The Two War Construct: Myths, Realities and Questions
Posted by Bill R. French
"Ever since FDR we've had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once and [President Obama] said no, we're going to cut that back to only one conflict,"
Here, Romney is referring to the ‘two war force sizing construct,’ a requirement that Pentagon planners have historically used to design the U.S. armed forces to conduct two major conflicts simultaneously (well, sort of -- read on). While the issue may appear obscure, it’s in fact quite significant. Such concepts set the bar for the capabilities that the total force is intended to posses by imagining some overall set of missions or abilities that force should be able to undertake. This in turn helps to guide allocating resources. In this way, the concepts used for force planning, of which those directed at the overall size of the force are a prominent example, are among the principal factors that help the DoD determine what it needs and what to do with what it has.
Students of history, for example, will recognize that Great Britain’s famous “Two-Power Standard” played a prominent role in maintaining the British Empire. According to that force-sizing construct, the Royal Navy maintained a fleet as large as its nearest two competitors combined.
Given their significance, Romney is thus correct if he wants to insist that topline planning constructs ought to have a prominent place in a serious, deep debate over defense policy. And so, in a very real sense, his comment does begin to contribute. But before explaining that contribution, there is a more pressing factual matter at hand, namely that the Obama administration has not proposed jettisoning the two war requirement at all.
“…the strategic guidance calls for a fresh approach to the traditional “two war” sizing construct that had shaped defense planning since the end of the Cold War. If we are engaged in a major combat operation in one theater, we will have the force necessary to confront an additional aggressor by denying its objectives or imposing unacceptable costs.”
As a simple factual matter, then, Romney’s inaccuracy is clear. His campaign may counter, however, that by reducing the ‘second war’ portion of the two war requirement to denying an adversary’s objectives – i.e., non-jingoistic code for winning a war – that the Obama Administration has reduced the construct to a ‘one and a half war’ requirement.
But this would be wrong for two reasons.
First, the document explains its rationale, which is worth considering:
“This evolution not only recognizes the changing nature of the conflicts in which the U.S. must prevail, but it also leverages new concepts of operation enabled by advances in space, cyberspace, special operations, precision--‐ strike, and other capabilities.”
That is, military advancements justify concieving of the ‘second war’ requirement in terms of a denying action, something that can be accomplished without the robust forces that may have been required a decade ago. Once denial is accomplished, and once the first conflict is made manageable, further action can be taken in the second conflict if necessary. Further, because of the “changing nature of the conflicts in which the U.S. must prevail” are increasingly higher numbers of less intensive campaigns like those underway in Yemen, the need to maintain capabilities for these conflicts (which are not included in the standard as it refers to major wars) increase while the need to maintain capabilities for major conventional conflicts is lessened slightly.
Yet, two wars are still two wars regardless of how smart or efficiently the second one is waged -- denial or otherwise.
Second, treating the second war as a denying action is entirely consistent with how the two war requirement has been practiced in the past. For example, as a result of a 1993 DoD bottom-up review, it became U.S. policy to be able to "first halt and then defeat" two simultaneous major conflicts. In other words, making use of denying an adversary in preparation for a follow on campaign is deeply imbedded in the two war requirement itself.
Moreover, it’s a bit of a misnomer to claim the two war requirement has been in place since FDR – Romney’s selected starting point. At some points, the requirement has been more. The Kennedy Administration, for example, upheld a ‘two and a half’ war requirement. At other points, the requirement has been less, like the explicitly ‘one and a half’ requirement during the 1970s.
Yet, as mentioned, Romney’s comment does really begin to contribute. By bringing the technical but important considerations of force planning and sizing constructs into the debate, we are invited to think about the real history of America’s two war standard and how it is -- and how it could be further -- innovated in order to reshape the Pentagon to meet emerging challenges. Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, that history does not involve Obama’s administration deviating from that standard.
Most importantly, by opening the door to these considerations, a more important question is implied: what standard do we need going forward? Is a two war requirement necessary? How can these requirements be implemented for efficiently?
Important questions to be sure.