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

Section IV: Building a Two-MRC Force for the 21st Century

The only rational argument against the two-war standard is that we cannot meet it—but that is a commentary on the inadequacy of resources, not on the legitimacy of the requirement. [108]

The essential challenge for Cold War force planning was embodied in the title of a book written by two Kennedy-era defense officials. The book became required reading for two generations of would-be defense analysts and academics: How Much is Enough? [109] The question for the post–Cold War era has been the reverse: How much is too little? A related question would be: Too little for what?

The Obama Administration’s new strategic guidance is the first defense plan in two decades that explicitly diverges from the two-MRC standard. Since 2001, DOD force planning efforts have sought to balance the need to meet the two-MRC standard while addressing other demands, such as the global war on terrorism, transformation, and forward presence. The 2010 QDR attempted to finesse the two-MRC standard by proposing to plan against a broader set of scenarios. [110] The new strategic guidance calls for maintaining “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.” Almost as an afterthought, it also states that “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.” In the event that the “one-and-a-half” MRC force structure proves inadequate and sufficient time is available, the guidance requires the DOD to maintain a capability to reverse course and expand the U.S. military in response to an unexpected increase in the size of the threat. [111]

The strategic guidance did not assert that the U.S. military no longer needed to maintain the capability to address two major contingencies at the same time. Nor did it propose a new and innovative approach for solving the problem of an insufficient force structure. Rather, it solved the strategy–force structure problem by a sleight of hand. The guidance simply declared that in the case of the second major contingency it was sufficient simply to halt the aggression.

The new sizing standard is inadequate. In fact, it is not really a sizing standard at all, but rather a way of justifying reductions in the size of the military in the face of a declining defense budget. Some have characterized the new formulation as a one-and-a-half-war standard. Yet the threat of major theater wars in Southwest and Northeast Asia is no less today than it was when the two-major-theater-war standard was articulated some 20 years ago. If anything, the possibility of two major conflicts that overlap in time is increasing. The formulation of the mission for the second conflict as the capability to deny an aggressor’s objectives or impose unacceptable costs is so vague as to be meaningless. The third part of the standard—reversibility and expandability—is also useless without both a defined time line for restoring capability and a sizing standard indicating how many brigades, fighter wings, and naval task forces will be required.

The lack of a clearer, more precise, and usable standard for sizing the U.S. military leaves defense planners in a quandary. Is the one major theater war to take place in the desert, jungles, or mountains? Is it against a nuclear-armed adversary or one with only limited long-range strike capabilities? Will the U.S. have capable allies in theater or not? The two regions of the world of most interest to military planners are quite dissimilar and really require different force structures. Similarly, regarding the second part of the standard, how many fighter wings or strategic bombers are needed to deny an aggressor’s objectives or impose unacceptable costs? One nuclear weapon should do it, but the U.S. is not about to go back to the good old days of the 1950s. Regarding the third element of the sizing standard, without a sense of against whom or when a buildup might be required, it is impossible for the military to judge how much equipment or which people and capabilities should be retained as it downsizes today in order to have the ability to expand in the face of a larger future threat.

The new guidance does permit the DOD to take additional risk by reducing those elements of the force structure that are deemed less necessary. This primarily affects the ground forces—the Army and Marine Corps—because the guidance included no requirement for a counteroffensive in the second contingency, much less the seizure of enemy territory and the overthrow of a hostile regime. However, the one-and-a-half-war strategy has significant implications for the other services. For example, the Air Force concluded that the new guidance meant a reduced requirement for airlift and the ability to take additional risk in the provision of close air support:

As directed by the new strategic guidance, we accepted risk in our Combat Air Forces by retiring or reclassifying aircraft from seven squadrons: five A-10 squadrons, one F-16 squadron, and one training/support coded F-15 Aggressor squadron. Because of the Department’s evolving posture, one of the retiring squadrons is an overseas squadron. We chose to retire more A-10s as a result of guidance to size our forces for one large scale combined arms campaign with sufficient combat power to also deny a second adversary, without conducting a large scale, prolonged stability operation. [112]

It can be argued that the DOD has also sought to maintain the forces to conduct one MRC to conclusion, but saw the requirement to retain forces for a second as interfering with plans to maintain readiness and modernization. Thus, as critics of both the two-MRC standard and successive defense budgets would point out, albeit with entirely different emphases, continuous shortfalls in strategic lift, war reserve stocks, and specialized assets made the threat of a full-fledged second MRC less than totally credible. Some critics went further, arguing that a narrow focus on the requirements to conduct two nearly identical major conflicts came at the expense of efforts to transform the U.S. military. What has always united these camps is that they identified a clear disconnect between strategy, forces, and budgets. [113]

