How much should the U.S. military cost? Obviously there are a number of factors that go into such an assessment such as wages and benefits, sophistication of equipment, activity rates, etc. But the size of the military tends to be the single most important determinant of cost. So, once you decide the size of the military — the number of people in uniform and the quantity of ships, planes, tanks and such, you can pretty much determine what the costs should be.
Size, in turn, can be determined in two ways. A strategy-driven answer is that the military should be as big as necessary in order to successfully accomplish the missions assigned to it. The resource-driven answer is that the military should be as big as we can afford. The real world solution has always been somewhere in between the two answers. The U.S. military has never been as large or as well-equipped as a purely strategy-driven solution would dictate. However, as the past decade demonstrates, when the threat is sufficiently serious, we find the money and increase the size and capability of the armed forces.
Historically, the U.S. government has used sizing standards to establish both a target for military planners and acquisition officials and as a way of addressing the issue of cost. The standards were defined in terms of the prospective opponents, the scale of the conflict and the ultimate objectives. At the height of the Cold War, the United States had a two-and-a-half war strategy — major, simultaneous wars against the Soviet Union and China plus another significant conflict involving a state such as North Korea. Following the Sino-Soviet split and the U.S. opening to China, the Nixon Administration changed the sizing criteria to a one-and-a-half war strategy that planned for a major war with the Soviet Union plus a second, possibly related, conflict in the Persian Gulf or on the Korean peninsula. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the standard morphed again to a two major theater war strategy. The expectation at the time was that one of the two major theater conflicts would be in Southwest Asia and the other in Northeast Asia. Neither of these theater wars would be as large as the hypothetical major conflict with the Soviet Union. Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom are examples of conflicts that could be labeled as major theater wars.
What is the sizing standard today for the U.S. military? According to the new defense strategy, it comes in three parts. The first is “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.” But there is also acknowledgement that the U.S. might be confronted by unavoidable aggression in another part of the world even as it is committed to a large-scale operation — a theater war — elsewhere. Hence, the new strategy declares 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.” The final part of the sizing standard is the capability to reverse course and expand the U.S. military in response to an unexpected increase in the size of the threat.
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. But, 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 twenty years ago. If anything, the possibility of two major conflicts that overlap in time is increasing right now. 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 timeline for restoring capability and also a sizing standard as in 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 we 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 we are 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 Pentagon planners might respond with the argument, expressed in the new defense strategy, that uncertainty about the state of the world precludes their being more precise with respect to a force sizing standard. This would be a copout answer. In the near-term, we have a pretty clear picture of who are our likely adversaries, how they will fight and what will deter or defeat them. For the longer-term the Pentagon needs to define both the size and character of a war with a peer power as well as the amount of warning time that will be available. With this information, the military can plan the current drawdown properly.
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