The Pentagon's Papers

The Defense Department is about to conduct its quadrennial policy review. But instead of being a funding wish list, the exercise should force the Pentagon to make hard choices about which programs to keep and which ones to axe.

Last week, the Department of Defense announced it was preparing to conduct its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and released its "terms of reference" that set the stage for the larger report. In theory, the QDR is meant to outline the Defense Department's strategy and priorities. In the past, it has been an unrealistic exercise. This is unlikely to change.  

In order to exercise its "power of the purse," Congress has required that the president not only issue a QDR (obviously every four years) but also a national-security strategy (NSS) annually. To start, this NSS-which represents the president's thinking on the threats to America's national security-should provide guidance for the Department of Defense and, thus, the QDR. We have yet to see this happen.

In 2001, the QDR was issued nine months before President Bush's NSS, and the 2006 QDR came out before Bush's second NSS. (Instead of issuing one NSS every year, the Bush administration issued only two in eight years.) And in DOD's announcement this past Friday, that it is preparing to conduct its 2010 QDR, there is no mention of the NSS. Moreover, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already made significant changes in strategy and priorities in his 2010 budget request. What strategic framework guided these decisions? Certainly not the NSS or the QDR. They have yet to exist.

We need also keep in mind that there are never enough funds to eliminate all the risks to our national security, and so the QDR should force DOD to make hard choices. This also rarely happens. In both the 2001 and 2006 QDRs, there was an important debate about whether the DOD should transform itself by emphasizing technology at the expense of manpower to become a different kind of twenty-first century war-fighting machine. But the QDRs of these two years did not make the necessary cuts to manpower that were needed to fund new technologies. In fact, a few months after the 2006 QDR was issued, President Bush agreed to increase the size of our ground forces by 92,500 soldiers, with no reductions in new transforming technologies.

The terms of reference for the 2010 QDR make it likely that it will fall into the same trap. It says DOD will institutionalize capabilities such as counterinsurgency and foreign military assistance, and maintain its existing conventional and strategic technological edge against other military forces. It leaves unanswered, however, the question of which gets priority-counterinsurgency or conventional war-and thus where the marginal dollar should go.

The QDR should also help decide whether DOD's emphasis should be on specific threats or the capabilities of other international actors. During the cold war, U.S. forces were constituted to deal with the threat from the USSR. This year's terms of reference document talks about challenges from "rising powers with sophisticated weapons." To which countries are they referring? China, India or Iran? Or maybe North Korea? Or all of the above?

This newest QDR will not be a useful framework for the Obama administration-and the budgetary choices the White House will make throughout its first term-if it does not reflect Obama's national-security priorities, the realities of monetary constraints and the need to clearly define our enemy. We can only hope that Obama's team does a better job than their predecessors.


Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information, served as assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration.