War Stories

The Doctrine Gap

Reality vs. the Pentagon’s new strategy.

Stalled at the gate?

Top Pentagon officials are thinking about changing the basic U.S. military strategy to require that the armed forces be prepared to fight not two wars at the same time—as current doctrine has it—but rather just one war and some small counterterrorist campaigns.

This development, reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, raises three questions: Does it matter? Did anybody ever think we could really fight two major wars simultaneously? And will a change in doctrine change the way the Pentagon buys weapons or otherwise does business?

If history is any guide, the answer in all three cases is: No, probably not.

The current strategic doctrine, which Donald Rumsfeld issued in his Quadrennial Defense Review of early 2001 (before the 9/11 attacks), is a package of U.S. military requirements known as 1-4-2-1. The first 1 refers to defending what has since come to be called the homeland. The 4 refers to deterring hostilities in four key regions of the world. The 2 means the U.S. armed forces must have the strength to win swiftly in two near-simultaneous conflicts in those regions. The final 1 means that we must win one of those conflicts “decisively,” toppling the enemy’s regime.

The debate going on now, in preparation for this year’s review, is whether the armed forces can really accomplish that “2”—fighting and winning two major regional wars at once. Given the troubles they’re currently having in Iraq and Afghanistan (neither of which would have been called “major wars” in Cold War days), it’s a pertinent question.

But let’s say that the current review does result in a revision of strategic doctrine. Will that affect the size or shape of the military?

In the mid-1970s, when James Schlesinger was secretary of defense under Richard Nixon and (briefly) Gerald Ford, he asked the Navy to calculate how many aircraft carriers it would need if the United States decided no longer to defend the Indian Ocean; how many if it decided no longer to defend the Mediterranean; and so forth. In each case, the answer came back: We would need 13 carriers—the same number the Navy had at the time.

In other words, the military services—the Army, Navy, and Air Force—have their cherished weapons. Civilians, who come and go, might change the rhetoric—drop or add missions, alter the number of wars to fight—but the brass will fight to preserve their treasures.

This shadowboxing has been going on for over 40 years. When John F. Kennedy appointed Robert McNamara as his defense secretary, McNamara filled his inner circle with “whiz kids”—systems analysts who subjected the generals and admirals to a hazing they’d never endured before. Before McNamara, a president would impose limits on overall defense spending but rarely on specific weapons. If the brass said a weapon filled a “military requirement,” that was good enough. McNamara and the whiz kids examined the requirements. They whacked away at a host of Air Force programs in particular—the B-58 and B-70 bombers, the Skybolt, Snark, Jupiter, and Hound Dog cruise missiles—arguing that they were more vulnerable or less cost-effective than intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos or submarines. In the first year of the Kennedy administration, the Air Force lost every battle with McNamara—and it waged a lot of them.

Then the military services decided to learn systems analysis, too. The smartest colonels were assigned to “murder boards,” which picked apart the rationales for a weapon before McNamara did—then tweaked the rationales. In short, they tried to beat McNamara at his own game—and increasingly won. After a while, they perfected his art of finding the right numbers to defend whatever position they wanted to take.

Over the decades, quantitative analysis—on both the civilian and military sides—became not so much a useful tool to get at the truth as a bureaucratic weapon in the battle for budgets and turf.

Under President Lyndon Johnson, McNamara laid out a “requirement” that the armed forces be able to fight two—at one point, two-and-a-half—wars at the same time. This was defined to mean a war in Europe against the Soviet Union, a war in Asia against China or North Korea, and a “half-war” as well—in other words, a “small” war in the Third World. That half-war was Vietnam, and it turned out to be as consuming—in lives, resources, and national spirit—as nearly any full war. The “two-and-a-half war” calculus was but one figment of the self-delusion that gripped McNamara and, in this case, the top generals in their quest to quantify their wishes and thus make them seem real.

When Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he altered the formula to state that the United States should be able to fight one-and-a-half wars simultaneously—a big war in Europe or a big war in Asia, as well as a pesky contest like Vietnam.

This strategy remained in place until 1989-90, when President George H.W. Bush ordered the “Base Force” study. The Cold War seemed at an end. The study forecast a substantial cut in the military budget, an end to the Soviet Union’s global threat, and the possible beginning of new regional threats. But it fell short on specifics.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton ordered a “Bottom-Up Review,” billed as “a comprehensive review of the nation’s defense strategy, force structure, modernization, infrastructure, and foundations.” The result was a strategy called “win-hold-win”—enough forces to win one war while holding off the enemy in another conflict, then moving on to win it after the first war was over. Congressional leaders didn’t like the idea—it smelled of weakness and retreat—so the final draft was changed to read that the United States must be able to win two wars simultaneously—though the wars were now called “major regional conflicts.” The problem was that the military continued to shrink. Even with the scaled-down redefinition of war, nobody even pretended that the United States had enough to meet the strategy. The self-delusion continued.

Another problem with all these defense reviews was spelled out in a RAND Corporation paper written in 2001, as Donald Rumsfeld was putting together his own doctrine. The earlier documents had all assumed that the U.S. military’s mission would be to halt and push back an enemy army that crosses a border with large mechanized forces—tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and so forth. They also assumed that U.S. troops trained to fight these large forces could easily fend off “lesser” threats posed by terrorists, insurgents, and the like.

In other words, the reviews recognized that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of the central threat—but they didn’t anticipate the era’s new threats and new types of warfare.

Hand it to Rumsfeld that he has at least tried to deal with those changes. His ongoing restructuring of the Army—deploying troops around small-scale brigades instead of massive divisions, and assigning some tasks of the artillery to Air Force smart bombs—recognizes the shift. (His fatal error, in Iraq and Afghanistan, was to assume that toppling the regimes would mean the end of the wars.)

But even as Rumsfeld has altered military operations to some degree, he has let military procurement run wild, as if the Cold War were still raging. The new defense review, which Tuesday’s Times detailed and which will be issued later this year, may declare an end to the two-war strategy and place more emphasis on counterterrorism and smaller-scale combat. Yet the big-ticket weapons, which engorge the Pentagon’s budget and pave the officer corps’ paths for promotion, are straight out of the war plans of the ‘80s—NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact, along the East-West German border.

A new upgrade of the F-18 jet fighter, two new multibillion-dollar stealth aircraft programs, continued purchases of Trident nuclear submarine-launched ballistic missiles: Are such items appropriate for an age when no prospective foe has an air force worth a worry or an ability to strike the several-thousand nuclear warheads we already possess? (The list of mismatches could go on.)

Rumsfeld may want to institute major reforms. Let us stipulate that he is more sincere in this desire than most of his predecessors. But his “transformations,” as he calls them, will be stalled at the gate unless he aligns the strategy with the weapons—the war planners with the tools of war-fighting.