Drop the 'two-war' plan

As defense strategists at the Pentagon carry out their review of how to make roughly $400 billion in cuts over 10 years, and Congress considers the possibility of reductions twice as large as required by the supercommittee's failure to reach agreement, one clear change in policy is appropriate: It is time to drop the longstanding assumption that U.S. ground forces must be capable of fighting two overlapping regional wars. Rather, ground-force planners should adopt a "1+2" framework, planning for one major war together with two smaller (but perhaps longer) multinational stabilization missions.

This is not a prescription for savaging the U.S. Army and Marine Corps or eliminating the nation's capacity to carry out counterinsurgency operations altogether. No such decisions would be prudent given a now nuclear-armed North Korea, a Middle East in tumult, a Kashmir capable of igniting all-out India-Pakistan war, or an American military still focused on the important and ongoing Afghanistan mission. But it is an appropriate change in light of budgetary and economic challenges, together with happier developments: the demise of Saddam Hussein, the growing strength of the South Korean military and the ongoing conventional military weakness of Iran for classic ground operations. It might lead to savings of up to $150 billion over a decade, making major headway toward the $400 billion goal (but hardly toward the nearly trillion-dollar figure that some in Congress are considering).

During the Cold War, defense planners continuously assumed the need to prepare for a possible major war against the Warsaw Pact plus at least one other conflict. After the Cold War, the big scenario went away, and U.S. ground forces were sized and shaped primarily to maintain what was called a two-regional-war capability. The wars were assumed to begin in fairly rapid succession (though not exactly simultaneously), and then overlap, lasting several months to perhaps a year or two. Three administrations and five defense secretaries, starting with President George H.W. Bush and defense chief Dick Cheney, endorsed some variant of it. And to some extent, they were all vindicated in recent years as the nation fought two overlapping regional conflicts, even if one of them was in Richard Haass's memorable phrase a "war of choice," and even if the wars went on far longer than standard planning scenarios assumed.

To date, the Obama administration has stuck with such thinking. Its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report states that, after successfully concluding current wars, "In the mid- to long term, U.S. military forces must plan and prepare to prevail in a broad range of operations that may occur in multiple theaters in overlapping time frames. This includes maintaining the ability to prevail against two capable nation-state aggressors." And this fall, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta repeated this planning assumption.

But a two-land-war capability is no longer appropriate for the age of austerity. A "1+2" framework for sizing ground combat forces is a better way today. It is prudent because it assumes that ground war is not obsolete however much we might like to think so given national fatigue over the Iraq and Afghanistan missions. It also provides some additional capability if and when the nation again engages in a major conflict, providing a combat cushion should that war go less well than initially hoped. Yet it is also modest, economical and cognizant of today's economic challenges to American power, because it assumes only one such conflict at a time and does not envision major ground wars against the world's major overseas powers on their territories.

Specifically, if there ever was conflict pitting the United States against China or Iran, it is reasonable to assume that the fighting would be in maritime and coastal regions. That is because the most plausible threat that China would pose is to Taiwan, or perhaps to neighboring states over disputed sea and seabed resources; and because the most plausible crisis involving Iran would relate either to its nuclear program or to its machinations in and about the Persian Gulf waterways. It is reasonable for the United States to have the capability for just one ground war at a time as long as it can respond in other ways to other, possibly simultaneous and overlapping, challenges abroad — primarily challenges for naval, air, intelligence and special forces capabilities rather than main ground combat units.

This proposal should not lead to a drastically smaller ground force. Having the capacity to wage one major regional war with some added degree of insurance should things go wrong, while sustaining two protracted if smaller deployments, is only modestly less demanding than fighting two regional wars at once. Unfortunately, in today's world, prudence would not permit an even less demanding strategic construct or an even smaller force.

This one-war response capability needs to be responsive and highly effective to compensate for its modest size. That fact has implications in areas like strategic transport. It also has implications for the National Guard and Reserves. They remain indispensable parts of the total force. They have done well in Iraq and Afghanistan and merit substantial support in the years ahead — better than they have often received. But they are not able to carry out prompt deployments to crises or conflicts the way that current American security commitments and current deterrence strategy require. As such, we should not move to a "citizens' army" that depends primarily on Reservists for the nation's defense.

Translating this new strategy — one war, plus several smaller missions — into force planning should allow for roughly 15 percent cutbacks in ground forces but not much more. Ground forces might return to 1990s levels or slightly below them, but an active Army of 450,000 troopers and an active-duty Marine Corps of 160,000 would remain necessary. This force would be enough to sustain about 20 combat brigade teams overseas indefinitely (about a dozen are now in Afghanistan, and five are rapidly coming home from Iraq), and to surge 25 to 30 if need be. If the United States found itself in a major operation, it could and should begin to reverse these cuts immediately, building up larger active ground forces as a hedge against the possibility that the new operation (or additional ones) could prove longer or harder than first anticipated.

Some might question whether we even still need a one-war capability. Alas, it is not hard to imagine plausible scenarios. Even if each specific case is unlikely, a number of scenarios cannot be ruled out. What if insurgency in Pakistan begins to threaten that country's nuclear arsenal, and the Pakistani army concluded that it needed our help in stabilizing the country? Far-fetched at present, to be sure — but so was the idea of war in Afghanistan if you had asked almost any American strategist in 1995 or 2000.

Or perhaps, after another India-Pakistan war that reached the nuclear threshold, the international community might be asked to lead a stabilization and trustee mission in Kashmir following a ceasefire — not an appealing prospect but hard to rule out if a nuclear exchange put the subcontinent on the brink of complete disaster. What if Yemen's turmoil or Syria's unrest allowed al-Qaeda to set up a major sanctuary there, as it did in Afghanistan 15 years ago? What if North Korea began to implode and both South Korea and the United States felt the need to restore order before the North's estimated nuclear arsenal of perhaps eight bombs wound up in the wrong hands?

The broader point is this: while defense cuts are appropriate as part of broad-based deficit reduction, they can neither be done mindlessly nor pushed to the extremes that some now contemplate and that the supercommittee's failure would require. It is incumbent on policymakers to change that nightmare scenario, preferably in 2012, before our deterrence abroad weakens as potential adversaries conclude that we are gutting the U.S. armed forces or making defense policy exclusively based on our fiscal plight.

But that said, major change is needed in light of the economic threats to America's long-term power. And a one-war capability for our ground forces is now the right way to go.

Michael O'Hanlon, a Maryland resident, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the new book "The Wounded Giant: America's Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity." He can be contacted at communications@brookings.edu.