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Planning for the Future? Examining the Pentagon's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review

The Pentagon's long-awaited Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is out. By law, the major defense strategy must look forward 20 years and delineate how the U.S. will structure its armed forces. The QDR is supposed to outline the Pentagon's threat assessments, military strategy, force structure, and budgetary plans, and it should establish a road map for defense programs that will prepare for an uncertain future.

Because defense policy is subordinate to foreign policy, the strategy must take its cue from the President's National Security Strategy (NSS). The President's foreign policy strategy must follow from the nation's vital interests rather than vice versa. America's military power should match the commitments that America's military is expected to keep, which in turn are dictated by how America's political leaders, over time, define the nation's interests and responsibilities.

Learning from Past QDR Shortfalls

Congress created the Quadrennial Defense Review to address the need for a more comprehensive, farsighted, and strategy-based assessment of future military requirements, but the QDR process has largely come undone. Over time, the QDR's analytical supporting process has dramatically improved, but the outcome has diminished in usefulness, relevance, and longevity impact.

The 1997 QDR. The first QDR kept the two war force sizing construct and added engagement in smaller-scale operations as part of the new plan. At the time, however, U.S. military endstrength was already insufficient to enable the military to fight and win in two simultaneous major theater wars, and troop levels declined by another 53,000 over the next four years.

The report failed to call on Congress to allocate the resources necessary under the strategy and instead justified future decreases in military funding by cautioning that "the nation is unlikely to support significantly more resources for national defense" and that "we may yet face pressures to lower DoD's share of federal expenditures."

The 2001 QDR. The second QDR began as a peacetime review that assumed the United States was entering another period of relative calm. It largely underestimated the terrorist threat and assumed that the U.S. would not need to participate in a land war in Asia for many years.

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the QDR was hastily revised. Under the direction of Donald Rumsfeld, the QDR established a 'new' force sizing construct, calling for forces that could defend the homeland; extend deterrence in four regions; swiftly defeat aggression in two major operations simultaneously; and preserve the ability to achieve "decisive victory" in at least one of those contingencies. While the 2001 QDR focused more heavily on homeland defense and the role of the Special Operations Forces, the report still largely reflected the pre-9/11 strategic environment.

QDR 2006. The third QDR heavily emphasized the requirements of the global war on terrorism and shifted the focus from "traditional" wars to asymmetric or irregular conflicts. The QDR maintained the two-war force planning metric, although with some variation.

Despite again adding to the military's missions, the QDR did not call for an increase in military endstrength or funding. Instead, it called for personnel cuts, increasing only the number of Special Operations Forces. In addition, Pentagon leaders decided that the QDR's recommendations should be resource-neutral and proposed to pay for any new directives by cutting other programs. As a result, the 2006 QDR, like the previous two reviews, was excessively budget-constrained and failed to address a growing funding gap that was increasingly being filled by emergency supplemental spending bills.

Observations About the 2010 QDR

The latest QDR lacks long-term vision and serves largely as an analytical justification for current defense plans and programs--including the scaling back of modernization for next-generation systems.

The Pentagon Strategy Was Issued in the Absence of White House Foreign Policy Guidance. While the 2010 QDR references the forthcoming National Security Strategy expected from the White House, there is still no official, published foreign policy guidance by the President to inform the Pentagon's review. Critical foreign policy guidance from the Administration is supposed to include the delineation of U.S. vital national interests, America's role in the world, and how to meet these priorities. Defense strategy is supposed to be subordinate to foreign policy.

The QDR Fails to Meet Statutory Requirements or Provide a 20-Year Defense Road Map. Congress intended the QDR to be a comprehensive, farsighted, and strategy-based assessment of future military requirements. Current law outlines the 15 primary tasks the QDR is supposed to achieve. Chief among these guidelines is for Pentagon leaders to examine the "effect on force structure of the use by the armed forces of technologies anticipated to be available for the ensuing 20 years." By proposing to only study many future challenges and focusing largely on present operations, the QDR falls short of its overall responsibilities and usefulness.

The QDR Claims to Be Both Strategy-Driven and Resource-Constrained. Both cannot be true. The document claims to be driven by strategy and then states resource constraints will "not allow our government to fully address all of the potential challenges that present themselves. Choices must be made. Some initiatives can be taken right away; others must be postponed." Given how the strategy largely supports defense initiatives and investment shifts that began over one year ago, the QDR is clearly informed by the President's defense budget plans of a no-real-growth defense budget over the long-term. Therefore, the logical conclusion remains that the analysis was primarily budget-driven.

