Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Revising the Two-Major Theater War Standard

Academic journal article Strategic Forum

Revising the Two-Major Theater War Standard

Article excerpt

Key Points

Preparing to fight two nearly simultaneous major theater wars (MTWs) has been the standard used to design U.S. defense policy and force structure since 1993. But with a broader spectrum of challenges looming, the threat of concurrent wars in the Persian Gulf and on the Korean Peninsula appearing less likely, and the emergence of China as a potential rival, a new approach is needed. Without a new standard, the Armed Forces will transform themselves using a rigid and outdated strategic model.

The standard put forth herein combines attention to peacetime needs with a fresh interpretation of wartime requirements. For peacetime, it would create force packages for regional commanders to perform deterrent, theater engagement, routine operational, and minor crisis management missions. In wartime, it would create a powerful joint force for handling one conflict which may be larger than a MTW, plus forces for two medium-sized operations elsewhere.

This amounts to a new strategic calculus of one plus one-half plus one-half contingencies to determine U.S. force requirements. This new standard aims to make defense plans not only responsive to real-world events, but also flexible and adaptable. It judges that preparing U.S. forces to handle a wide spectrum of events--big and small, in peace and war--may be more important than optimizing them for one canonical wartime scenario. It calls for a force structure that is large and adaptable enough to maintain core military capabilities in order to perform diverse strategic missions.


One of the toughest challenges facing the Department of Defense (DOD) is translating strategic policy into concrete guidelines for preparing U.S. military forces. A defense planning standard is a set of judgments and directives for performing this key function. Normally this standard has three associated roles: to determine the size of forces and their main missions; to establish program and budgetary priorities; and to inform the Congress and the public of the rationale behind the defense strategy and force posture. For example, the Kennedy administration standard was a two and one-half war strategy, and the Nixon administration had a one and one-half war strategy. To guide its planning, the Carter administration used the standard of multitheater war with the Soviet Union in Europe and the Persian Gulf. The Reagan administration applied an Illustrative Planning Scenario that contemplated global war with the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

When the Cold War ended, it swept away the Soviet threat and the old bipolar order, leaving a number of turbulent regions in its wake. The Bush administration responded with a Base Force that created general capabilities without regard to specific scenarios, though it did hedge against a Soviet resurgence. The Clinton administration, in its Bottom-Up Review of early 1993, crafted a standard which called upon U.S. forces to be constantly ready to fight two major regional conflicts (MRCs) in widely separated theaters and overlapping time frames. This approach reflected an effort to balance military requirements with budgetary constraints, and to link U.S. force levels to credible foreign threats in direct ways. The 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review confirmed this standard (changing the terminology from MRCs to MTWs or major theater wars) and noted that forces would also be called upon to deal with smaller-scale contingencies (SSCs). In the years since its adoption, the two-MTW standard has had a profound impact on how the Department of Defense has carried out business. It has affected not only force levels and the activities of the unified commanders in chief (CINCs), but also manpower policies, readiness standards, improvement efforts, program priorities, and budgeting.

The Two-MTW Standard

The many positive features of the twoMTW standard have helped it endure for the last 8 years. …

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