Monday, March 16, 2009

Uh Oh, Here Comes the Ten Year Rule

We are rethinking our "two war" strategy:

The protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are forcing the Obama administration to rethink what for more than two decades has been a central premise of American strategy: that the nation need only prepare to fight two major wars at a time. ...

Among other questions are the extent to which planning for conflicts should focus primarily on counterinsurgency wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what focus remains on well-equipped conventional adversaries like China and Iran, with which Navy vessels have clashed at sea.

We don't have a two-war strategy. We have a two-war goal. This goal stems from our World War II experience where we fought two wars at once (versus Germany and Japan) while fighting a smaller ("half war") war against Italy. We carried this over into the Cold War when the two and a half war plan assumed two wars (Russia and China) and a half war (Korea).

As our relative power declined and China flipped to siding with us against Russia, we reduced our goal to one and a half wars (Russia and Korea). At our darkest moments of relative power, we only claimed one-plus wars--the ability to fight Russia or Korea plus a minor armed contingency elsewhere.

In the post-Cold War era, with reduced strength, we planned to fight two of those half wars (called "major theater wars" among other terms) nearly simultaneously. Most civilians discussing our strategy left off that important qualifier.

As I noted in a paper the Institute of Land Warfare published over a decade ago, the two-war Army is not really a two-war Army. The reason is that our plan has always been to have a military able to fight two major theater wars (Iraq or Korea) nearly simultaneously.

That is, if we were to find ourselves in two wars at once, in the high priority theater we'd hold the enemy, reinforce, and then counter-attack to achieve victory. Meanwhile in the lower priority war we'd hold until we won the high priority war. This is the problem with the two-war assumption:

... by the same reasoning that says we can currently fight two MTWs nearly simultaneously, we could just as easily assert an ability to fight 100 MTWs nearly sequentially. Like our Cold War standards of fighting "two and a half," one and a half" or "one plus" wars, our two-MTW strategy is more a goal than a concrete reality.

And when you consider that our two-MTW strategy assumed no lengthy fight that would require a large rotation base to avoid stressing the Army, you can see that the idea that we would spend the money to have an Army big enough to fight two Iraqs with sufficient forces to rotate troops with one year in combat and two years at home, we could be looking at 90 or more brigades on the active duty force (twice our planned force structure in the next few years).

Look, we could fight, with some risk because of "high-demand, low-density" assets (we need them everywhere but don't have enough for everywhere), three conventional ground wars with air and naval support, a few naval wars with minimal ground support, and a couple pure air wars, all at the same time (and I'm pulling numbers out of a hat for the most part to illustrate the point--don't hold me to these numbers). That does not mean we have an eight-war military.

My worry with these sorts of exercises is that they become an exercise in cutting our military. Somebody comes up with assumptions about who we'd have to fight and then tailors our military down to capabilities deemed needed to fight those wars. Remember, on September 11, 2001, we had a "two-war strategy" and it was barely enough--without fully mobilizing for the duration and expanding our military early--to fight a long ground war in Iraq with a smaller effort in Afghanistan.

Will we institute a ten-year rule that says we only need to face insurgencies and naval scenarios, and that no conventional land foe is on the horizon that we need to prepare for in the next decade?

If we weren't borrowing other people's money at heart-stopping rates to spend on God knows what, I wouldn't worry as much. But for people who know nothing about the military and warfare, our military budget seems like a large pot of money better spent on domestic spending sprees.