The new guidance would have a sounder footing if it had argued that no two regional crises were alike and that the requirement to conduct a full-scale decisive combined arms campaign in two locations at one time was not only unlikely, but failed to recognize strategic and operational advantages the U.S. might have in one or both of the two regions. The strategic situation on the Korean Peninsula has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, in the event of the renewal of hostilities the United States would clearly have to deploy a large combined arms force both to halt the North’s aggression and to topple the regime in Pyongyang. In such a scenario, the United States would have needed to provide not only a significant, possibly the largest fraction of air and naval forces required, but also significant armored formations, air defense units, and even logistical formations. Twenty years later, the economic, technological, and societal disparity between the North and South has become so profound that it could be argued that South Korea could provide most of the forces for both the halt and counterattack phases of a conflict, aided by some U.S. air and sea formations plus critical enablers. This approach would allow defense planners to argue that the classic MRC force of six to seven Army divisions, 10 Air Force fighter wings, 100 heavy bombers and four to five carriers was still needed to defend the Persian Gulf, but was excessive for a second MRC even in the region where it was most likely to occur. A second, reduced force, heavy on air and naval forces but lighter on ground elements, would be designated not only for a Northeast Asia contingency, but also for any that might occur elsewhere, such as in the Balkans. [114]

Regrettably, the new guidance repeats an old pattern, going back almost to the founding of the two-MRC standard. It defines strategic and force-sizing objectives that it is not prepared to fund. In addition to the capability to fight two major conflicts to a tolerable if not satisfactory conclusion, U.S. forces have been directed to conduct or be prepared for a wide range of other missions. Over the past 20 years, that list has expanded to include a significant commitment to support civil authorities and to develop the capabilities of partner countries. In essence, at the strategic level, the U.S. military is being asked to do more with less.

At this point it is appropriate to ask the fundamental question: Given the 20-year commitment to the capability to “fight and win” two major contingencies at a time, what force structure does the U.S. military require to do so at reasonable risk?

A 21st-century, two-MRC standard must define both the quantity of military forces needed to address the full spectrum of future missions as well as the quality of forces—including advanced platforms and systems, training, and sustainment—necessary to address the proliferation of advanced technology and the prospect of confronting sophisticated A2/AD threats.

The first concrete definition of an MRC-size force was Les Aspin’s proposal of a Desert Storm equivalent. It may be appropriate to update that with an Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) equivalent. Between March 19 and April 18, 2003, the U.S. deployed 467,000 personnel, 30 percent of all active duty personnel. [115] In addition, U.S. allies provided another 43,000 personnel. The U.S. Army deployed more than four divisions, the Marine Corps contributed a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) that was the equivalent of two divisions, and the British Army deployed the equivalent of another heavy armored division for a total of more than seven divisions. The Coalition employed 1,800 aircraft, including more than 700 fighters, 51 bombers, 256 tankers, 132 airlifters, 73 Special Operations Forces aircraft, 118 ISR platforms, and more than 40 C2 aircraft. In addition, U.S. allies provided approximately 136 aircraft of all types. This air armada conducted 41,000 sorties, fired more than 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles, and struck 20,000 targets from a list that grew to 30,500. The U.S. Navy provided five carrier battle groups with one more in transit to the theater, two amphibious ready groups, and two amphibious task forces for a total of more than 70 surface combatants and submarines plus 37 Military Sealift Command ships. The total bandwidth employed in support of Coalition operations was estimated at 785 megabytes or 600 percent more than the pre-OIF level in the Central Command area of responsibility. [116]

It is also important to recognize the difference in the military situation between 1991 and 2003. The Iraqi military in 2003 was a shadow of what it had been in 1990–1991. The Iraqi Air Force was essentially non-existent, and the country’s air defense system had been significantly degraded. Nevertheless, the Coalition force in 2003 was nearly as large as the one that defeated Saddam Hussein in 1991. In several respects, such as the presence of the B-2 stealth bomber, the availability of large stocks of precision weapons, the improvements in digital communications, and the increased numbers of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), it was a much better force.

Other trends and lessons learned are of significance to a discussion of a future force structure. For example, in OIF, bombers accounted for less than 3 percent of the strike sorties, but dropped approximately 28 percent of all munitions. Similarly, the tanker-to-total-sortie ratio in the Second Gulf War was double that of Operation Desert Storm. [117]

As demonstrated by Desert Storm and OIF, the force structure needed to address even a single MRC is substantial. Nevertheless, without even considering evolving threats, one must conclude that based on the experiences of Desert Storm and OIF, a two-MRC force would consist of 10 Army divisions, two or three Marine Expeditionary Forces, 11 aircraft carriers, 120 large surface combatants, 38 large amphibious warfare ships, 200 strategic bombers, 20 tactical fighter wings, 400–500 tankers, 250 airlifters, and some 75 maritime support ships. This force would also require support from civilian air and sealift to sustain two large expeditionary forces. The requirement to perform two such operations in an overlapping time frame, while maintaining other critical deployment and retain a strategic reserve would strain a force of this size and character, perhaps to the breaking point. The availability of forces from coalition partners could make the difference to the ability to achieve the required combat capability for two MRCs.

