October 1, 2009  

A clear and present danger

QDR must recognize need for two-war construct

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates completes the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), senior officials have indicated he will officially abandon the force planning construct used in some variation for roughly the last 20 years. Specifically, his strategy will likely drop the requirement that America’s military be sized and shaped to fight two major regional conflicts nearly simultaneously.

The QDR establishes a 20-year defense program that is clear, consistent and responsive to the needs of America’s foreign policy as set forth in the incumbent White House’s central foreign policy document: the National Security Strategy. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has not issued this key vision yet. In other words, the new administration has shown no sign of abandoning the global commitments its predecessors made but is about to radically change, and probably reduce, the force planning construct for keeping those commitments. The obvious intent is to use the QDR to justify funding and force structure cuts for budgetary rather than security reasons.

There is an air of unreality about the whole process, particularly because the last three administrations systematically underfunded America’s armed forces while increasing their deployments and missions abroad. As a result, the military is too small and is forced to use equipment that is too old. Consistent with ongoing obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military cannot fight one regional contingency like Desert Storm, much less two. If expectations are correct, the administration will attempt to justify cutting budgets that are already too low by reducing the force to a level that is wholly inconsistent with America’s security commitments.


There are basic guidelines planners should follow in structuring an honest QDR. First, the National Security Strategy follows from the nation’s vital interests rather than the other way around. America’s military power should match the commitments America’s military is expected to keep, which in turn are dictated by how American political leaders, over time, define the vital interests of the U.S.

In this respect, it is important to understand the global role America has played since World War II. America was never an isolationist power; however, for its first 150 years, U.S. leaders were content to play a predominant role in the Western Hemisphere while allowing European powers to take the lead in global affairs. That regional policy was continued even after World War I ended the era of European dominance. Unfortunately, the approach proved unsuccessful in the interwar years and resulted in a second world war, the death of tens of millions of people, severe economic and political instability in Europe, and the rise of a totalitarian Soviet Union. Given the advent of nuclear weapons, it was clear that a third world war would threaten the existence of humankind.

Under those circumstances, America’s leaders decided the U.S. had to play a more comprehensive and active role globally with a view toward anticipating and managing risk to protect freedom while preventing another general war. That has been America’s strategic mission since 1945. While the collapse of Soviet power was an operational success, it did not change America’s strategic leadership role. In fact, the U.S. has been more active in world affairs since the fall of the Berlin Wall than before.

Moreover, as the rise of information technology has made the U.S. dependent on globally integrated and vulnerable networks in the areas of finance, energy and communications, there have been fewer areas of the world America could safely ignore. For example, both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton would have preferred if the U.S. had played a subordinate role in the Bosnian conflict. That proved impossible, however, as genocide in the Balkans threatened the stability of Europe, America’s relationship with the Muslim world and the credibility of American leadership. As a result, any definition of America’s vital interests must minimally include the following:

å Defending against and deterring strategic attacks on the U.S., including its people, territory, institutions and infrastructure.

å Protecting Americans against threats to their lives and well-being, short of strategic attacks.

å Containing and defeating terrorism as a form of warfare.

å Preventing the rise of a dominant hostile power in East Asia, Europe or the Persian Gulf.

å Preserving U.S. security interests in the Western Hemisphere.

å Maintaining access to foreign trade.

å Retaining unencumbered access to resources.

Many Americans across the political spectrum are uncomfortable with the primary role the nation continues to play in world affairs. Yet no president of either political party has backed away from America’s global leadership role — a bipartisan consensus that remains strong evidence that American leadership is still necessary to protect the nation’s vital interests. As long as America undertakes to comprehensively manage the progress of the international order toward peace and freedom, the nation’s leaders must sustain the power necessary to accomplish that mission.

Second, the QDR must take into account the full spectrum of risks, including those perceived as being less than immediate. The reason is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, in war it is necessary to take into account the enemy. Potential enemies are more likely to attack the U.S. at precisely the point where they believe America is least prepared.

