One War Is Not Enough: Strategy and Force Planning for Great Power Competition

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: While it makes sense for the defense establishment to focus on the country’s ability to defeat a great-power rival in a head on competition, shifting to a “one-war standard” carries its own risks, which need to be carefully evaluated.

For years, U.S. military strategy has centered on the ability to win multiple wars against multiple, relatively weak enemies including “rogue states, terrorist groups,” and others. But today, as the Defense Department shifts its focus to “great power rivals” like China and Russia, policy makers seek to build up a military that can defeat a single country that can match the United States in terms of military force.

This policy was outlined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which says that “the fully mobilized Joint Force will be capable of: defeating aggression by a major power; deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere; and disrupting imminent terrorist and WMD threats.” This standard represents a significant departure from “every U.S. defense strategy of the post-Cold War era,” from the administration of George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama.

This “one-war standard reflects serious strategic thinking and is rooted in real budgetary constraints.” It acknowledges that China and Russia have made significant gains in territory and force since the early 2000s, and that both have taken increasingly adversarial stances towards the United States. Each country alone is more powerful than the majority of enemies the United States faced during the Cold War -- an era in which it made sense for the United States to focus on fighting multiple, weaker enemies at once.

Similarly, it acknowledges that defeating either country or a comparable power would “be far more difficult than anything the U.S. military has done in decades,” and that losing such a contest would devastate U.S. interests. It also aims to light a fire under a bureaucracy that is reluctant to make such massive changes.

However, the one-war standard is also more risky than its defenders are willing to say. The chief problem is that it ignores the possibility that the United States could one day need to fight multiple wars at the same time. “This is hardly far-fetched given that the United States currently faces at least five potential opponents — China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and several major terrorist organizations — across three separate theaters,” to say nothing of any unforeseen threats that could arise.

Proponents of a one-war standard acknowledge this problem, but some think the United States could solve it by dominating in one war, assuming that a demonstration of force would deter additional threats.

This ignores that a successful demonstration of force would reveal U.S. military strategy to other enemies, while an unsuccessful show of force could encourage an enemy to attack. And if “domination” in one theater didn’t deter a second enemy, the United States would have to enter a conflict with a weakened force.

Others hold that the United States could delay engaging in a second conflict until after it achieved victory in the first. But this position ignores that the second combatant could use the delay to shift the status quo in its favor. It also fails to consider that the second conflict would be more important from a strategic perspective, and that the United States couldn’t afford to delay engagement.

There are ways for the United States to “solve” the two wars dilemma -- relying on allies, increasing nuclear capabilities, or mobilizing a greater number of troops -- but none are optimal and all come with their downsides.

Ultimately, the shift to a one-war standard “can be thought of as the canary in the coal mine — the warning of greater perils and far sharper dilemmas to come.” Clearly, the United States cannot move back to the Cold War status quo of fighting against multiple, weak enemies. But simply shifting to a one-war standard is equally infeasible.

Going forward, the United States has a choice to make. It can either scale back its global security commitments in order to better focus on defeating a handful of great-power rivals in head-to-head wars. Or, it can radically increase investment to meet its existing commitments. Neither choice is optimal, but choosing is necessary. The one thing the country cannot do is assume otherwise.

Read the full piece here.