Moreover, both MRCs would require a significant immediate surge capability. Within 10 days of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. had deployed into the region five fighter squadrons, 14 B-52s, more than 70 aerial tankers, two aircraft carrier battle groups, dozens of airborne warning aircraft, and two battleships. [118] It required approximately 60 days to deploy sufficient forces to theater to have reasonable confidence of being able to halt further Iraqi aggression. This force consisted of more than 400 tactical fighters (approximately six wings), 20 B-52s, 100 refueling tankers, 100 intra-theater transport aircraft, 20 C2 aircraft, dozens of ISR platforms, three Army divisions, two Marine Expeditionary Brigades, three carrier battle groups, 124,000 tons of cargo, and 21,000 tons of bombs and air-delivered ordnance. [119]

The forces deployed to the second MRC, particularly if it occurred without adequate strategic warning, would likely not reflect the optimal distribution of forces, especially in critical enablers. In addition, it is reasonable to consider tailoring each MRC to reflect specific variations in the regional security environment. A future Southwest Asian MRC force would likely resemble that deployed in the past two Persian Gulf conflicts, although it could conceivably have an even heavier land component. Conversely, a Northeast Asia MRC force could be tilted in favor of additional air and sea units with a smaller ground combat component in recognition of the capabilities of the South Korean army. A number of analysts have suggested that an MRC centered on the Taiwan Strait might see an MRC force consisting almost entirely of air and sea-based capabilities.

A 21st-century, two-MRC standard will have some different characteristics than those in the past. The capabilities of potential adversaries are changing as are the weapons systems and technologies deployed by U.S. forces. The 2001, 2006, and 2010 QDRs attempted to address this fact, but failed to make a compelling argument, in part because they juxtaposed the requirements to maintain a two-MRC force structure with the requirements to address other missions and investment objectives, whether in capabilities for other missions or in advanced military technologies. Rather than competing with other strategic objectives, a properly sized and modernized two-MRC force structure would be central to the pursuit of the full range of U.S. defense objectives.

Yet successive defense programs have justified reductions in force structure on the grounds that quantitative improvements in platforms, systems, and manpower allow commanders to do the same or even more with less. This is a consequence of the ongoing revolution in information technology, networking, and precision weapons. [120] In the new guidance and recent remarks, the Administration has made it clear that it prefers small but superb over large and merely capable forces. “We know that the military of the 21st century will be smaller. But even if smaller, it must be supremely capable and effective as a force to deal with a range of security challenges.” [121]

But there is a limit to the ability to substitute quality for quantity, and the U.S. has exceeded that limit. If the force continues to shrink, it can do so only by accepting significant risk. Any future force structure clearly needs both quantity and quality. This is particularly important in view of the continuing requirement for forward presence forces, limited forward deployments, and partnership training activities, etc. The Defense Budget Priorities document that accompanied the new guidance defined the highest priority attribute of the proposed force structure as “adaptable and capable of deterring aggression and providing a stabilizing presence, especially in the highest priority areas and missions in the Asia–Pacific region and the Middle East, while still ensuring our ability to maintain our defense commitments to Europe and other allies and partners.” [122]

Moreover, the United States is no longer clearly capable of maintaining the qualitative technological edge on which it has relied for so long. U.S. airpower forces are emerging from a decade of conflict, battle worn, smaller, and older than when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started. Critical modernization programs, particularly in the Air Force, have been truncated, delayed, or reduced in scope. The result is an airpower force structure, most notably for the Air Force, that is out of balance with respect to future demand:

At the same time, however, the Air Force budget, excluding contingency funding, has been essentially flat since 2004. Since 2001, we have reduced our inventory by over 500 aircraft and have added new missions, while end strength has come down by thousands of Airmen, leaving us next year with the smallest force since our inception in 1947. Meanwhile, the average age of Air Force aircraft has risen dramatically: fighters stand at 22 years; bombers, 35 years; and tankers, 47 years. Now a changing and more complex security environment is emerging against a backdrop of fiscal crisis and diminishing resources, which has driven the need for new strategic guidance. As the Air Force approaches further reductions, our fleets are already smaller and older than at the end of the post–Cold War downsizing. [123]

Although the Pentagon and the three services that will receive the new aircraft have stated repeatedly their full commitment to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) F-35 program, its fate is by no means assured, particularly if defense budgets decline further than currently planned. Critics of the program continue to argue that it does not meet performance standards and is too expensive. [124] Proponents counter that, if anything, the rate of production needs to accelerate to reduce unit costs and meet increased demand for stealth aircraft in the force structure. One former senior defense official described how failure to procure the F-35 would undermine U.S. airpower dominance:

