Another QDR Failure?

The next Quadrennial Defense Review comes at a crucial moment—yet appears likely to offer more pablum.

We again approach another release of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). This will be the fifth QDR published since the Congress established the process as part of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). After numerous conversations with officials at the Pentagon and experts from the think-tank community, I am concerned that this QDR may again fall well below both Congressional expectations and legal requirements. At a time when the Department of Defense could use a document like this to shape its future forces and build a case for the resources necessary to meet twenty-first century challenges, it appears the upcoming QDR will instead propose an inadequate force structure and a modernization plan built around a budget that continues to distribute a static and relatively equal amount of resources to each service.

The QDR has had a mixed history. They have certainly served to guide the Department in new directions on important issues like the future of long-range strike, security assistance, and the size and shape of our special operations community, among others. However, while they were intended to bring consistency to long-range defense planning and investments, they have instead been employed by various Secretaries as rubber-stamps to justify a lowest-common-denominator approach to national security. Just as alarming, the last QDR in 2010 failed to build an enduring case for our national-defense policy to the Congress and the American public, and it was abandoned after just twenty-four months with the release of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance.

Since the first QDR in 1997, this Nation has fought a global conflict against Islamist terrorists, witnessed the rise of disruptive states pursuing nuclear weapons like Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and watched the People’s Republic of China vastly expand its military-modernization efforts. Yet despite facing a more unpredictable and, in many ways, more dangerous world than the years immediately following the Cold War, subsequent QDRs have accepted a shrinking force structure and reduced modernization investments. As a result, many elements of our nation’s military continue to depend on weapons systems that were first designed and fielded in the 1980s or earlier. With each QDR and Presidential Budget came new promises that our nation could do more with less. While the ingenuity and commitment of our men and women in uniform could often generate greater efficiencies than our budget allowed, some two decades later this equation no longer adds up. Given current resources, our military has been left with the choice to either to tell the president and the nation that it cannot do what is required of it, or attempt to apply its declining resources to an at best static and at worst growing list of requirements.

The net effect of our decisions has led to a slow abandonment of the two-conflict force-planning construct that has been a cornerstone of our defense planning for the last twenty years. Indeed, in 2010 the Department did not include a force-planning construct in the final document as it is required to do by law. The Independent Panel that assessed the 2010 QDR concluded that it was a missed opportunity to include a “clearly articulated force-planning construct that the military services and Congress can use to measure the adequacy of U.S. forces.” I fundamentally believe that maintaining a national ability to conduct two simultaneous major contingency operations is a necessary requirement for the United States to continue to shape the emerging security environment and maintain its status as a global superpower. Walking away from this approach would challenge our ability to maintain a credible diplomatic and military presence across the Indo-Pacific, from the Straits of Hormuz to the East China Sea. Indeed, the two-conflict planning construct is the very basis for our post-Cold War national-security strategy.

Even more remarkably, despite the changing shape of threats the United States has faced over the last two decades, each of the military services have continued to receive a relatively static portion of budget resources. Despite our shifting global commitments from deterring crises in places like Iraq and North Korea during the 1990s, to counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2000s, and now to a greater air and maritime focus along the littorals of the Indo-Pacific, our defense investments have somehow remained remarkably similar across the services. This means that all the services benefit in flush times and all share pain equally in times of scarcity, irrespective of overarching national strategy and emerging threats. The “fair-share” approach is antithetical to good strategic planning and the Pentagon, whatever the size of its budget, cannot afford to continue on this course. Put another way, if the United States is going to posture its conventional and strategic forces to maintain a competitive advantage in the decade ahead, we are going to have to do much more than striving to dole out equal shares of the Pentagon budget pie. A truly strategic assessment of our force-modernization plans in this coming QDR would step back, consider the individual contributions each service can make to our national-defense strategy in the coming twenty years, and then proceed to build a budget from there.

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