Joseph J. Collins
Every four years, the defense community waits on pins and needles for the Quadrennial Defense Review. Some succumb to quadrennial defense delusion, the hope that the new QDR can do it all: rationalize strategy, program, and budget; unveil creative solutions to age-old defense problems; and drain uncertainty from the security environment. Of course, no document awash in inter-branch politics and tied to budget cycles can work such miracles, yet a clear-eyed look at this year’s QDR suggests there is much to applaud — if also room for criticism.
QDR 2014 contains a decent estimate of the volatile security environment. It follows the Defense Strategic Guidance and last summer’s Strategic Choices and Management Review. Produced with the threat of sequestration temporarily lifted by the Ryan-Murray budget deal, it matches available resources with the extant strategy and program, knowing well that the United States has more defense aspirations than resources. It makes prudent cuts and protects those aspects of the program previously staked out by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: cyber; space; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programs; and special operations forces. In all, QDR 2014 will help to rebalance the force for a broad spectrum of conflict.
In short, the Pentagon essentially got it right, and deserves two cheers for what it did, and a parting kvetch for what it was not able to do.
The first cheer is for matching the threat, the force, and the strategy. None of the services walked away unscathed, but all survived in good order. As expected, the big loser was the active duty Army, cut back from a high of 570,000 to 440,000 or 450,000, about where it was before the attacks of September 2001. (Some strategic analysts had recommended that it fall to 290,000. A few knowledgeable Army generals — just weeks before publication — firmly believed that the Army total would be 420,000 or less.) The Army’s reserve components took a smaller cut, as did the active Marine Corps, a force with a well-deserved reputation for organizational agility. Special Operations Forces will actually grow a few thousand spaces and focus more on train and assist missions, as opposed to kinetic, direct action operations.
The Navy kept its 11th aircraft carrier and its two versions of the F-35, but capped the number of its unpopular littoral combat ships. The Navy earned an option to come up with better, more lethal ship designs. The Air Force did the best of all the services: it kept its new fighter, the F-35A, and new programs for a bomber and a refueling tanker. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the Air Force plans to cut the entire aging A-10 fleet to afford these new modernization efforts.
Across the services, DoD leaders made modest cuts in pay and housing allowances, and proposed Tricare changes. They began, again, to reduce the civilian workforce and overall headquarters strength. While fixing the retirement issue was beyond the scope of this QDR, the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, scheduled to report out in February 2015, may well develop a comprehensive solution. It will, however, be controversial; pay, benefits, health care, and retirement issues have become highly and loudly politicized. Lobbies for the service, retirees, and veterans have created another political third rail for legislators. For example, in the past few months, a COLA cap for younger retirees — an idea popular among legislators and analysts — was passed but almost as quickly repealed after loud complaints of unfairness from retiree and veterans’ organizations. For compensation issues, even a good, comprehensive solution will have a long and difficult march to reach effective legislation.
In all, the QDR did as well as possible in crafting and maintaining a force that can address complex contingencies, while rebalancing to meet the needs of the future. The force presented in the QDR should be capable of homeland defense, defeating a regional aggressor, and holding another at bay.
The second cheer for the QDR is in how it dealt with risk. Time after time, the review reminded the reader (and the Congress) what would happen to our force if sequestration again comes into play. Land forces will lose another 37,000 soldiers and Marines, the Navy will lose an aircraft carrier, and the Air Force will have to retire another 80 aircraft. On the most basic level, sequestration would shrink our forces and, worse, cut deeply into readiness for all of the Services.
In his own assessment of the QDR, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Dempsey emphasized the risks: “…in the next 10 years, I expect the risk of interstate conflict in East Asia to rise, the vulnerability of our platforms and basing to increase, our technological edge to erode, instability to persist in the Middle East, and threats posed by violent extremist organizations to endure. Nearly any future conflict will occur on a much faster pace and on a more technically challenging battlefield. And, in the case of US involvement in conflicts overseas, the homeland will no longer be a sanctuary either for our forces or for our citizens.”
While the chairman was concerned about the overall size of the joint force, he was particularly concerned with the capacity of the nation’s land forces. He recommended a ready, joint, full-spectrum force and a comprehensive review of our mobilization capabilities. He cited three areas of higher risk: “more difficult conventional fights,” more reliance on increasingly less-capable allies, and the sheer difficulties associated with more capable regional competitors. He concluded with this historically accurate judgment: “estimations of how and where we would fight a war or militarily intervene will also probably be largely wrong.” Developments in the Ukraine remind us of the prevalence of surprise and uncertainty in today’s security environment. The only solution to this continuing uncertainty is a balanced, agile force, ready for action across the spectrum of conflict.
