One War, Two Wars …
An interesting recent development: The Pentagon can’t seem to decide how many wars it’s preparing to fight.
First the Defense Policy Guidance comes out, and seems to offer a pretty unequivocal statement on the matter. “Our planning,” the document said,
envisages 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. This includes being able to secure territory and populations and facilitate a transition to stable governance on a small scale for a limited period using standing forces and, if necessary, for an extended period with mobilized forces. 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.
So there you have it: Win one, hold one. So you naturally get press reports saying things like, Obama administration ending two war strategy. One particular Times story put it this way: Under the new defense plan, the military would not “be able to carry out two sustained ground wars at one time, as was required under past national military strategies. Instead, the military would be required to fight and win one war, spoil the military aspirations of another adversary in a different region of the world, and all the while be able to conduct humanitarian relief operations and other contingencies, like continuing counterterrorism missions and enforcing a no-fly zone.”
But not so fast. Perhaps after an oh, damn politico-strategic moment, “officials” rushed out to tell other news organizations that they were “unlikely” to drop the two war strategy. “Make no mistake,” intoned Secretary of Defense Panetta, “we will have the capability to confront and defeat more than one adversary at a time.”
Which is interesting, because that’s not what the Defense Guidance says. It says confront and defeat one, and “deny the objectives” of another; which is I guess a form of defeating. (Come to think of it, it’s essentially the definition of victory we’re pursuing in Afghanistan today.)
But of course all of this is just noise. Anyone who has been exposed to these force planning exercises knows the hocus-pocus that goes on behind the screen. The end product is a few slides bleeding color and splattered with sophisticated-seeming symbols and figures; but the analysis crouching behind all that Powerpoint mumbo-jumbo is just elaborated, jargonized, dressed-up guesswork.
Quick: What US force levels would be required to “fight and win” a Korean contingency today? Could we do it with two carriers and four brigades and three air wings? Yeah, probably; a lot more messy than if we had a lot more. After all, the ROK has a vast military, Japan could maybe chip in, Australia would rush forth with its frigates and FA-18s and Special Air Service tough-guys and general bad attitude, and so forth. But critically: What are our assumptions about how long the war would last, the loyalty of the North Korean military, the stance of China, and so forth? What about North Korean nukes? How would we fight the war—would we drive up the peninsula in a huge tank armada, or sit back and let the North implode?
In other words: A hundred variables, assumptions, and factors drive force requirements for any given contingency. Planning constructs just pick a bunch of them, declare winners, and end up with a number that planners will swear is objective but which is, in fact, largely arbitrary.
Take Iraq. The original plan bequeathed to the Bush administration and Tommy Franks’s CENTCOM called for up to 400,000 troops, give or take. Rumsfeld questioned and challenged and bullied them down to just over a third that number. Some thought we could do it with as little as 60,000. Ultimately we had a peak of close to 170,000 US forces on the ground, plus over 40,000 Brits and a few thousand others, which almost no one thought was sufficient but which was enough to do what we did, which was as much as we decided to do. So what should a one, two or more-war planning construct have assumed?
All of this uncertainty is partly grounded in not knowing what sort of wars we’ll be fighting. If we “go to war” in Yemen, but do it with drones and SOF, how does that count? Of course the Defense Guidance and Panetta are talking about the old-style MRC—Major Regional Contingency: Fighting off a regional aggressor like Iran or North Korea, or going in to wage a COIN campaign. Even there, however, we have a lot of ways to go after Iran; there’s no way to know in advance that we’ll do it with X carriers, Y air wings and Z brigades. Yet we insist on going through these subjective exercises to size our force structure as if there is “a” number, or range of numbers, to unearth.
This analytically bankrupt process is also dangerous. If we cling to these force sizing constructs as budgets and forces shrink, estimates of numbers of wars we’ll be able to tackle will continue to shrivel. Presumably it’ll never get below one, but there’s no reason to broadcast artificial limits to our capabilities. In point of fact, depending on the means and context, we could fight several wars at the same time; it all depends on how we go about things, who we’re fighting with, and much else.
Any alternative to the quantified wars standard, of course, will involve nearly as much subjective guesswork. But at least it might free defense planning from the straight jacket of regional contingencies to find a potentially more reasonable force sizing level. And it would surely end the annual charade of planning processes and risk assessments based on a collective charade.