Without substantial numbers of F-35s, the U.S. Air Force could shrink to a marginal fighter force and risk losing future air supremacy. The U.S. Navy will lose “first-day capability” and will be forced to put its expensive carriers in harm’s way. The U.S. Marine Corps will be unable to confidently support its forward deployed forces from amphibious ships. [125]

Some analyses suggest that the resulting force may not be sufficiently robust to assure success in a major conflict even if current modernization plans are fully implemented. [126] Recent studies by the RAND Corporation suggest that, in the event of a major theater war involving China, the U.S. may simply not have enough air assets, regardless of how “superb” they are, to successfully counter the numerical superiority of the PLA Air Force and its capabilities to shut down forward air bases. [127] A recent Air Force exercise would appear to bear out some of the concerns about the ability of U.S. airpower assets to successfully overcome an adversary with well-developed and fully resourced A2/AD capabilities. [128] Finally, one study of the Air Force’s planned future force structure found that it is too focused on today’s threats and lacks the advanced capabilities needed to address the expected A2/AD challenge. [129]

Even holding in abeyance the changes in strategy and force structure proposed by the new guidance and associated Defense Budget Priorities documents, the DOD’s current force structure differs in a number of important respects from the force structure required to meet a two-MRC standard. The primary shortfalls are in tactical aircraft, Navy surface combatants, amphibious warfare ships, and air/sealift and tankers.

Even in the relatively modest air defense environment of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the United States and its allies deployed approximately 10 tactical fighter wings. A more stressing threat might call for deployment of additional tactical fighters or possibly more strategic bombers. Currently, the Air Force maintains 16 tactical fighter wings, leaving a shortfall of four wings based on a two-MRC requirement for 20.

Two MRCs will require deployment of all available carrier battle groups plus amphibious ready groups and maritime task forces. An MRC in the Western Pacific will probably require more surface combatants and sealift than were deployed in OIF. The Navy currently has a fleet of 88 large surface combatants. The required number to support two MRCs is approximately 120, leaving a shortfall of approximately 35.

The Marine Corps’ forcible entry requirement is to simultaneously deploy two Marine Expeditionary Brigades. Each MEB requires 17 amphibious warfare ships. Given historical availability rates, in order to have 34 ships available, 38 are required. The planned size of the amphibious warfare fleet is 33 ships, leaving a shortfall of five. [130]

The total amount of air/sealift and tanker support required to support two MRCs depends on the nature of those conflicts. However, based on the most recent Mobility Capabilities and Requirements Study 2016, there are significant shortfalls in strategic airlift, intra-theater airlift, and air refueling across a number of different scenarios. These include up to 100 large aerial refueling tankers and several dozen roll-on/roll-off ships. [131]

The 2012 Defense Guidance and Budget Priorities document has introduced new shortfalls and exacerbated existing ones. The decision to shift from the semblance of a two-MRC force structure to a one-and-a-half force suggests the opportunity for a significant reduction in ground forces. Already, the Army is cutting its end strength from 570,000 to 490,000, and the Marine Corps is slimming down from 202,000 to as few as 175,000. Army sources have talked about the Army declining to as low as 420,000. The Army is considering cutting the number of Active Component combat brigades from 45 to as few as 32 both to meet a lower end-strength ceiling and in order to add a third maneuver battalion to the remaining brigades. [132]

The other services fare no better. The Navy will suffer a similar slippage in size and capability. The proposed plan would retire seven cruisers early, delay construction of the next large-deck amphibious warfare ship by one year, cancel the second Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) in 2014, delay construction of two smaller amphibious warfare ships, and reduce procurement of littoral combat ships by two and joint high speed vessels by eight. The Air Force has plans to cut six tactical fighter squadrons, retire 27 older C-5As and 65 C-130s, and divest itself of the entire fleet of 38 C-27s. The new strategy also proposes reductions in critical enablers such as the Global Hawk Block 30. [133]

The ability to conduct an MRC depends not only on forces and equipment, but adequate readiness and continuing support and sustainment. First, arriving forces, those intended to halt the aggression, must be at peak readiness and fully supplied. This is a lesson learned the hard way in the first Gulf War:

Time and again, we have learned that our readiness measures are unrealistic or fail to anticipate real-world demands.… The Gulf War, for example, demonstrated all of these problems. In spite of the highest readiness funding in our history, we were not ready to fight when we deployed. We took months to adjust the organization, training, and support structures of our active combat forces, we experienced major problems with some aspects of the call up and training of our reserves, and we literally had to make thousands of modifications to our combat equipment, munitions, support equipment, and battle management and communications systems. Without the months Saddam Hussein gave us, these readiness problems might well have cost us thousands of lives. Few future opponents are likely to give us the most precious gift of modern war: time. [134]

As the report of the Navy/Marine Corps’ Amphibious Capabilities Working Group observed, “Getting there quickly is not enough. In an austere environment, sustainment is the true measure of an ‘expeditionary’ force.” [135] This requires not only sufficient air and sea transport, but large stockpiles of materiel, munitions, foodstuffs, water, and fuel.

