Two Wars at the Same Time: A Necessity?

Sequestration and deficit reduction may impact the U.S.' ability to project force on two fronts. Stuart Gottlieb, Gary Schmitt and others weigh in.


This is the eighth post in the TMP series “The Great Debate,” a round-up of opinions from experts, officials, professors and students on a pressing question in international affairs.


“Ever since FDR we’ve had the capacity to be engaged in two conflicts at once and [President Obama] said no, we’re going to cut that back to only one conflict,” said Mitt Romney this September.

The “Two-War Force Size Paradigm” has been used to determine the appropriate size and capability of the United States military for several decades. Although the Obama administration has not in fact proposed a change to this policy, sequestration and deficit reduction may impact the United States’ ability to project force on two fronts.

To shed light on the issue, TMP’s “The Great Debate” turned to the experts to ask:

Is it still necessary for the US to be able to fight two wars at the same time?


Stuart Gottlieb, Columbia University 

Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of planning to reduce the Pentagon’s longstanding “two war” standard — a capacity to fight and win two major conventional wars simultaneously — down to a “one war” standard. The Obama administration (and its supporters) vehemently deny they are planning any such thing.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Obama never specifically called for scaling military planning down to a “one war” capacity. However, when the administration released its Defense Strategic Review in January 2012, senior officials said the Pentagon was shifting from a “two war strategy” to a “one-plus strategy” — which they defined as an ability to fight and win one major conventional war, while having the capacity to act as “spoiler” in another.

Setting politics aside, the real question is: has the “two-war” standard outlived its necessity? George W. Bush’s first defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, certainly thought so: in 2001 he said, “The current [two-war] strategy is not working, so we owe it to ourselves to ask what might be better.”

For Rumsfeld and his successors, a “better” strategy is one that looks beyond the comfort of the “familiar” (like 20th century land wars), and, while not discounting conventional war planning, focuses on new and emerging threats like cyber war, WMD terrorism, and nuclear proliferation.

Once we get past this hyper-political season, defense professionals can get back to the business of preparing the country for current and future threats — without worrying about getting tripped up with terminology.

Stuart Gottlieb teaches in the the international security policy program at Columbia University’s  School of International and Public Affairs, and is an affiliate of the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.


David A. Baldwin, Princeton University

Although America’s military capabilities have often been measured in terms of one, two, or one and one-half “wars,” this is at best a rough estimate and can be misleading. The important question is what kind of “war” do you have in mind?  Nuclear war?  Total conventional war of attrition (WW II)?  Limited conventional war (Korea)?  Guerilla war/counterinsurgency (Vietnam)?  War on terror?  Cyberwar?  Etc. The single most important step in capability analysis is asking: “Capability for what?”  Even better is to ask “capability to do what, against whom, with whose help, where, when, and how?”  In short, the fallacy in thinking about capabilities in terms of “one war or two” is that “war” can refer to many different situations.

During the last presidential debate, Romney asserted that the U. S. navy now has fewer ships than it had in 1916.  The President responded by pointing out that the military also has fewer horses and fewer bayonets. Both the response and the tone with which it was delivered have generated some partisan controversy. This controversy and the sound bites accompanying it have ignored an important point with which the President prefaced his example of horses and bayonets.  He pointed out that the important thing was not the number of ships but rather the “capabilities” of those ships.  This, of course, is precisely the point.

The debate format did not allow a serious discussion of capabilities for what, where, when, against what opposition, etc. These are the questions that must be addressed, however, if one wants to talk about the “adequacy” of American military capabilities.

David Baldwin is a Senior Political Scientist at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.  He is also an Affiliate at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and Wallach Professor Emeritus of World Order Studies at Columbia University.


Gary J. Schmitt, American Enterprise Institute (AEI)

Since World War II the US has believed that maintaining a favorable balance of power in EuroAsia is in America’s interest.  To ensure that balance of power remains favorable, the corollary tenet has been the need to have forces that deter attempts to upset or undermine such a balance.  And given the geographic span of that region—a span which includes multiple oceans and a land mass that covers more than half the world’s time zones—that means having dominant forces, global in scope.  Add the requirement for homeland defense, some minimal presence in other parts of the world (e.g., Latin America and Africa) and an ability to assist in humanitarian relief efforts like in Haiti (2010), Japan (2011) and South Asia (2004-05) and one quickly sees just how large our military must be.  In key respects, the two-war standard is shorthand for ensuring we have that globally-capable force in place.

