The Tale of Two Wars

Aug. 1, 2005

Donald H. Rumsfeld, testifying in mid-2001 about the nation’s “two-war” strategy, observed that it reflected an “obsession” with “a few dangers” that “may be familiar rather than likely.” His criticism was a case of unfortunate timing.

Within weeks, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Secretary of Defense had not only reaffirmed the two-war standard but added to it. His “1-4-2-1” policy called for a force able to defend the homeland, deter aggression in four theaters, defeat enemies simultaneously in two theaters, and occupy one of these nations. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq followed.

For all that, the basic issue never died away. What is the best yardstick for determining the proper size of conventional forces? The question first came up around 1990 with the end of the Cold War. Fifteen years later, the argument still rages.

Indeed, the two-war concept is again under attack, as was made plain in a July 5 leak to the New York Times. “The Pentagon’s most senior planners,” stated the Times, now believe that they want “to shape the military to mount one conventional campaign” while “devoting more resources to defending American territory and anti­terrorism efforts.”

The well-informed trade publication Inside the Pentagon noted that the concept has been unofficially dubbed “1-1-1,” denoting homeland defense, the war on terror, and conventional war. The shift, if it actually occurs, could lead to the diversion of money from “traditional warfare areas” such as regional conflicts, said ITP.

Dissatisfaction with the two-war standard is nothing new. It has always been opposed by doves who would like to limit or reduce US power. Even some hawkish defense figures warn that the standard thwarts development of future forces.

Thus, the new policy battle is a case of déjà vu all over again, and it is worth recalling the tale’s many twists and turns through the years. Probably the best single summary can be found in the 2003 study, “Strategy, Requirements, and Forces,” by John T. Correll, a former Editor in Chief of Air Force Magazine. It is available online at

In 1990, with Soviet power collapsing, US forces faced fundamental questions about their future, especially their size and mission. Gen. Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, proposed reducing the 2.1-million-strong Cold War force to a 1.6-million-man “Base Force” able to fight two “major regional conflicts” at a time.

Two months after coming to office in January 1993, the Clinton Administration slashed the Pentagon budget and then launched its notorious 1993 “Bottom-Up Review.” It was an ex post facto attempt to devise a plausible strategy and force structure to fit under a previously decided funding level.

However, the Clinton Administration was stuck with the two-MRC standard, which prevented wholesale reductions in force. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin tried to get around the problem with a concept called “Win-Hold-Win”—fighting in one theater but conducting a holding action in a second area until US forces could be redeployed. Aspin’s trial balloon was laughed out of town, and he returned to the two-war standard.

Clinton never provided forces sufficient to actually fight two overlapping MRCs, and the search for a new standard resumed with the Quadrennial Defense Review in 1997. Once again, DOD sought to change the two-war concept but found the move to be untenable. It revalidated the two-war yardstick (changing MRC to MTW, for “major theater war”), but then cut forces even further.

Rumsfeld came to the Pentagon in early 2001 amid reports that he would kill the two-war standard and cut fighters, carriers, and divisions. He was in fact skeptical of the strategy, which he saw as a reason the US had, in his view, “failed to invest adequately in the advanced military technologies.” Even so, he wound up accepting it—though evidently not permanently.

The history of the strategy points to several conclusions that are relevant to the current debate:

The two-war standard has survived because the US, as a superpower, had no obvious alternative.

Planners eventually were persuaded that a US President, working with a mere one-war force, might find that he was inviting dangerous military aggression in one area by responding with military force in another.

The concept has, over the years, served as a bulwark against politically appealing but strategically unwise reductions in air, sea, and land forces. Without it, USAF could find itself facing attacks not only on the F/A-22 fighter but also its lineup of 10 Air and Space Expeditionary Forces.

For all its faults, the two-war concept has been reasonably useful as a way to size the conventional force and determine its required budget. Problems stem not from the concept itself but from the emergence of additional threats such as proliferation.

The real questions about the strategy are not military but economic. Funding a two-war force is expensive. Clinton did not provide required resources. The Bush Administration is having difficulty doing so, though defense spending, as a share of GDP, is still at historically modest levels.

Spokesmen insist the Pentagon has made no final decision. The matter is being studied as part of a new 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review, a major military assessment, and the results are not due on Capitol Hill until early 2006.

It is possible that the Pentagon leaked word about its deliberation as a trial balloon, and that critics will shoot it down. That would be a good thing. The two-war strategy has served the nation well. The shape of US armed forces—and perhaps the nation’s military capability—could hinge on its continuation.