Even if the regional security environments had not changed and prospective adversaries were not benefitting from the proliferation of advanced military technologies and developing strategies and forces to conduct A2/AD campaigns, the shortfalls between the projected U.S. force structure and that needed to prosecute two MRCs must be judged to be substantial. However, when the additional challenge of having to conduct not one, but possibly two such operations in an intense A2/AD environment, the strategy–forces mismatch increases dramatically. One analyst described the situation as “Not Your Father’s MCO.” [136]

As discussed above, the key to rapidly projecting power across great distances and conducting sustained operations over a protracted period is the essence of the U.S. defense strategy. Prospective adversaries know this and are taking steps to delay, complicate, and even derail U.S. operations.

Maintaining a force structure sufficient to engage in large-scale, high-intensity combined arms campaigns and the advanced or specialized assets required to assure access to critical domains is essential to deterrence of conflict, much less war waging. One of the premier analysts of the military balances in the Persian Gulf recently commented:

In the real world, the mix of US and Arab Gulf forces, bases, and resources give the US and Arab Gulf states a decisive advantage in virtually every aspect of conventional military competition. However, this same mix of Iranian and Arab Gulf strengths and weakness confronts the US with at least a decade in which it must compete with Iran by maintaining enough conventional forces in the Gulf, and credible surge capabilities, to deter and defend against the full spectrum of the Iranian threats to the Gulf region, including missiles, weapons of mass destruction, asymmetric forces, and conventional forces. [137]

Equally important to U.S. security as having a force structure of sufficient quantity to conduct two MRCs is developing the appropriate capabilities—including operational concepts, tactics, platforms, and weapons systems—to address the hybrid and A2/AD threats. In some scenarios, the objective would be to deploy these capabilities so as to be able to conduct a “traditional” four-phased MRC. In other scenarios, particularly in which friendly territory had not been seized, there might not be a counteroffensive. Moreover, it is possible to see a future in which one possible MRC would involve primarily long-range engagements to control the air, sea, space, and cyberspace domains and to defeat an adversary’s A2/AD forces. In both traditional and A2/AD-dominated MRCs, the primary challenge in the early phases of a conflict is for U.S. forces to rapidly project power into distant regions, negate A2/AD efforts, and halt the aggression.

Earlier arriving or surge forces have the mission of gaining access, even in the face of an A2/AD threat, halting the aggression, and establishing the conditions to support the further buildup of forces. There are reasons to worry that the U.S. does not have a sufficient inventory of advanced stealth platforms (F-22s and B-2s) to achieve these objectives in even one MRC. [138] The introduction of the JSF and the Next Generation Jammer for the F-18G Growler will ameliorate this problem to some degree, but given their range and dependence on a small number of fixed bases or aircraft carriers, this will likely prove insufficient as well.

Much of the recent debates on U.S. force structure and operational concepts have focused on approaches and technologies for dealing with the challenge posed by the proliferation of advanced military capabilities in general and the A2/AD threat in particular. These include the JOAC and Air-Sea Battle. The JOAC seeks to “leverage cross-domain synergy to establish superiority in some combination of domains that will provide the freedom of action required by the mission.” [139] The JOAC proposes a number of “precepts” intended to exploit vulnerabilities or deficiencies in A2/AD forces and operations. These include disruption of the adversary’s C4ISR systems, reduction in the footprint or visibility of U.S. forces and bases, counterfire against critical nodes and systems, greater use of defensive capabilities, and exploiting the capabilities of new domains such as cyberspace. [140]

Air-Sea Battle “mitigates access challenges by moving beyond simply de-conflicting operations in each warfighting domain, toward creating the level of domain integration necessary to defeat increasingly varied and sophisticated threats.” [141]

Using these integrated air and naval forces, the Air-Sea Battle concept executes three main lines of effort:

  • Disrupt an adversary’s command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR)—this reduces the adversary’s ability to find or target us with large raids; they will have to spread out their attacks to all our potential locations.
  • Destroy adversary weapons launch systems—To have sustained access to international seas and skies, we will eventually need to destroy the launchers on land, sea and in the air.
  • Defeat adversary weapons—until we destroy the launchers, our forces will kinetically or non-kinetically prevent the weapons launched at us from getting a hit. [142]

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert argued in a recent article for increased investments in developing advanced payloads to enhance the capability of legacy platforms to counter advanced threats.

