Stop asking the military to do more with less

Article Highlights

  • Army Vice Chief: “We’re mortgaging the future”

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  • The military’s ability to fight and win two wars at once has been steadily eroding for the past 20 years

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  • The growing gap between plans and budgets will eventually lead to unacceptable consequences

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Last week, the military’s vice chiefs told Congress that their ability to fight two wars at once was at risk. They warned that ongoing pressure, including from the 2011 Budget Control Act and its substantial defense cuts, is eroding the size and capability of America’s armed forces. As Army General John Campbell cautioned bluntly, “We’re mortgaging the future.”

While the vice chiefs are correct that fewer resources are having a profound and negative impact upon the ability of the Department of Defense to support the nation’s defense strategy, the unfortunate reality is that the military’s ability to fight and win two wars at once has been steadily eroding for the past 20 years under presidents of both parties.

The “two-war standard” has long been an important measuring stick for the military to roughly approximate the forces necessary to provide the most options to the commander in chief in response to questions of war and peace. The 1993 Bottom-Up Review articulated the clearest thinking behind this policy: “U.S. forces will be structured to achieve decisive victory in two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts and to conduct combat operations characterized by rapid response and a high probability of success, while minimizing the risk of significant American casualties.”

Over the ensuing two decades, this standard was gradually wound down over successive Pentagon strategies. In 2002, for instance, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that DOD was moving away from the two-war standard in favor of a more “balanced” approach that deemphasized occupation forces.

The Pentagon’s latest strategy continues moving the goalposts by calling for a force sizing construct designed to defeat one enemy while denying the objectives or imposing unacceptable costs on a second. The strategy’s murky language leaves it open to interpretation regarding how to impose “unacceptable costs” and the requirements to do so.

The Pentagon’s planning construct is important because only a military of a sufficient size and reach can carry out day-to-day missions such as disaster relief, regional deterrence and crisis response and a major campaign should the need arise.

The worry is that the U.S. military’s strategic aims are shrinking along with global presence and combat capabilities, but policymakers are not correspondingly reducing the military’s scope of responsibilities in support of vital national interests.

This growing gap between what the nation demands of the military and what its capacity, capability and readiness will allow, thanks to reduced budgets, will eventually lead to unacceptable outcomes and consequences, many of which will be borne uniquely by those in uniform and their families. The good news, however, is that these outcomes are avoidable should Washington’s leaders choose to reverse course and rebuild American military strength. 

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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