This axiom is especially relevant today. The U.S. is heavily occupied with counterinsurgency operations overseas. It is tempting simply to assume away other risks by banking on the assumption that no other nation will attempt to challenge the U.S. using traditional forms of military power. That assumption is unjustifiable in view of the demonstrably growing power of China and the fact that Russia invaded one of its neighbors less than a year ago. But the danger that political leaders will indulge in that assumption is great because the risk of traditional aggression is likely to be realized, if at all, at a time when they are no longer in office.

Those who think this danger unfeasible should recall the lessons of history. In 1993, Congress and the Clinton administration cut the size of the force, including the Army, by more than one-third, believing that, in the post Cold War world, it would be unnecessary to put large numbers of boots on the ground. Less than a decade later, the nation was involved in two substantial ground wars, which continue to strain the resources of the Army. Two years ago, Gates authorized a permanent increase in Army end strength. The expense of reconstituting the Army, together with the human and monetary cost over the last 15 years of an overworked force, is far greater than it would have been to simply maintain the Army at adequate levels in the first place.

Today’s planners are claiming — with the same level of certainty with which they argued the opposite proposition in 1993 — that the military should focus on ground forces, and that traditional air and naval assets are likely to be redundant. The truth is that America continues to face myriad risks and should sustain a similarly broad set of capabilities to confront them.

Finally, in determining the necessary military force structure, the U.S. should not only prepare for the full spectrum of risk but should maintain a substantial, rather than narrow, margin of safety and technological superiority. It would be foolish to deliberately seek to have “just enough” of any important capability. Planning is never perfect, and the cost of being too strong is far less than the cost of weakness. If, for example, the U.S. buys marginally more lift than needed today, the downside is having assets that were paid for but never used. But if America has less lift than it needs tomorrow, the cost is measured in terms of higher casualties, protracted engagements and, possibly, the sacrifice of a vital interest.

The mission of the military is not just to fight, but also to deter conflict. America won Operation Desert Storm decisively because it was able to bring not just sufficient strength but overwhelming power to bear. Clear victory in that conflict is one reason why no other country has since chosen to engage in direct high-intensity conflict with the U.S. Similarly, a missile attack is less likely if America’s missile defense system is fully deployed; the Chinese are less likely to use aggressive means to reunify with Taiwan if there is no question that America’s naval and air assets can protect the island; and Russia will be less adventurous in the former Soviet republics if its leaders feel NATO is more than prepared for any contingency.


At the end of the Cold War, the first Bush administration’s military framework sought to move from one conditioned over four decades for deterring and defeating Soviet aggression on a global scale. In 1992, the Defense Planning Guidance laid out America’s core interests as the prevention of the rise of a rival power, the defense of vital national interests and resources in differing regions, and the principle of unilateral action. Following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the rubric sought continued American military preponderance as a guarantor of national and world security through a minimum contingent called the “Base Force” that allowed for a reduction by a full one-quarter in overall military strength and halved the number of American soldiers in Europe.

In 1993, Clinton’s defense secretary, Les Aspin, ran the “Bottom-Up Review” that created the simultaneous two major regional contingencies standard for military readiness. The major regional contingency, premised on the recent experience in Iraq and with an eye on North Korea, focused on America’s capability to aid an outnumbered ally beset by an armored attack from a numerically superior force. Also core to the review was the assumption that the U.S. military would remain highly active overseas in a diverse array of peace operations, and this could be achieved without diminishing war-fighting capabilities. Ultimately, the review was regarded as a failure and, according to Aspin’s own testimony at the time, underfunded the force by $13 billion to $31 billion.

In 1996, Defense Secretary William Cohen generated the first QDR, to assess the threats, risks and opportunities for U.S. national security. This strategy had three themes: to prevent or reduce armed conflict to promote regional stability; to ensure rapid response for “fighting and winning two major theater wars” and “concurrent smaller-scale contingency operations”; and to prepare “to discourage prospective rivals from embarking in military competition” with the U.S.

