Since it came into office, the Obama Administration has done its best to do away with the central premise of U.S. defense strategy and force sizing: the requirement to be able to fight two conventional wars in different parts of the world at about the same time. First, the administration decided that it would no longer size U.S. ground forces for long-term, large-scale stability operations, in other words a repeat of Iraq and Afghanistan. In and out is the new plan, regardless of what kind of mess we leave behind. Then, there was the decision to downsize our response to a second contingency. According to the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, in the event of war, “U.S. forces will be capable of defeating a regional adversary in a large-scale multi-phased campaign, and denying the objectives of – or imposing unacceptable costs on – a second aggressor in another region.” By the way, at the same time, U.S. forces must be able to defend the homeland and conduct counter-terrorism operations in multiple locations around the world.
There was a time, after the destruction of the Iraqi military in 2003, when this one-and-a-half war strategy might have been acceptable. The only remaining plausible regional adversary was North Korea. Relations with Russia were stable, indeed even good following the reset. Iran appeared isolated in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. could even propose the so-called pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. Things seemed to be moving in the right direct for U.S. and Western security.
But no longer. The U.S. now faces the prospect of multiple confrontations with numerous regional adversaries. Russia has invaded the Crimea. North Korea is firing artillery salvoes into the South. The People’s Republic of China is asserting control over much of the airspace and sea lanes of the East and South China Seas. Al Qaeda affiliates are proliferating in Africa. Iran has yet to agree to useful and verifiable limits on its nuclear weapons program. The United States could find itself having to fight on not just two but three fronts.
In addition, as defense officials acknowledge, the technology advantages on which the U.S. military depended for its war-winning edge are eroding. Even as Russia, China and their clients were deploying more capable air defense systems, the U.S. halted production of the F-22 and delayed development of the F-35. Plans to replace the 50-year-old B-52s were pushed farther into the future. China has deployed the first of a planned series of aircraft carriers while the U.S. Congress debates whether to refuel the USS Washington. Even as our potential adversaries deploy more and better strike aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles, the Pentagon has been forced to cut procurement of the Standard Missile interceptors and cancel entirely new buys of the Tomahawk cruise missile.
No longer can the United States rely on quality to overcome an adversary’s quantitative superiority. In many areas where the U.S. once held a decisive advantage, such as anti-submarine warfare and multi-brigade conventional maneuver warfare, a lack of tracking and investment dollars has eroded our erstwhile edge. In addition, the U.S. lacks the requisite inventory of munitions and numbers of enablers needed to ensure success even in the one-and-a-half wars scenario.
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