The Strategy Is Largely an Analytical Justification of the President's FY 2010 Defense Budget Request. Last year's watershed defense budget, which dramatically reshaped the composition of defense investment, was an extension of the 2008 National Defense Strategy--issued by the previous Administration. The fiscal year 2010 defense budget was approved by Congress without a detailed five-year budget plan and lacking 30-year shipbuilding or aviation plans. The decisions to decrease some long-standing capabilities happened in the absence of any careful reevaluation of America's global mission. The QDR and President's budget request for FY 2011 basically continue down the path articulated last year. The QDR should have preceded these major budget changes instead of seeking to justify them afterward.

The QDR Understates Requirements and Overestimates the Capabilities of the Force Defense Officials Are Willing to Sustain. The strategy clearly outlines certain future threats but then offers inadequate solutions based largely upon extending today's legacy force structure indefinitely. There is scant proposed investment in high-end, next generation platforms. The majority of force structure recommendations are those either currently underway or others that were already on the books as planned programs. Many programmatic solutions rely on more of the same: simply upgrading legacy systems. The problem is the legacy fleets of major systems average in age from 20 to 40 years old and cannot be extended forever.

Many of the Strategy's Solutions Demand U.S. Forces Manage and Assume Additional Risk. The answer to many shortfalls identified as a result of QDR analysis is to demand U.S. forces manage and assume additional risk. Current law describes the primary tasks of the QDR, including the recommended force structure best suited to implement the national defense strategy at a "low-to-moderate level of risk." The current QDR does not specify:

  • How much risk and under what precise scenarios;
  • How to actually manage future risk better;
  • Which service will assume more risk and when;
  • The implications of additional risk on the force, including longer duration conflict, higher casualties, slower mobilization rates, decreased domestic readiness, etc.; or
  • The foreign policy ramifications as a result of increased military risk.

The QDR Is Wise to Retain and Institutionalize Critical Counterinsurgency Capabilities the U.S. Shed After Vietnam
. Following the Vietnam War, the U.S. military became a "hollow force" that was given insufficient resources for adequate training, new weapons and equipment, and ongoing operations. After consciously ignoring lessons learned from the Philippine conflict, the U.S. Army was then devoid of a baseline doctrine for the many counterinsurgencies that would punctuate the next century.

After Vietnam, the Army similarly divested itself of counterinsurgency experience in order to focus on conventional combat. The QDR smartly reiterates where the services are already going, particularly the U.S. Army, to ensure essential counterinsurgency skills, training, and doctrine are not lost after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan conclude.

The Strategy Adequately Addresses Today's Conflicts and the Health of the Force but Does Not Address Current Risks Posed by Existing Funding and Capability Shortfalls. The QDR should have begun by addressing funding and capability shortfalls that exist in today's force. The annual defense budget request regularly proposes to underfund the Pentagon's own plans and programs, but the risks are overlooked and left unexplained.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, simply executing current Pentagon plans would require "sustaining annual defense funding over the long term at higher real (inflation-adjusted) levels than those that occurred at the peak of the buildup in the mid-1980s."

By not openly discussing any existing shortfalls--including underinvestment--the QDR begins its assessment behind the curve of reality. Many recommendations to maintain the legacy fleets of ships, planes, and vehicles will only keep military plans on a static, linear path forward.

The dilemma is that the legacy fleet is in urgent need of modernization for high-end systems, most of which were built in the 1980s with technology from the 1970s. Given the procurement cycles and timelines of next-generation systems, this could easily result in a decade-long setback of investment in modernization.

The Force Sizing Construct Grows Yet Again Without Robust New Investment. No serious defense planner would deny that the United States might need to fight two wars at approximately the same time, particularly given the U.S. troop disposition around the globe, including in Korea, Europe, and the Middle East. Retaining the crucial two-war construct is important, but throwing in the kitchen sink of every other conceivable mission while not proposing a larger force defies reality and requirements that are already under-met.

An Informed Debate Is Critical

In the absence of significant information last year that should have informed the 2010 defense budget debate, Congress wisely established an independent panel to draw its own assessments and conclusions about the QDR. A transparent public debate regarding how America's military should be organized for the future is overdue.

Congress should encourage the independent panel to immediately begin testing the assumptions and recommendations of the QDR and identifying the strategy's shortfalls vis-à-vis the QDR statute. Congress must strictly hold the panel to its March deadline for the submission of an interim report--a critical first step that will help inform the posture hearings and markup of defense legislation later this spring.

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