The two-war standard is also important strategically for when America’s elected representatives have to consider fighting one war.  With less than a two-war capability, it will be natural to want to husband US military capabilities, worrying that a commitment to one conflict might preclude dealing with a potentially more serious challenge elsewhere.   Such caution is not always a bad thing.  However, before tossing the standard aside, we should ask ourselves whether there has ever been a period in which the world has been as prosperous and the great powers at peace for this length of time—and why?

Gary Schmitt is the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI and the director of AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. He was executive director of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during President Ronald Reagan’s second term.


Francis Beer, University of Colorado, Boulder

A lot depends on how one defines “fight”, “two wars”, and “at the same time”.
During its early history, the United States, according to many definitions of these terms, did not fight as many as two wars at the same time. During the 20th century, according to other definitions, the United States did not fight as few as two wars at the same time. I doubt that it was ever historically necessary for the United States to be able to fight exactly as many or as few as two wars at the same time. Based on past performance, this metric does not appear to be particularly useful as a guide to present or future policy over changing conditions.
A more useful maxim, derived from classical international relations theory, is that the United States should have the capabilities to defend its vital national interests. One of its vital national interests, as President Eisenhower emphasized, is to maintain a healthy economy. While national security is important, so also is the security of national citizens.
American military capabilities should change, as American interests and the nature of international threats and violence also change. It always has been and always will be necessary for the United States to be able to fight as many or as few wars as may be crucial to American vital national interests.
There is no magic number.

Francis Beer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he has been President of the International Studies Association/West.


Anthony Pusatory, Columbia University

The “Two War” or “Two Major Theater War” force size paradigm is drawn largely from the Quadrennial Defense Review, a heavily debated piece of research conducted by the Defense Department, whose main goal is to flesh out the details of a standing National Security Strategy. Optimally (and according to law) the QDR will be conducted so as “to make recommendations that are not constrained to comply with the budget submitted to Congress by the President.” The QDR lays out the necessary means for achieving national security goals without regard for cost constraints. That is the job of the President and Congress. However, even without an eye to possible budget cuts, both the 2010 QDR and the previous 2006 QDR have laid out force paradigms for a leaner military. The Defense Department has been advocating for a smaller, more professional, more specialized military for more than six years at least – even with no threat of sequestration or budget cuts.

The “Two War” paradigm was shaped largely in the 1990s around a two-theater operation conducted against the Kims in North Korea and Hussein in Iraq. However, as national security threats have changed since 2011 and the military has changed from war fighting to state building, the Two War logic has largely been cast aside. The priority of today’s military is no longer (or, at least, not currently) major theater war against a modern army, but multilateral stabilization operations and counter-terrorism.

A military capable of fighting two major theater wars at once should be used a rubric against which to measure the efficacy and capabilities of a modern military, but it is not a strategy. Strategy is based on policy priorities and the national security priorities of 2012 are not reflected in the old paradigm.

Anthony Pusatory is a Master of International Affairs student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs studying Security Policy and the Middle East. He served four years in the US Army Special Operations Command.


This post of The Great Debate was compiled by  Max Marder, Krisztian Simon, and Ariel Stulberg.

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3 Responses to “Two Wars at the Same Time: A Necessity?” Subscribe

  1. Doug November 2, 2012 at 5:43 PM #

    Professor Beer’s response added very little to the opinions here. A ‘too long, didn’t read’ for his section is essentially, “The US needs the ability to defend it’s national interests, whatever those may be.” A tad bit nebulous I’d say.

    A point that Anthony hints at is that the “two-war” capabilities should really be refined towards what wars we can reasonably expect to see in the ‘near’ future. It is the ability to engage in a realistic expectation of a conflict with the ability to still maintain and defend our national interests. As military capabilities change and technology enables us to do more with less, so should the size of the military.

    It is really a sliding scale and what is really needed is the ability for the military to scale up or down within a reasonable time as risks and conflicts change.


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