Back to 2-and-a-Half Wars?

For decades, the ability for the U.S. military to simultaneously conduct two-and-a-half major regional conflicts was the standard, until the 1990s cuts.
Back to 2-and-a-Half Wars?
A plaque of the Department of Defense seal is seen at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 26, 2012. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
John Mills

An overarching tenet for decades in the American national security planning environment was the ability for the U.S. military to simultaneously conduct two-and-a-half major regional conflicts (MRCs).

Translated, this meant that the United States had the military size to generate and project military force for a major conflict in the European area, a major conflict in the Asian area, and a smaller “brushfire” conflict somewhere else. Going back 30 years, the 1993 “Bottom Up Review” was the seminal Department of Defense planning document that defined the beginning of the pivot away from this classic Cold War viewpoint to a new, post-Soviet era one.
The two-and-a-half MRC advocacy began to erode by the late 1990s with strong arguments that the Department of Defense budget was unsustainable in the face of requirements to re-capitalize Cold War era systems.

The budget process descended into decades of arguing that to pay for new systems, force structure had to be diminished. The flip side of the argument was that peacekeeping requirements (Bosnia, Rwanda, etc.), as well as the massive increase in deployment cycles brought on by the War on Terror, prevented the diminishment of the number of military units.

This led to an unsolvable impasse on the topic. New systems had a bill that could only be paid by cutting units and military personnel. Units and military personnel couldn’t be cut because of the demands of the deployment cycle.

And now the world seems to have descended into a real situation of two-and-a-half conflicts without seeking permission from the force structure planning community.

China Threat Re-awakening This National Security Imperative

The war in Ukraine drags on, but with some momentum perceptible as Ukrainian forces appear to have established a firm beachhead across the Dnipro River in a drive toward Crimea. After decades of relative peace, now the Middle East is inflamed as Israel strikes into the Gaza Strip to destroy Hamas terrorists while holding additional Iranian-backed proxies in southern Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and Houthi missile fire from Yemen in check. Meanwhile, there’s the specter of even greater conflict in the possibility of strategic strikes as Iran threatens Israel (and America).

In the two-and-a-half MRC calculus, it’s not clear whether these contagions are the “two-and-a-half,” or even possibly the “two-and-a-half-plus,” of the retro MRC worldview.

Hamas and the Houthis are proxies for Iran; Iran is a proxy for China. Russia, mired in the death and destruction it created, is a proxy for China. In December 2021, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met virtually, weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, and agreed to a “no limits” partnership to topple American leadership of the world system.
Tensions in the Pacific have increased as China has greatly elevated its military exercises—demonstrations toward Taiwan and the Philippines. The Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act and related appropriations greatly increased American military spending while making numerous declarative statements of support for Taiwan, which has significantly displeased China.

Air Force and Navy in the Lead

With the upward trajectory of the American defense budget and the existence of an ongoing or building two-and-a-half-plus MRC world whether we like it or not, the question is, what force structure strategy and policy should be in effect?

The common outcome of the national security budget debate is what’s called “salami slicing,” where all military services and requirements take equal cuts or equal plus-ups. This is often the normalcy of the defense debate within and between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government.

With the surging two-and-a-half-plus MRC world, intuitive priorities come to the forefront. The American border should be the first priority, and, beyond that, capabilities and force structure that can project deterrence and, if necessary, war-winning capabilities should receive the highest priorities for a unified joint operational concept. These are more resident in air, naval, space, cyber, and special operations domains, with a special emphasis on artificial intelligence-enabled autonomous systems.

The Army and Marines will have a key role in the burgeoning two-and-a-half-plus MRC world, and they need to find where they create the best value as “supporting” services to the primary “supported” services who should be in the lead. The Army has made bold moves toward this in its multi-domain doctrine development, which emphasizes long-range fires, rejuvenated air and missile defense capabilities, and a return to strong operational experience and capabilities in maritime and amphibious operations.
The Army and the Marine Corps have similar interests and should work closely together in partnership to develop a larger and more capable maritime transport capability of smaller vessels that complement the Navy’s larger amphibious warfare ship structure and robust special operations capabilities. The Army should retain a world-class armored force capability but ensure it’s postured for maximum ability to be in the right place at the right time. The rest of the conventional “Big” Army may have to shrink somewhat to ensure the priorities are properly resourced.

Countering Unrestricted Warfare

The Chinese Communist Party is achieving some success in its worldwide campaign of unrestricted warfare to include civil-military fusion, Belt and Road influence operations, and pernicious and deadly adjuncts such as fentanyl production in northern Mexico that is introduced into American society on a broad scale in an “Opium War” initiative to destabilize American society. This implies that the American solution must be whole-of-government and inclusive of key strategic partners.
China is rapidly exploiting its influence operations in the Americas, and the recent announcement to develop alternatives to the Panama Canal through Colombia should be setting off alarm bells in the world of American statecraft.
The historic challenges of military recruiting and retention need to be addressed in an open and honest dialogue that addresses all core causal factors that can no longer be dismissed. Even the U.S. Coast Guard is achieving a striking inability to deploy ships: It has the budget and equipment, but it doesn’t have the personnel—an extremely perplexing inverse of the world they have lived in for years.

The two-and-a-half MRC world is only growing, and the best response is to build the right capabilities to deter the developing storm as fast as possible.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Col. (Ret.) John Mills is a national security professional with service in five eras: Cold War, Peace Dividend, War on Terror, World in Chaos, and now, Great Power Competition. He is the former director of cybersecurity policy, strategy, and international affairs at the Department of Defense. Mr. Mills is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy. He is author of “The Nation Will Follow” and “War Against the Deep State.” ColonelRETJohn on Substack, GETTR, and Truth Social
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