The Rumsfeld 2001 QDR maintained that “U.S. forces will remain capable of swiftly defeating attacks against U.S. allies and friends in any two theaters of operation in overlapping time frames.” This mainstay of past defense reviews was sustained as part of a new 1-4-2-1 posture, which included provisions for defending the homeland, extending deterrence in four different regions all at once, “swiftly defeating aggressors” in any two regions simultaneously, and allowing for “decisive success” in one of the aforementioned four regions.

The past decade of fighting two wars has again introduced new objectives to the military. The 2006 QDR states the U.S. is “engaged in what will be a long war” with the “struggle centered in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The review also stipulates that while the U.S. must maintain its conventional warfare capabilities, forces must “be improved to address the nontraditional, asymmetric challenges” of the new century, specifically irregular warfare, catastrophic terrorism and “disruptive threats.” While the 2001 construct was dropped, the strategy retained a variant of the two-war requirement.

Previous strategies of the last two decades have incorporated two major contingencies into planning and the development of requirements due to common sense. The U.S. fought a high-intensity conflict in the Middle East in 1990, had to be prepared to fight such a conflict in 2003, and maintains forces permanently in Europe and South Korea because all agree they are necessary as a deterrent against such a conflict. If a deterrent presence is necessary, then a fortiori there is a cognizable risk. If no risk was present, the U.S. would abandon its commitments there. If planners do identify a risk requiring deterrence, then they have to assume there is a risk cognizable for purposes of a QDR. And if there are at least three places U.S. forces may have to conduct major combat operations, then there is obviously a possibility of two occurring in reasonably close proximity.


There is no sign of any fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. Rather, it is more likely the nation will ask the military to do even more over the next 20 years than today. Every category of risk facing the U.S. is demonstrably growing and has grown considerably since the two-war construct was first devised in the early 1990s — before the war on terrorism, before North Korea developed nuclear weapons, before Iran launched its nuclear program, before the dangers of cyber attack and bioattack were recognized, and at a time when Russia and China were weaker militarily. If the two-war construct was necessary then, two-wars-plus is needed now.

Yet a brief analysis of U.S. security and force commitments since the end of the Cold War shows that the military’s resources are strained. America’s military is approximately half as big as it was during Desert Storm. The active-duty Army has about 550,000 troops and will grow only marginally if the current expansion becomes permanent. Meanwhile, the Army has more than 255,000 soldiers, 5,000 civilians and 33,000 contractors forward deployed in almost 60 countries throughout Europe, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq and South Korea, in addition to maintaining a forward presence in other Middle Eastern states, the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, the Philippines and South and Latin America. The number of troops in Iraq may go down over the next several years; the number in Afghanistan will very likely go up.

There are more than 23,000 Marines and 11,000 sailors stationed abroad, with more than 12,000 sailors at sea. In 2007, five carrier strike groups and five expeditionary strike groups deployed in support of Iraq and Afghanistan operations. Throughout 2007, the Marine Corps provided three embarked Marine expeditionary units forward positioned in all geographic commands. U.S. forces are operating in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean with a carrier battle group, nearly 1,000 uniformed personnel are in Cuba, U.S. Africa Command has nearly 2,000 personnel on hand and European Command has more than 40,000 soldiers and the 3rd Air Force in Germany. There are 325,000 military and civilian personnel operating in the Pacific region, and the U.S. is moving 8,000 forces to Guam.

The U.S. maintains about 40,000 American forces in Japan, with roughly two-thirds of those stationed in Okinawa. The U.S. 8th Army (more than 17,000) and the 7th Air Force (almost 8,000) are headquartered in South Korea. In March, the House of Representatives approved legislation reaffirming its unwavering commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act, which lays out the U.S.’s specific defense commitments to Taiwan. The U.S. 7th Fleet out of Yokosuka acts as the guarantor of America’s commitment to Taiwan.

The Air Force maintains 129 active wings, of which 58 are manned aircraft, nine are space and 62 are nonflying. Since its peak of 2.3 million personnel during World War II, the Air Force has been dramatically reduced from approximately 530,000 in 1990 to 330,000 in 2009. The Navy operates 285 ships with a goal of 313, yet is on a glide path to becoming a 220-ship Navy given current investments.