A focus on what our platforms carry will be increasingly important as anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threats including new radars and more sophisticated surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles limit the ability of manned platforms to get close to an adversary in wartime. Our Air-Sea Battle Concept, developed with the Marine Corps and the Air Force, describes our response to these growing A2/AD threats. This concept emphasizes the ability of new weapons, sensors, and unmanned systems to expand the reach, capability and persistence of our current manned ships and aircraft. Our focus on payloads also allows more rapid evolution of our capabilities compared to changing the platform itself. [143]

Even as prospective adversaries have “gone to school” on the American way of war, the U.S. can respond in kind by developing and deploying counters to the emerging A2/AD threats. One detailed analysis of the military modernization program suggested a number of new or improved capabilities that would enhance the U.S. ability to counter Chinese anti-access strategies, including the following:

Improved ballistic missile defense (BMD);

A capability to detect, identify, and attack mobile, time-sensitive targets;

  • Improved land-based and advanced shipborne cruise missile defenses;
  • Improved antisubmarine warfare capabilities;
  • Improved minesweeping capabilities;
  • An antisatellite capability, as well as counters to antisatellite attack;
  • An extended-range air defense capability;
  • Counters to long-range surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles; and
  • Early strategic and tactical warning capabilities. [144]

A number of studies have argued for sculpting a portion of the planned force structure specifically to support counter-A2/AD operations in the context of an MRC. One such study proposed an approach for dealing with an Iranian A2/AD threat that centered on “operating from range to reduce the effectiveness of Iran’s A2/AD complex by degrading its ISR capabilities and decreasing the density of its offensive and defensive systems, including ballistic missiles, maritime exclusion capabilities, and air defense network.” Another study made a similar argument vis-à-vis China. In both instances, a counter-A2/AD strategy requires significant additional investments in new or modified capabilities and platforms.

  • Acquisition of a next-generation bomber in large numbers (130+);
  • Acquisition of a family of stealthy, long-range UAVs;
  • Acquisition of an unmanned carrier launch and recovery vehicle (UCLASS) with both ISR and strike capabilities;
  • Acceleration of the F-35 program;
  • Increased war stocks of precision air-delivered weapons;
  • Design and procurement of a new family of long-range cruise missiles and air-to-ground weapons, including a hypersonic missile, for both the Air Force and Navy;
  • Accelerated procurement of the KC-46A tanker;
  • Measures to protect space-based assets; and
  • Expanded missile defense deployments at sea and around large military airfields. [145]

The recent independent study of the U.S. force posture in the Asia–Pacific region by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) proposed an option for specific near-term deployments and investments intended to address capability gaps. The study proposed:

  • Adding a second squadron of three SSNs to the one squadron already deployed at Guam;
  • Adding a second Amphibious Ready Group at Pearl Harbor;
  • Forward-basing a carrier battle group at Perth, Australia;
  • Permanently basing a bomber squadron at Guam;
  • Adding airborne ISR platforms, both manned and unmanned, at Australia or Guam;
  • Adding bomber and tanker dispersal airfields in the Southwest Pacific;
  • Adding THAAD and PAC-3 batteries to Anderson Air Force Base on Guam and Kadena Air Base in Japan and possibly in Korea;
  • Hardening facilities at Kadena and Guam;
  • Adding special operations forces units (air and ground);
  • Increasing stockpiles of ammunition and critical weapons; and
  • Adding prepositioned stockpiles. [146]

In sum, a two-MRC force structure for the 21st century would have the following characteristics:

  • An Army of approximately 600,000 in the Active Component with 10 divisions/45 brigades and a Reserve Component of eight divisions/28 brigades, each with three maneuver battalions.
  • A Marine Corps of 202,000 with the capacity to deploy two full Marine Expeditionary Forces.
  • A Navy of 350 ships, including 11 aircraft carriers with 10 air wings, approximately 120 surface combatants with at least one-third BMD-capable, 38 amphibious warfare ships, 55 SSNs, and 75 support and logistics ships.
  • An Air Force built around 20 tactical fighter wings consisting of a mix of F-22, F-35, and F-15 fighters; 200 bombers consisting of B-1Bs, B-2s, B-52s, and a new platform; 400–500 tankers; 250 airlifters; 150–200 advanced stealth ISR platforms; and approximately 75 manned C2 and ISR platforms.
  • An expanded suite of ballistic missile defenses including 20 Patriot and 10 THAAD battalions and acquisition of sufficient Standard Missile 3s to fully load every Aegis BMD-capable ship.
  • Expanded war stocks sufficient to support the initial phase of both MRCs.
  • A secure and redundant capability to operate in and through space as well as the means to deny adversaries the use of space.

Section V: Costing a Two-MRC Force

The Administration’s proposed fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget is the first to reflect the impact of the new Defense Guidance and Budget Priorities. It proposes a base spending level of $525 billion and a total of $2,728 billion for FY 2013–FY 2017. By comparison, the FY 2012 budget proposed spending $571 billion for FY 2013 and $2,987 billion for FY 2013–FY 2017. The difference is a reduction of $46 billion for FY 2013 and $259 billion for FY 2013–FY 2017. Over the entire period of FY 2012–FY 2021, the Budget Control Act reduces defense spending by $487 billion.

