The ongoing debate over the state of military readiness is once again reaching a fever pitch. Stars & Stripes recently surveyed a number of defense analysts about whether cries of a “readiness crisis” reflect reality or political rhetoric. Center for Strategic and International Studies defense budget expert Todd Harrison said it was more likely the latter, while Heritage Foundation defense policy analyst Justin Johnson leaned toward the former and suggested that without increased defense spending it was time to reconsider some the U.S. military’s missions. Katherine Blakeley of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments asked what might be the most important question regarding the aforementioned readiness crisis: “Ready for what?”

No military can specialize in everything. Organizations adopt functional specialties to fulfill a purpose, regularize organizational activities, and provide incentives to members of the organization to contribute to those activities. Military organizations also must deal with the uncertainty inherent in their lack of realistic opportunities to practice their craft and the fact that a similar organization is attempting to destroy it when it does. Militaries adopt doctrines to manage this uncertainty and create cohesion within the organization. These doctrines are informed by both the organization’s history and its culture, and thus influence the organization’s functional specialization. Specialization, doctrine, history, and culture therefore will have important implications for the question “ready for what?”

Responding to the op-ed by Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon and retired general David Patreaus in the Wall Street Journal that kicked off the latest round of the readiness debate, American Enterprise Institute scholars Thomas Donnelly and Roger Zakheim argue that the author’s optimistic view of the U.S. military’s condition is misplaced. In doing so, they raise an important point about the “ready for what” question, but they ignore questions of organizational history, culture, doctrine, and specialization in the process. Donnelly and Zakheim write:

Petraeus and O’Hanlon lampoon the worry that the U.S. military is “somehow not up to the next challenge.” The answer, of course, depends on what the next challenge is. We would simply note that the military has not been up to the challenges it has faced since 9/11: Despite the superb leadership shown by Petraeus and the tireless courage of the troops he led, America lacked the forces necessary to properly conduct campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.

But did the U.S. military lack the forces necessary to prosecute its two post-September 11th wars? Or were the forces entirely appropriate to the type of wars the U.S. military, and the U.S. Army in particular, were preparing for?

Donnelly and Zakheim argue that the U.S. military’s failings in Iraq and Afghanistan were the product of its inability to meet a “two-war standard.” But in Iraq, as discussed here previously, the military prosecuted the type of war it had prepared for in the years preceding September 11th. That is because the two-war standard it attempted to meet was appropriate to fighting a conventional war against a regional nation-state military power, such as that of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Where the failure occurred in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was not in the conventional phase, but in the postwar stability operations. Counterinsurgency was not a major aspect of the repertoire of America’s ground forces going into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Stability operations were considered “lesser-included” activities that could be trained for on an ad hoc basis. For the U.S. Army in particular, as Andrew Krepinevich has explained, these operations have long been anathema to the service’s historical focus on major conventional war.

It is possible that the U.S. military would have included counterinsurgency in its doctrinal development during the 1990s given greater resources, but it seems unlikely. As Richard Lacquement has documented, the two-war standard’s focus on major conventional war was a way to justify continuity with the military’s Cold War force structure and doctrine. Lacquement writes:

Unsurprisingly, for all the armed services, the focus remains on fighting wars. The central doctrinal statements have remained the same, including the focus on the two major theater wars as a central-force sizing tool. Each service has laid out a vision of how its war-fighting roles and other capabilities fit the new strategic environment. The remarkable outcome is that existing force structures from the Cold War era have been doctrinally justified as sufficient to meet the different strategic demands of the post-Cold War era. In other words, doctrine and strategic vision have been a means for the services to explain how the forces they already possess, with their existing organizational structures, are capable of meeting the strategic demands of the revised national security strategy and national military strategy.

Oddly, in their conclusion, the authors seemingly chide the U.S. military for overcorrecting today for their lack of emphasis on counterinsurgency prior to the post-September 11th wars. They argue that instead of focusing on future stability operations, the military should be preparing for a more “demanding contingency”—seemingly, a conventional war with Russia. But it was not lack of preparation for conventional war that led to America’s military failures in the Middle East. The political goal of the conflict in Iraq demanded the restoration of stability and the establishment friendly, democratic government after success in the conventional phase of the war. Achieving such a goal was probably untenable under any circumstances, but the status of postwar stability operations as a “lesser-included” activity made sure the military had not trained for the state-building activities that followed the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Functional specialization will continue to matter to the “ready for what” question. Organizations specialize for good reasons. No organization can prepare for every contingency and be expected to provide competency in every activity. So when demanding a two-war standard as the measure of military readiness, it is important to ask: which two wars?