Oops!: Maybe the Two-War Standard Made Sense After All

Mackubin T. Owens

January 1, 2003

The United States finds itself on the horns of a dilemma, twitted by North Korea as U.S. military forces are deploying in preparation for a possible war against Iraq. This was not supposed to happen: only a few years ago, sophisticated defense analysts were arguing that the United States was entering a period of "strategic pause" during which it would face only relatively minor security challenges. This gave the United States an unprecedented opportunity to "transform" its military from an industrial age force to an information age force.

But to do this without increasing the defense budget required the military to give up force structure, reducing Cold War "legacy" weapons systems in the short run in order to fund a future force that exploited the emerging "revolution in military affairs" (RMA). The main obstacle to this outcome, went the argument, was the requirement to maintain a force structure capable of prevailing in "two nearly simultaneous major theater wars," the so-called "two major theater war" (2 MTW) force-planning metric.

This argument gained prominence in 1997 with the report of the congressionally mandated National Defense Panel (NDP). This organization was chartered by the same law that required the Pentagon to provide a Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Its purpose was to "check the Pentagon’s homework," by critiquing the QDR. The NDP criticized the first QDR in 1997 for a number of reasons, including the charge that the 2-MTW standard represented a vestige of "Cold War thinking" and was therefore an obstacle to transformation.

Now there is no question that the 2 MTW standard had evolved into a bureaucratic tool for maintaining service and combatant commander’s claims to the defense budget and for protecting favored programs. It had therefore become, as a number of defense intellectuals claimed, a substitute for strategic thinking. And there were plenty of other problems with the 2 MTW standard during the Clinton years. It reflected a strategy-force mismatch, that is, the force was not really capable of meeting the requirement to fight two nearly simultaneous wars. It also reflected a force-budget mismatch: The defense budget was not sufficient to maintain and modernize even this force.

But the 2-MTW standard did attempt to answer the question, "how much is enough?" This is one of two questions force planners must answer. The first is what capabilities do we need to fulfill the requirements of our strategy, in light of the security environment? This is the logic of the "capabilities-based" approach to force planning adopted by the 2001 QDR.

But to be of any use in the real world, a strategy must be implemented in time and space. Force planners are not dealing with abstract notions, but with real requirements associated with real geographic areas and problems that have the potential to affect adversely U.S. interests. This leads to the second question. How much of a force of what makeup is required to execute war plans in the real world? The most-common approach to establishing a force-sizing metric is to use theater-war scenarios, supplemented by the likely requirements for smaller scale contingencies.

Defenders of the 2-MTW standard claimed that the central reason for maintaining the metric or something like it was its role in deterrence. They argued that the 2 MTW standard was necessary to deter an enemy in one part of the world from taking advantage of a major U.S. commitment somewhere else. As Frederick Kagan wrote in his critique of the NDP in the December 15, 1997 Weekly Standard, a one-MTW capability is really a no-MTW capability. "Presidents cannot be expected to deploy so high a proportion of our armed forces to one conflict that they are left with nothing in case trouble arises elsewhere."

But following the lead of the NDP, advocates of transformation, joined by those who simply wanted to cut defense spending, assured U.S. that the risk of such an outcome was low. The NDP view became the Pentagon’s view in the 2001 QDR, which dropped the 2-MTW force-planning metric and enshrined transformation as the Pentagon’s overarching goal.

The problem that we face today is not the result of the emphasis on transformation, which is necessary if the United States is to be prepared for the likely emergence of a competitor in the future, but the attempt to achieve transformation "on the cheap." Two administrations essentially bet the farm based on the assumption, or hope, that the sort of situation we now face in Iraq and North Korea would not occur.

This approach was on display during the Clinton administration, which paid lip service to readiness and transformation while under funding both. Unfortunately, it has continued under the Bush administration. Until 9/11, OMB refused to provide money to fund both current readiness and transformation, forcing Pentagon planners to choose between them. Most of the increase in defense spending since 9/11 has gone to the war on terrorism and to pay for personnel costs. It has not for the most part gone to increase U.S. capabilities.

Now it cannot be denied that the U.S. military is far more capable now than it was only a decade ago when it routed Iraq in the one-sided Gulf War of 1991. The networking of forces is close to enabling military units from all services to share a common operational picture. This means that missions can be planned and executed in a fraction of the time that it took during Desert Storm and even the more recent action in Kosovo. The accuracy of U.S. weapons has improved by magnitudes. This means that a smaller force can achieve a favorable outcome.

But while quality matters, it is still necessary to provide the U.S. military with enough of what they need to execute their missions. The best military aircraft in the world can only be in one place at a time.

Because of cuts in force structure and the "procurement holiday" that occurred during the Clinton years, the U.S. military is stretched thin. This is especially the case with so called "high-demand, low density" (HD/LD) platforms: aerial refueling aircraft; strategic lift — both air- and sea-lift assets; surveillance aircraft (AWACS and Joint STARS); unmanned aerial vehicles such as Predator and Global Hawk; and the star of the war in Afghanistan — Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), an inexpensive guidance kit that, when attached to a conventional "iron bomb," turns it into an all-weather precision-guided weapon.

The current dilemma illustrates the importance of hedging when it comes to force planning. Force planning is an inter-temporal art, which means that planners must ensure that today’s operational and strategic demands are being met while preparing for a future that may resemble the present or differ from it in unexpected ways. But this hedging takes money, money that has not been available.

If the administration is serious about transforming the military while deterring or defeating adversaries today, it can only do so by increasing the defense budget. Currently, the United States spends just around three percent of GDP on defense. It needs to be about 4.5 percent. If it doesn’t something is gong to have to give. Either transformation will go by the wayside or we will be subject to blackmail by the likes of North Korea and other rogue states.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.