At a minimum, halting the force structure cuts proposed in the Budget Priorities document would require returning to the spending levels proposed in the FY 2012 budget. In addition, $6 billion would need to be added to the FY 2013 budget to compensate for reductions made in the FY 2012 budget due to the assumption that reductions in ground force levels had begun. Moreover, rather than projecting a flat defense spending topline from FY 2013 through FY 2017, future budgets would need to include a nominal growth rate of about 3 percent. This would add approximately another $70 billion on top of the $266 billion ($259 billion plus $7 billion) for a total of $336 billion for FY 2013–FY 2017.

The two-MRC force developed in the preceding section includes specific new or expanded acquisition programs. Not all of these would be realized in FY 2013–FY2017.

However, it is possible to estimate the additional cost of many of these programs:

  • Five additional Patriot battalions and three additional THAAD battalions: $4 billion.
  • 35 additional Navy large surface combatants: $60 billion–70 billion.
  • Five additional large-deck amphibious warfare ships: $10 billion.
  • Four additional F-35 tactical fighter wings (288 aircraft): $20 billion–$28 billion.
  • 130 new strategic bombers: $72 billion.
  • 150 advanced stealthy ISR platforms: $10 billion.
  • Modernization of 70 manned aerial C2 and large ISR platforms: $20 billion.
  • Expanded war stocks: $20 billion.

The total cost of new or expanded programs is $216 billion–$234 billion.

The costs of the various infrastructure improvements proposed by the CSIS for the Asia–Pacific region are difficult to estimate. At one time, DOD planned to spend up to $10 billion to modernize and expand the facilities at Guam. Home-porting an aircraft carrier in Australia would probably cost around $1 billion. Other measures, such as surveying additional airfields, would be inexpensive. Overall, the cost of these measures would probably not exceed $15 billion. A similar program to improve infrastructure security and increase the prepositioning of equipment and materiel in the Middle East/Persian Gulf region would probably cost no more than $10 billion.

Thus, building a reasonable two-MRC force for the 21st century over the next decade would cost $70 billion per year more than the Administration proposed for its defense program.

Section VI: Conclusions

Since the end of the Cold War, the basic metric for judging the adequacy of the U.S. military has been its ability to fight in two geographically separated regions of the world at approximately the same time. Referred to at different times as Major Regional Contingencies, Major Theater Wars, or multiple large-scale operations, the two-war standard has stood the test of time because it reflects a basic strategic reality—one expressed well by the 2012 new strategic guidance for the Department of Defense: “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.” [147]

Moreover, at times the United States has found it prudent, even necessary to build up its forces in two different parts of the world in order to deter possible aggression. In 1994, the Clinton Administration faced a crisis on the Korean Peninsula resulting from Pyongyang’s violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In response to heightened tensions in Northeast Asia, the United States began to move additional forces to the region. At about the same time, Saddam Hussein, under U.N. sanctions and no-fly zones imposed since soon after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, began to move portions of his army from central Iraq southward in what could have been preparations for another attack on Kuwait. Again, the U.S. deployed an array of forces to that region. Secretary of Defense Perry later credited the maintenance of a two-MRC military for Washington’s ability to deter conflict in both regions simultaneously.

Successive Administrations since the end of the Cold War have found the image of a two-MRC capability to be a useful deterrent, a reassurance to friends and allies, and a force large enough to actively address a wide range of security activities. Even if two specific threats cannot be clearly adumbrated, the two-MRC construct provides a useful guide for the development of future forces. Despite efforts to walk away from the standard, it remains.

It is painfully obvious that the two-war standard survived because—only because—no credible alternative existed. Planners could not shake the specter that a President, saddled with a one-war force, might be self-deterred in a crisis.… Equally obvious, the concept has shielded the military, to some degree, from tempting but unwise cuts in forces and programs. [148]

The two-MRC force-sizing standard supports the maintenance of a relatively robust and flexible military, one appropriate to the range of challenges and missions that it routinely confronts without being optimized for any of them. Additionally, taken as a whole, the two-MRC force provides a base of capabilities on which to build the military might needed to address the threat of a peer competitor if one emerges. As such, the ways various Administrations have sought to meet this force-sizing standard, like the making of sausage, cannot bear intense scrutiny.

