The Two-MRC Strategy: Major Regional Contingencies, or Mythical Routine Canards?

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DoD photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

Secretary Panetta will sketch out the Pentagon's future budget strategy Thursday

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is coming to the Pentagon podium Thursday the explain how he’s going to trim $450 billion of the U.S. military’s nearly $6 trillion spending plan over the coming decade.

Because the President’s budget won’t be released until next month, specific details of cuts are likely to be sparse. But a pliant press corps will probably use its Nerf crowbar to pry out of him the biggest non-secret of the day:

Mr. Panetta is expected to outline plans for carefully shrinking the military — and in so doing make it clear that the Pentagon will not maintain the ability to fight two sustained ground wars at once.

…as the New York Times reported Tuesday. This will be hailed as evidence that the Pentagon is making serious cuts.

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The ability to wage and win two MRCs – major regional contingencies, in Pentagon-speak — at the same time has long been a fiction that has been in the interest of the Pentagon and its contractors to maintain. It acts as a floor on just how much of a military we need to buy; if we need X to wage and win one war, it sounds logical that we need double that – 2X – to prevail in two places.

The only problem is that the two-war construct has been shot through with enough caveats and loopholes to render it worthless. Formally doing away with it, consequently, is just as vaporous.

Going back to World War II, when the nation had 12 million in uniform, the U.S. and its allies couldn’t beat the Japanese in the Pacific until they had defeated the Germans in Europe. Flash forward 60 years: the U.S. and its allies couldn’t prevail in Afghanistan – assuming they ever will – once President George W. Bush had decided to invade Iraq. “It is simply a matter of resources, of capacity,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in late 2007. “In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” That, in a nutshell, is a definition of a nation lacking the ability to wage and win two wars at once. It not only lacked it during World War II, but it also was MIA less than five years ago.

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Of course, soldiers point out that the so-called “two-war strategy” isn’t a strategy at all, but merely a capability. And because thousands of assumptions are cranked into creating that capability, what comes out the other end in terms of troops, tanks and aircraft carriers is dependent on what assumptions – what normal folks call guesses – are cranked in.

The two-MRC gospel was codified in 1993 by Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who brought one of the heroes of 1991’s Persian Gulf war to the Pentagon briefing room to say the nation could fight two wars with less of everything. “The whole force begins to flow to deal with Major Regional Contingency One,” Army General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said. “And then, here’s your near-simultaneity, when MRC-2 comes along, we continue to flow. And what you lose here as you go down in size is reserve capacity to deal with anything else that comes along.”

Note Powell’s tactical-nuclear caveat: “near-simultaneity.” That’s not a phrase generals, or any English-speaking humans, regularly use. It means: not at the same time. It means close, as with horseshoes and nuclear weapons. The consensus at the time was that it meant something on the order of one to three months. The fact that the U.S. could not wage war in Iraq 16 months after invading Afghanistan without restraint shows just how non-near-simultaneity the existing U.S. two-MRC capability is.

It was the kind of opening you could drive an M-1 tank through, and over the past 20 years plenty have done so. Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch acknowledged it in 1994. “One can cast a scenario where on midnight of a particular day, through concerted action, North Korea and Iraq or whatever two particular major actors you want to choose in the Far East and the southwest, without a hint from our intelligence assets — which I might indicate have demonstrated their readiness by showing the movement of Saddam Hussein’s motorized troops into southern Iraq — that by through surprise, it would put us in a situation where we couldn’t deal with two MRCs,” he said.

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In other words, the so-called two MRC strategy is elastic; a 100% ability to prevail in two simultaneous wars is too costly and too unlikely to happen to fret about. Bottom line: the two-MRC construct is a Pentagon rubber band, a force-sizing exercise that leave only taxpayers in the dark.

The Air Force warned in 1995 that the Pentagon’s plan to supply the service with only 180 of the 200 bombers it needed could be risky. “We should keep in mind that this strategy is untried, and could stretch our combat forces, strategic lift, and Iogistics capability very thin,” General John Loh, chief of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, told Congress. “If we are unable to swing bombers in the two-MRC scenario, we will not have enough bombers to deploy 100 to each MRC.”

Three years later, the Air Force conceded it could not field a two-MRC force. “In some cases, we are a two-MRC force; in others, we are not,” General Mike Ryan, the chief of staff, told Congress. “From a lift standpoint, the United States Air Force is not a two-MRC operation,” referring to the perpetually shortchanged accounts used to buy boring-but-vital C-130s and other cargo aircraft.

Then Ryan pulled out his trump card. “I think we could win the two MRCs,” he said. “The risk is in the number of casualties that we would take, and the depth to which those forces would be able to go before we could respond in a way that we would win. So the risk is measured in lives. I think that risk is very, very high and would be many, many lives.”

The Army chief of staff, General Dennis Reimer, agreed. “We’d like,” he said, “to have zero casualties.” But he also noted that the Army didn’t have a two-MRC capability either, even with its reserve forces fully mobilized. “Even with a total Army, you’ve got to shift some of your forces from one theater to the next theater because you need the same type of forces,” he said. “We don’t have that completely constructed right.”

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Such high-demand, low-density units – aviation, intelligence, reconnaissance, communications, medical – remain an Achilles’ heel for the U.S. military. They have long kept it from marshaling a true two-MRC force.

Former defense secretary and CIA chief James Schlesinger – who served in both Democratic and Republican administrations – declared the two-MRC capability a fable a decade ago, before 10 years of war ground down the U.S. military. “We don’t have the capability of two MRCs today,” he said in January 2001. “We are short in intelligence. We are short in communications…We really don’t have the capability for two MRCs.”

So best to take what Secretary Panetta says Thursday about the end of the Pentagon’s two-MRC strategy with a grain of salt. Plenty of old-timers who have spent decades around the Pentagon will tell him it’s old news.