Policymakers must understand that only a fraction of America’s military may be actively engaged at any time. The rough rule of thumb — what planners call the “tooth-to-tail” ratio — is 3-to-1 for sizing. For every soldier on the ground, plane in the air or ship at sea, one is typically returning from deployment and going into maintenance or down time, and a third is used for testing or training. Service members cannot fight or patrol all the time or everywhere at once, and the equipment they rely on has to be maintained. Therefore, America has approximately one-third of its existing force structure available for deployment and combat.

Clearly, the current force is wholly inadequate for the demands the nation places upon the military. As long as the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue at anything like their current levels, it is fantasy to believe that the U.S. could fight even one Desert Storm; it is an open question whether our military could do so even if those operations were ended. And they will not end anytime soon; neither will the other aspects of the global war on terrorism. Even the administration concedes that it must prepare for substantial counterinsurgency operations for years to come. The current missions consume virtually the entire active Army and sizable parts of the rest of the force, and they are independent of the ongoing threats that America and its allies face in Eastern Europe, Korea and the straits of Taiwan. The two-war construct may be dated, but only because it understates, not overstates, the actual requirements of America’s military.

An honest QDR would take into account the reality that the full scope of counterinsurgency current missions will be necessary for some time. It would also prescribe a force more than minimally sufficient to defeat asymmetric attacks by terrorists; deter conflict in Eastern Europe, Korea and the Western Pacific; and perform numerous other global missions to which America is committed, such as guarding against piracy, supporting the war on drugs and sustaining a visible presence in support of American diplomacy and interests. That dictates a national security apparatus with robust counterinsurgency capability, an Army capable of Desert Storm-like operations as well as fighting terrorists, a powerful and technologically superior Navy and Air Force, a multilayered missile defense system, hardened information technology infrastructure, and well-funded and organized public health resources.

America today is far from having such capabilities, at least with the necessary margin of predominance. But the QDR could be the foundation for moving in the right direction and gradually building to the needed level of strength if it resulted in a robust investment in equipment for the future as well as recapitalization of legacy fleets. America cannot continue with both an undersized force and an aging and unreliable inventory of ships, planes, tanks and vehicles. The QDR should declare today’s force as the baseline, establish a floor beneath any further reductions, and honestly set forth the need for modernization and recapitalization.

Since the end of the Cold War, America’s defense planners have simply assumed the government could not or would not fund the military adequately. As a result, they have forced everyone under their authority to fight over shrinking resources rather than openly challenge the defense budget top line. However, the last six months have changed the terms of the debate. During that time, Congress passed a series of measures that will increase the deficit by $4 trillion over two years and $10 trillion over 10 years. For less than 5 percent of that additional borrowing, the government could have recapitalized the military and fully prepared for every category of risk, but none of the money went to increase the budget for military modernization or procurement.

Under the circumstances, the defense community should ask some basic questions about this QDR: How could Congress spend $800 billion on a stimulus bill without investing any in the defense industrial base? Why, in a time of war, is the nondefense discretionary budget increasing by 11 percent per year while the military modernization budget is being cut? And how could the government double the budget of the Energy Department while terminating the F-22 fighter line, allowing the number of ships in the Navy to continue to shrink and cutting the missile defense program?

America has lived through, and enjoyed the benefits of, an era of general peace and prosperity where freedom has flourished. The foundation of that era was the decisive predominance of American power, beginning with military strength. The sacrifice necessary to sustain that power is modest, and the risks of failing to do so are enormous. What America needs now from the Pentagon are those qualities always expected from servicemen and women: an honest assessment of the situation, a forthright and realistic plan of action, and confidence that whatever needs to be done can be done.

In other words, what America needs from its leaders is leadership — a rare commodity in Washington, but not too much to ask for when the stakes are so high. AFJ

MACKENZIE EAGLEN is a senior policy analyst for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

JIM TALENT is a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.