The Desert Storm equivalent as the foundation of an MRC force has served defense planners well for some 20 years. However, it may be time to consider a different definition for the set of capabilities needed to conduct an MRC in the future. In particular, U.S. defense planners need to adjust for the proliferation of advanced military hardware and adversaries’ development of operational concepts designed specifically to undermine the ability of U.S. forces to gain and maintain access in contested domains. A senior DOD official described the new strategic challenge in this way:

I would argue today that we’re on the threshold of the post post–Cold War era. The defining feature of the post–Cold War era was that the United States, when push came to shove, could soundly, resolutely decisively defeat any of its state adversaries. We got very good at it, and our forces are very well suited to it. Unfortunately, our adversaries didn’t like it.… We’ve shaped the environment, but not in entirely desired or anticipated ways. Our superiority in the conventional realm has driven adversaries to innovate in ways that are making life very difficult for us. [149]

As part of its new strategy, the Obama Administration announced a “strategic pivot” to the Asia–Pacific region, which would require shifting forces from other parts of the world to that region. China is pursuing a massive military buildup that includes aircraft carriers, stealth fighters, and anti-ship ballistic missiles. Recently, Beijing has been using some of its newly acquired military muscle to assert control over disputed portions of the South China Sea. The U.S. plans to balance China’s military buildup by deploying to the Pacific the first units equipped with advanced platforms and systems, such as the F-35, P-8, and Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) unmanned aerial vehicle.

With the strategic pivot already underway, the growing crisis over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program has required the deployment of additional U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf. Over the past several months, the Pentagon has deployed to the region F-22 stealth fighters, minesweeping vessels, helicopters, and an amphibious assault ship reconfigured as an “afloat forward staging base.” Most recently, the Navy announced the early deployment of the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf. The Stennis and its escorts had just returned to its home port in Bremerton, Washington, in March after a long Middle East deployment. The rapid turnaround of the Stennis battle group comes at a high price because its ships and planes will not receive all of the required maintenance and the crews will have had only a few months at home.

The truth is that while U.S. defense policy has always advocated being able to fight two wars at the same time, successive Administrations have never provided sufficient resources to ensure a force structure of the requisite size and capability to achieve such a goal except at extremely high risk. It was possible to maintain this little charade in the past because the U.S. military was relatively modern as a result of the Reagan buildup and because potential adversaries were rather weak. Neither of these conditions holds true today. Moreover, further defense budget cuts as a consequence of sequestration will require reductions in force structure and modernization programs that virtually guarantee the United States will no longer be able to deploy credible military forces to two regions at the same time. The new Administration will face a difficult choice: increasing defense spending to ensure that the military can support our national security strategy or turning one important region of the world over to the tender mercies of authoritarian and even fundamentalist theocratic states.

The key to success in one, much less two, MRCs is the power and reach of early arriving forces. These forces do not have to win in the first days, weeks, or months. But they must be of sufficient quantity and have absolute technological superiority in order to accomplish three missions:

  • Gaining access to the region of interest even in the face of intense A2/AD opposition,
  • Engaging the adversary’s forces to halt the aggression, and
  • Holding at risk high-value targets, which if destroyed or disrupted would impose high costs on the enemy and/or create the preconditions for a counteroffensive.

There remains one additional challenge: how to conduct MRCs in the shadow of nuclear weapons. The new Russian national security strategy envisions the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield as a means of forcing an end to hostilities if Moscow finds itself on the losing end of an MRC. It seems reasonable to assume that other nuclear-armed states could employ their weapons to achieve the same end. Thus, as it pursues innovative approaches for dealing with the A2/AD challenge, U.S. defense planners may be creating the conditions for escalation to the first use of nuclear weapons.

-Daniel Goure, Ph.D., is a Vice President at the Lexington Institute.

Glossary of Abbreviations and Terms

amphibious ready group a U.S. amphibious task force consisting of one Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and supporting naval vessels (usually three ships) that can land the MEU by air and sea while providing limited air support and sea control.
A2 anti-access
A2/AD anti-access/area denial
AD area denial
Air-Sea Battle the current U.S. battle plan for projecting power into contested areas by integrating Navy and Air Force capabilities across all warfighting domains. It is particularly designed to counter China’s A2/AD efforts.
ATGM anti-tank guided missile
MANPADS man-portable air defense system
BMD ballistic missile defense
BUR Bottom-Up Review
C2 command and control
C4ISR command, control, communications, computers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance
CSIS Center for Strategic and International Studies
DOD U.S. Department of Defense
ISR intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance
JOAC Joint Operational Access Concept
JSF F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
JSTAR Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System
MCO major combat operation
MEB Marine Expeditionary Brigade
MRC major regional conflict
MTW major theater war
NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization
NBC nuclear, biological, and chemical
NDP National Defense Panel
OEF Operation Enduring Freedom
OIF Operation Iraqi Freedom
PAC Patriot Advanced Capability
PLA People’s Liberation Army of the People’s Republic of China
QDR Quadrennial Defense Review
SSN nuclear-powered attack submarine
THAAD Terminal (formerly Theater) High-Altitude Area Defense missile system
UAV unmanned aerial vehicle
WMD weapon of mass destruction