Future Military Scenarios Involving American Forces

Michael E. O’Hanlon

It is an honor to appear before the Committee’s panel today to discuss future military scenarios. The Committee has suggested that we focus on five countries—China, North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and India. I would categorically dismiss the need to prepare for any conflict against India. And I would add at least a small number of additional countries and possible conflicts to the list. But on balance, I believe the Committee’s focus on China, North Korea, Iran, and Pakistan to be a good starting point. To complement the contributions of others who are focusing on East Asia, this testimony focuses on South and Southwest Asia.

Among its other implications, my analysis suggests that the U.S. military will need substantial numbers of ground forces even after the Iraq operation is complete. It will also have to retain substantial numbers of advanced naval and air forces. The requisite numbers are unlikely to be any more than today, and perhaps somewhat less. Quite likely, there will be opportunity to do what the Navy has already begun to do, cutting personnel modestly as it devises more efficient ways of performing various tasks. But the overall message of this analysis is one of conservatism. Those who would radically reshape the American armed forces, even in the aftermath of the Iraq operation, may not have given sufficient attention to the wide range of possible and quite demanding scenarios that could threaten U.S. security thereafter. At least two that are quite plausible—involving conflict against North Korea or in the Taiwan Strait—could involve 200,000 or more American forces for months and perhaps even longer. Several others, some of which could continue for years should they ever begin, could involve 30,000 to 50,000 American troops at a time. That would imply a need for a force structure at least three to four times as large. And of course, it is entirely conceivable that two of these operations, or even more, could occur over the same time period.