Shadow Government

Why we need to move beyond the “Two War” doctrine

My colleagues have offered good criticisms of the defense budget and strategy unveiled by President Obama and Secretary Panetta last week. Let me add to the chorus with two more points. First, the defense strategy is an explicit and unfortunate rejection of parts of the Quadrennial Defense Review completed less than two years ago by ...

Lucas Jackson-Pool/Getty Images
Lucas Jackson-Pool/Getty Images

My colleagues have offered good criticisms of the defense budget and strategy unveiled by President Obama and Secretary Panetta last week. Let me add to the chorus with two more points.

First, the defense strategy is an explicit and unfortunate rejection of parts of the Quadrennial Defense Review completed less than two years ago by former Undersecretary Michelle Flournoy. The QDR rightly, repeatedly, and explicitly argued that the United States needs to retain a large-scale stability operations capability. "The United States must retain the capability to conduct large-scale counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations" (emphasis added). "DoD will continue to place special emphasis on stability operations," because stability missions will be a permanent requirement of the 21st century environment. "Stability operations, large-scale counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism operations are not niche challenges…Nor are these types of operations a transitory or anomalous phenomenon in the security landscape." That is why "U.S. military forces must plan and prepare to prevail in a broad range of operations…Such operations include…conducting large-scale stability operations."

The new defense strategy, by contrast, openly admits that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations."

The abandonment of a decade’s worth of investment and grinding experience in stability operations is a dangerous risk that willfully ignores the realities of the contemporary security environment. Weak and failing states, and the rogue actors who operate within them, represent a real threat to regional and global stability. In response, the  U.S. and UN have launched more than two dozen stabilization and reconstruction efforts between them since the Cold War — averaging about one per year — and there is no sign that demand for such operations is easing. We have gradually and painfully improved our ability to execute such missions, and they are a real contribution to U.S. national security. Cutting back on stability operations now will throw away our hard-fought gains and expose us to new risks from across the globalizing, fragile world.

My second criticism of the new defense strategy, and some responses to it, is that it is still captive to the decades-old debate about how many wars we need to fight simultaneously. Since World War II, U.S. military planners have argued that we need to fight two major theater wars at the same time. The two-war doctrine has become something like Holy Writ or an idée fixe. The idea was somewhat well-founded during the Cold War when we plausibly could have faced simultaneous crises in, for example, Germany and Korea, or Germany and Cuba.

However, holding onto this idea for the last twenty years has looked increasingly disconnected from reality. Obama’s new strategy goes through contortions to claim that we will, sort of, maybe, continue to be able to almost fight and nearly win two wars at the same time. But it fails, like every defense strategy has for two decades, to explain why this precise formulation is worth defending.

In fact the two-war strategy is the textbook definition of fighting the last war: rather, fighting three or four wars ago. World War II was precisely the contingency during which we were compelled to fight two major theater wars at the same time. Ever since we won that war, we’ve been unable to free ourselves from the intellectual construct of preparing to fight it all over again. It is always tempting to relive your glory days.

Today’s security environment is dramatically different. First, we face the possibility major conventional military crises in not two theaters, but five, as the number of nuclear-armed authoritarian powers hostile to the United States grows each decade. Second, in addition to however many conventional wars we might have to fight, we need to prepare against the aforementioned threats from failed states and rogue actors. In other words, "war" is not a monolithic unit against which we can raise a predetermined number of troops.

The answer is not to concoct a five-war strategy. In the face of this security environment, preparing to fight a set number of conventional wars at the same time (Two? One-and-a-half?) simply misses the point. The best response I’ve seen yet is Michael O’Hanlon’s insightful recommendation to adopt a "one plus two" strategy: that is, one major war and up to two contingencies or stability operations. I’d probably differ with O’Hanlon on the numbers (we might need "two plus two"), or even add another tier to make a "one plus one plus two" — meaning one major land-based conventional war, one major air or littoral action, and two stability operations. But the point is that our defense strategy should be framed around the actual threats we face and the actual capabilities we need, rather than a template slapped down from 1942.

In the end, I expect that regardless of the rhetoric, what the U.S. will end up doing, no matter who is president, is this: we’ll reduce our standing, peace-time overseas presence in Europe and East Asia, and cut the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps. We’ll slow down the pace of technological innovation and weapons procurement. But we’ll keep the forward deployed equipment and bases, overseas infrastructure, and training capacity to rapidly raise and deploy a major land army anywhere in the world. We’ll also keep air force and navy pretty much as is, since they are harder to recreate rapidly. That will enable us to continue to meet our current obligations around the world, or at least claim to, at the price of higher risk and bloodier wars. That’s basically the Obama strategy. If conservatives are serious about offering a critique of it, we need to come up with a compelling alternative.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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