Back to Win-Hold-Win

Oct. 1, 1999

A draft revision to the National Security Strategy would eliminate the standard by which US armed forces are sized–in theory, anyway–to fight two Major Theater Wars at the same time. The draft, written by the National Security Council staff in the White House, discounts the possibility that two conflicts might occur simultaneously, or nearly so.

It says that “a second foe would need time to decide to take advantage of heavy US military engagement in the first theater and then to mobilize and deploy its forces for an attack” and that “our strategy is to seek to halt the second aggressor’s advance, while concluding operations in the first theater. Our focus would then shift to the second theater, including, if necessary, a counteroffensive.”

That idea, then called “Win-Hold-Win,” was floated as a trial balloon in June 1993 by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin. It ran into withering criticism and was ridiculed as “Win-Lose-Lose” and “Win-Hold-Oops.” After 26 days, Aspin decided that the notion was untenable and withdrew it.

Now that the National Security Council is again digging up Win-Hold-Win, it is worth remembering what happened the first time around.

By the summer of 1993, Aspin and the new Clinton Administration had worked themselves into a real mess. In March, they had announced a massive cut to the defense budget–without calculating either the feasibility or the impact of it.

Their big budget cut had been predicated, unfortunately, on flawed analysis done by Aspin’s staff in 1992 when he was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Among other mistakes, that analysis had understated by almost a third the number of US Air Force fighter squadrons employed in the Gulf War.

In search of a defense program to match the arbitrary budget cut, Secretary Aspin launched the notorious “Bottom-Up Review.” The force options in the Bottom-Up Review were to be calibrated in “Major Regional Conflicts.” An MRC ranked around the midpoint on the spectrum of conflict. The Persian Gulf War, for example, had been an MRC.

The Joint Staff calculated various force configurations. The two-MRC option called for 24 fighter wing equivalents, 12 active Army divisions, and 12 carriers. That did not reduce the force enough to support the budget cut, though, so Aspin tried Win-Hold-Win. When it was hooted down, he said he would size the force instead to fight two MRCs “nearly simultaneously.”

Four months later, Aspin announced his force structure: 20 fighter wings, 10 divisions, and 12 carriers. Incredibly, except for the addition of two carriers, this was exactly the same force structure that had been calculated for Win-Hold-Win. The configuration, thus reduced, was–and still is–the “two-MRC” force structure.

Aspin left office that winter. In July 1994, his successor, William J. Perry, admitted what everybody already knew: that the force could not handle two MRCs in close succession.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon and the Administration continued to espouse the two-MRC force requirement. In 1997, the Quadrennial Defense Review changed the terminology to “Major Theater War” and said the US position of international leadership depended on “its ability to defeat aggression in more than one theater at a time.”

Nobody doubts the need to cover at least one MTW. In addition, though, there must be a reasonable reserve and forces for such other missions as strategic nuclear deterrence and commitments in Europe and Asia. Even without a second conflict, the cumulative requirement is for a force sized approximately to two MTWs.

The force is undeniably stressed by the demands of a single MTW. The air campaign in Yugoslavia, along with other deployments, tied up more of the force than the Vietnam War did. Stateside units were stripped of equipment and crews. Training suffered. Airpower was so stretched that there was some concern about its capability to meet requirements in other theaters. At the end of the Kosovo operation, the Air Force needed an extended period in which to reconstitute.

The “two-war strategy,” often referred to, is a misnomer. It is not a strategy. It is a force-sizing standard, and one that would serve us reasonably well if it were met.

The only rational argument against the two-war standard is that we cannot meet it–but that is a commentary on the inadequacy of resources, not on the legitimacy of the requirement.

The proper measure of the armed forces is their preparedness to fight and win the nation’s wars. The two-MTW standard is the minimum level to which the force ought to be sized.

The White House draft was leaked in late August to the Washington Times and other news outlets. Perhaps the ensuing criticism will sink Win-Hold-Win again, just as it did in 1993. Let us hope so.

It is foolish to assume, as the National Security Council staffers did, that an adversary could not move fast enough on a second front to take advantage of heavy US engagement on a first front.

Had they chosen to do so, for example, the North Koreans almost certainly could have gone on the offense within the 78-day time span of the operation in Yugoslavia. From the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the end of the Gulf War in 1991, almost six months elapsed.

Win-Hold-Win started out as a budget maneuver based on faulty analysis. It has not improved much with age.