War Plans Meaner, Not Leaner

William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail:

When Donald Rumsfeld was named secretary of Defense in 2001, he made clear that his department would break with the past. He vowed to abandon outmoded Cold War military planning and eliminate Clinton-era strategies that officials felt were both bloated and misdirected.

Now the Rumsfeld revision has been quietly unveiled, and the ambitious new strategy, far from streamlining the process, actually increases both the number of contingencies that war planners must consider and the number of plans they must prepare.

Part of what has engorged the new approach to planning is the need for a wider range of military options in a post-9/11 world. But the strategy also reflects the Bush administration’s ambitious new approach to world affairs.


The Rumsfeld plan envisions what it labels a “1-4-2-1 defense strategy,” in which war planners prepare to fully defend one country (the United States), maintain forces capable of “deterring aggression and coercion” in four “critical regions” (Europe, Northeast Asia, East Asia, and the Middle East and Southwest Asia), maintain the ability to defeat aggression in two of these regions simultaneously, and be able to “win decisively” -- up to and including forcing regime change and occupying a country -- in one of those conflicts “at a time and place of our choosing.”

The new strategy embraces the administration’s philosophy of preemptive strikes as well as the Rumsfeld vision of integrating special and covert operations and nuclear weapons into future conventional military planning. At a time when American military forces are already stretched to the limit, the new strategy goes far beyond preparing for reactive contingencies and reads more like a plan for picking fights in new parts of the world.

In the Clinton era, the Pentagon planned for fighting two wars simultaneously (in the Middle East and Northeast Asia). Under the new strategy, it must prepare for four. As a result, the Pentagon must redirect its thinking toward smaller, leaner strike forces, able to get the job done with fewer troops by making use of powerful precision weapons and newly developed information technologies. Troops will be placed closer to target areas with a new network of overseas bases, and regular forces will be integrated with special operations and augmented by CIA and other nonmilitary personnel.

Although Rumsfeld originally hoped to reduce the number of war plans needed, a senior Defense Department civilian official says the desire for more flexibility has actually resulted in “more scenarios” and “a larger number of permutations,” of a sort that could ultimately necessitate more defense spending.

The 1-4-2-1 construct, first spelled out in Contingency Planning Guidance signed by President Bush in August 2002 and refined over the last year, orders the military to prepare 68 war plans. Under Bill Clinton, the military had 66 such plans. Under the Rumsfeld strategy the new plans will be focused on “theaterwide” rather than “country-specific” scenarios. The change reflects an attitude in Rumsfeld’s inner circle, especially after the rapid victory in Afghanistan, that American military forces are so good they can take on any nation using the same general plan with little country-specific preparation.

Despite Rumsfeld’s early conviction to eliminate Cold War “bloat” and Clinton excesses, some major aspects of war planning haven’t changed much. Now, as then, the cornerstone of planning is to ready the country for the possibility of large-scale wars against Iraq and North Korea. Now, as then, plans are being readied in the event of war with Iran. Now, as then, Russia is virtually ignored as a conventional military opponent, and China was relegated to the “too-hard-to-plan-for” category.


But other things have changed dramatically. Sept. 11 necessitated the Defense Department’s revision of some of its mission. The military now has “campaign plans” for both the global war on terrorism and for homeland security. One such document, the super-secret “OPLAN 2525,” outlines contingencies up to and including the military taking control in the event of a breakdown of civil authority after a massive terrorist attack. And the Special Operations Command has been directed for the first time to prepare plans to conduct its own covert operations.

The planning strategy also for the first time fully integrates special operations and the CIA into its war plans, undoubtedly because both forces made such major contributions to the military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Rumsfeld’s new approach also integrates nuclear planning into the more generalized war planning. Knowledgeable Defense officials say the “segregation” of nuclear and conventional war planning for scenarios such as North Korea and China has formally ended. The 1-4-2-1 approach, says one consultant study prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, “is allowing strategic nuclear capabilities to become but one component of a spectrum of potential strategic responses to global terrorism and rogue nations, rather than a separate level of capability.”

The approach would almost certainly result in further increases in defense spending. To facilitate a more comprehensive approach to global defense and warfare, overseas bases are likely to be expanded and new ones opened in order to allow for pre-positioning of heavy equipment overseas. Faster ships will be needed, as will more aerial refuelers and increased airlift capacity.

The military also must expand and reorganize its strike forces. Already, the Army is reassigning some 18,000 regular soldiers to special operations, homeland defense and chemical/biological units. The Navy is nearly doubling the number of its strike groups (from 19 to 37). The Air Force is buying smaller smart bombs to be able to deliver more weapons to more targets.

During the summer of 2001, Rumsfeld, making the kind of ABC (anything but Clinton) statement common in the new administration, attacked the military planning process. Quoting from a much-read military history of the Pearl Harbor attack, he said planning was obscured by “a routine obsession with a few dangers that may be familiar rather than likely.”


The planning model Rumsfeld and company have embraced is certainly more ambitious. It covers domestic and foreign contingencies and favors preemption over diplomacy, and military strikes over peacekeeping operations. The plan signals to the world that the United States considers nuclear weapons useful military instruments, to be employed where warranted.

But in their single-minded desire to maintain global strike forces at the ready, Rumsfeld and his planners betray a blind spot. Military triumphs are only part of the picture. Unless as much planning goes into the peace that follows victory, even the best-laid war plans can’t create a better world.