all-arms collision of superpowers to the Base Force and BUR’s smaller versions of Cold War–era conventional conflicts, followed by the late 1990s planning for replays of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, to plans in the Bush and early Obama Administrations to address a much more diverse array of challenges. Each Administration and every major study, review, and strategy document continued to plan for two major operations in overlapping time frames. The 2006 and 2010 QDRs, in particular, reflected the assumption that future regional conflicts would involve a wider range of adversaries than just regional state actors and a broader set of means than classic conventional combined arms forces. Perhaps too heavily influenced by the realities of conducting two large-scale stability operations, the 2005 and 2010 QDRs downplayed the two-major-contingency metric. Future enemies would seek to avoid direct engagement with a U.S. military so demonstrably superior in classic conventional combat and try to exploit weaknesses in U.S. defenses through asymmetric means. Now the focus has returned to major conflicts, albeit with the added challenges of continuing actions against the global terrorist threat and operating in new domains such as cyberspace. [61]

Although no Administration has found a viable alternative to the two-major-conflict metric, this does not mean that any of their proposed force postures were adequate to the task, particularly after factoring in the time dimension. While paying lip service to the two-major-contingencies standard, senior military and civilian leaders including Colin Powell, Hugh Shelton, Donald Rumsfeld, and Robert Gates each warned that the extant force structure was inadequate to meet the demand to conduct two major theater conflicts at the same time. [62] Several reasons lead to this conclusion: reliance on the Reserve Component (particularly the Army National Guard) in a second contingency, a lack of sufficient airlift and sealift, the shortage of high-demand/low-density enablers, and insufficient stocks of ammunition. Thus, the idea of conducting two regional conflicts simultaneously was abandoned in favor of less precise terms, such as overlapping time frames or on short notice. Finally, the notion of deliberately sequenced conflicts was entirely eliminated in favor of the requirement that U.S. forces be capable of responding to a second regional aggression while already engaged in a major theater conflict or substantial stability operation.

Defense planners also changed prospective war outcomes to avoid confronting the reality of force structure shortfalls. Defense plans generated a series of objectives that employed terms such as “swiftly defeat,” “halting aggression,” or “imposing unacceptable costs.” These were treated as distinct and lesser goals than the decisive defeat of an adversary, which involved destruction of his military forces and war-waging industry, occupation of territory, and even regime change. Beginning with the 2001 QDR, plans made an explicit distinction between the objective of defeating aggression and decisively defeating an adversary. As discussed above, the latter goal required significantly enhanced ground forces in order to occupy enemy territory.

A fundamental problem with all of these formulations is their failure to account for the unique characteristics of major conflict in every theater. Southwest Asia is different from Northeast Asia, and Iraq was a different adversary than Iran or North Korea would be. As a result, the planning challenge could not be reduced to the simple binary problem of first versus second major contingency. [63]

It would be reasonable to conclude that since the late 1990s the best that U.S. forces could accomplish if compelled to fight two major contingencies simultaneously would be some variation of Secretary Aspin’s infamous win-hold-win strategy. Even then, it was unclear whether the U.S. force structure was sufficient to achieve a decisive win in the second theater. As Defense Secretary Panetta acknowledged in his statement during the unveiling of the new defense strategy, “There’s no question—there’s no question—that we have to make some trade-offs and that we will be taking, as a result of that, some level of additional but acceptable risk in the budget plan that we release next month.” [64] The Congressional Research Service’s initial assessment of the new defense strategy characterized it as “doing less with less.” The analysis further observed:

Perhaps more accurately, the guidance seems to call for meeting a somewhat different mix of future challenges with a distinctly different mix and application of capabilities. In doing so, the guidance makes significant assumptions about the future global context. It includes willingness to assume some greater risk, without specifying the scope and scale of that risk, to accomplish simultaneous missions. [65]

The current metric of winning one major theater conflict decisively while being able to halt a second conventional aggression may soon be a step too far. Reportedly, the Pentagon is altering its current war plans, increasing the time requirements to deploy forces to either major contingency and placing a greater reliance on allies. [66] Regrettably, it is not clear that U.S. allies will be able to take on the additional burden. The NATO countries are reducing their defense budgets and cutting military capabilities. U.S. allies in Asia are modernizing their military establishments, but only slowly.

A force structure capable of fighting and winning two major theater conflicts will depend heavily on advanced capabilities, particularly air, sea, and space. In fact, each strategic review and every iteration of the national military strategy or defense guidance has emphasized the need to invest more in advanced technologies and critical enablers. Decisions to retire older tactical aircraft, strategic bombers, and surface combatants have been taken based on the assumption that modernization programs would rapidly deliver improved capability. However, investment in such capabilities is lagging, as the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel observed.

Finally, the belief that the United States did not need to plan for a conflict with a peer competitor has been an article of faith for most of the past 20 years. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the maximum challenge the United States faced came from regional adversaries on the scale of Iraq and Afghanistan. The shift in focus on the two MTWs was a method for breaking away from the Cold War paradigm, but in a cautious and sensible manner that did not reject the possibility of significant conventional conflict. Not since the early deliberations leading to the Base Force has U.S. national security planning explicitly considered the possibility of the rise of a peer competitor. [67] The BUR acknowledged the possibility of a greater-than-expected threat against which a two-MRC force structure served as a hedge. However, the 2010 defense guidance also raised the possibility of facing a greater-than-expected threat. As a consequence of this, the new strategy includes a requirement for “reversibility.” [68] It is by no means certain that the current force structure, even if sufficient to prosecute two separate major contingencies at a time, is either adequate or appropriate to meet the challenge of a peer competitor.