How much conventional military power, of what kind and for what purposes does the United States need? National leaders and military planners have been struggling to answer these questions ever since the end of World War Two. Following the Cold War, the basic metric for judging the adequacy of the U.S. military has been its ability to fight a serious conventional combined arms conflict against significant opponents in two geographically separated regions of the world at approximately the same time. This has been referred to at different times as Major Regional Contingencies (MRC), 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 well expressed by the 2012 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.” The current international security environment provides multiple examples of the continuing wisdom of this perspective.
Each administration has put its own spin on the two MRC standard. That is the problem. It is impossible to compare the adequacy of the U.S. military to meet national security demands over time because the goal posts keep moving. Initially, back in the 1990s, the requirement was to fight and win two conflicts similar in size and complexity to Desert Storm, the war that the U.S. and its coalition allies had fought against Iraq. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review continued the two MRC strategic theme but significantly modified the definition of the type of conflicts for which the U.S. military should be prepared. Gone was the requirement for a protracted, large-scale stability operation; another Iraq or Afghanistan. The military still has to fight two conflicts but only one of these is a full-out conventional war. In the other conflict the U.S. military’s objective would be limited to “denying the objectives of – or imposing unacceptable costs on – a second aggressor.” In theory, because this second conflict would be based on more limited objectives than those pursued in the first, it would require fewer forces and would last for a shorter period of time. Of course, much depends on the order in which the two conflicts occur, the size and capability of the opposing militaries, the presence of allies and location.
Now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, has added a new twist to this discussion. He has proposed a strategic concept that he calls “two, two, two, one.” I will let him explain it.
Here’s my elevator speech about strategy. Two, two, two, one: Two heavyweights will influence our future strategy, Russia and China. Two middleweights, North Korea and Iran. Two networks, al-Qaida and transnational organized crime from our southern hemisphere. And one – domain – cyber. And those things have influenced, are influencing me today and will influence you in the future. One of them or more.
Mapping the two MRC requirements against the two, two, two, one strategic concept raises some interesting questions about the adequacy of the U.S. military. Is the Pentagon capable of fighting two near simultaneous regional conflicts against both Russia and China? Dempsey makes it clear he does not think that war with either nation is likely, particularly if the U.S. and its regional allies maintain the means to deter them. But to deter, U.S. forces must be able to pose a credible threat at least to Russia and China’s war aims or what they value. Is the U.S. military postured to fight two middleweight powers? Since, as General Dempsey says, these two states are less predictable and more roguish, don’t we have to plan to defeat both of them in detail, including changing their regimes? Is a force structure able to defeat in detail one or both middleweight powers essentially adequate to achieve denial/cost imposition against Russia or China?
One approach to force sizing for two MRCs that would also match General Dempsey’s strategy would be to consider a conflict with a middleweight power as the full-out conventional conflict and a face-off with Russia or China as requiring the abilities to deny their objectives and/or impose unacceptable costs. In other words, a war with Russia would be a limited one, which seems reasonable considering the large nuclear arsenals that both nations possess.
The remaining challenges are not lesser included cases but distinct problems that require to a large extent specialized assets and operations. We have learned at great expense and heartache the difficulty of employing conventional forces to defeat terrorist networks. If cyber is a domain, then from an operational perspective it can be subsumed under the other six although it might, in the future constitute the sole locus of conflict.
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