One of the innovations in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) much lauded in the media is the abandonment of the so-called two major regional conflicts or wars standard. This was the central metric by which the force structure was sized and the dominant challenge by which the adequacy of that force was judged. With the fall of the Soviet Union, then Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell devised the two war standard. Based on the experience in the 1991 Gulf War, the first Bush Administration concluded that it was important to have sufficient forces both to fight one major conflict in one region and at the same time deter a similar conflict in another theater. At the time, it was believed that the United States faced the credible possibility of having to fight near-simultaneous major regional conflicts in both Northeast and Southwest Asia. Under the two war construct, other missions were considered lesser included cases to be handled by forces not committed to regional conflicts or deterrence operations or part of the rotational base.
The new QDR does away with the two war standard. The rationale given for this change is that the U.S. is challenged by a range of threats far different from major regional conflicts but in aggregate equal (or even exceeding) them in terms of their demand on U.S. and allied forces. The QDR states that “the Armed Forces of the United States must be capable of conducting a wide range of operations, from homeland defense and defense support to civil authorities, to deterrence and preparedness missions, to the conflicts we are in and the wars we may someday face.” The QDR provides an exemplary set of scenarios that variously combine conventional wars with stabilization operations (e.g., Iraq), humanitarian missions and responses to a natural or man-made disaster in the United States.
It is interesting that one combination of scenarios employed to assess the conclusions of the QDR involves deterring and defeating two regional aggressors while maintaining a heightened alert posture for U.S. forces in and around the United States. This combination sounds very much like the old two war concept. In fact, it smacks very much of the old Northeast and Southwest Asia paradigm but this time involving Iran. What is of concern is the statement that “this scenario combination particularly stressed the force’s combined arms capacity.”
In fairness to the writers of the QDR (including the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who by all reports had a major hand in shaping the document) they did not so much abandon the two war force sizing paradigm as expand beyond it. It appears that what Secretary Gates wanted to ensure was the ability of the U.S. military to respond better to a wider range of contingencies. As the QDR rightly notes, the wars we fight are seldom the wars for which we have planned. In addition, there are a variety of prospective missions such as protracted stability operations or support to civil authorities that could impose major demands on force structure, possibly for a protracted period of time.
In its efforts to be more realistic, the QDR has actually created major problems for the armed forces. First, by continuing to require the ability to fight two wars but not making it the prime planning scenario the QDR by its own admission places our ability to prevail in such an eventuality at risk. Second, by treating all scenarios like Lego pieces to be mixed and matched, the QDR places the investment requirements for all its scenarios of concern from major wars, through stability operations and humanitarian efforts to working with other militaries on an equal footing in terms of their claims on defense budget dollars. Third, the QDR formulation complicates the ability to judge the readiness and effectiveness of the force. As the QDR notes in discussing its decision to focus on meeting a range of challenges, “ensuring flexibility of the whole force does not require that each part of the force do everything equally well.” Does this mean that the readiness of units will have multiple scores, one for each type of mission? What about readiness based on the combination of missions in the various illustrative scenarios?
The two war standard has the virtues of clarity, simplicity and even according to the new QDR, plausibility. It also accepts the strategic reality that deterring and, if necessary, defeating major regional aggression is the single most important job for the military. Finally, such a standard places a limit on what is now a seemingly boundless need for U.S. forces and foreign involvement. The definition of what constitutes a war certainly can be adjusted to reflect current realities as can the duration of such a conflict. But a two war standard still appears to make a lot of sense.
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