Critics of the QDR
The QDR has its fair share of important critics. HASC Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon — a retiring lame duck — demanded a re-write. In a committee press release, he faulted the QDR for not producing a moderate- to low-risk strategy, and claimed that it was a budget-driven review, that “only looks out 5 years, instead of the 20 years required by law.”
There is much to be said in defense of the Pentagon here. For one, the QDR and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs addressed risk in detail. Gen. Dempsey concluded that if we avoid sequestration caps that the strategy presented was one of moderate risk. In Defense News, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Development David Ochmanek, an architect of the QDR, said the review was resource-informed, but strategy, not budget-driven. He noted that the environmental studies looked out to 2030, but the Pentagon only built the force out to the end of the defense program. In this budget climate, programming even five years out may be a fool’s errand.
Common sense and common practice support the Pentagon here. Developing a force 20 years out is impossible, and other QDRs have not tried. Our vision is just not that good. I participated in 1996 in a more modest, long-term exercise, led by the Joint Chiefs, and entitled Joint Vision 2010. While the paper aimed far short of a comprehensive strategy and was accurate on some of the technology-related issues, it missed the changing threat and said almost nothing about the advent of the al Qaeda-style terrorism. Interestingly, as the only long-range document on the shelf, it was adopted in 1997 by Secretary Cohen and became a part of the first Quadrennial Defense Review.
Even worse, the successor document, Joint Vision 2020, published within a year of 9/11, continued the focus on high-technology conventional operations focus, despite al Qaeda’s growing prominence. Both documents were focused on dominant maneuver, precision engagement, focused logistics, full-dimensional protection, and information superiority. They both pointed toward “full spectrum dominance” as the goal, but neither document really considered the low end of the conflict spectrum. They did not have a substantive view about the war on terrorism or al Qaeda, by then the wolf closest to the national sled. On 9/11, despite these long-range, visionary studies, we were caught looking the other way, prisoners of service war-fighting concepts and our shared passion for high-technology solutions.
There was one exception to this four-star groupthink. Gen. Chuck Krulak, the commandant of the Marine Corps at the same time developed the concept of the three-block war — a prediction of an operational environment characterized by nearly simultaneous combat, peacekeeping, and humanitarian assistance. In December 1997, he told the National Press Club that “our enemies will not allow us to fight the Son of Desert Storm, but will try to draw us into the stepchild of Chechnya.” Four years later, it was Krulak’s vision, not that of the other Chiefs, that was closer to reality. His concept better captured the role played by our forces in the war on terrorism that would follow.
In short, looking out 20 years is fine, but Gen. Dempsey was right: our record of prediction is generally dismal and shows no signs of improving. Perhaps what Eisenhower said about planning is also true about assessments and strategies: “plans are nothing, but planning is everything.”
Filling the strategic void
While the QDR has done what it could, how can we get at the concerns expressed by HASC Chairman McKeon? For a better and more thoughtful product, we need a less politicized version of strategic studies to light the path to the future and spur intra- and inter-branch dialog about strategic issues.
The QDR’s limitations have been discussed, above. In conjunction with the QDR, at Congress’s insistence, in various laws, we are required to have a National Security Strategy, signed by the President; a Defense Strategy, signed by the Secretary of Defense and included with the QDR; and a National Military Strategy (NMS), signed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The latter is generally the least interesting of the three because the Chairman commands no formations and directly controls very few defense resources. All three of these documents are routinely ridiculed for pulling punches, ambiguity, and pablum-like pronouncements. We can do better strategic analysis, but not as long as all of our strategic studies are tied to bureaucracies with an eye on independence, programs, and budgets.
We need a standing commission, something to serve the field of thoughtful strategy in the same way that the Government Accountability Office does the field of audit and accounting. The National Strategy Commission can be both a creature of the Executive and Legislative branches, with senior executives appointed by each. Its mission would be the conduct of strategic studies, classified or unclassified, on an agreed-on agenda, by individual tasking, or at the initiative of the commissioners themselves. The Commission can also serve as a standing red team for other strategic studies. Its work would range from the practical to the highly theoretical. It would be free to speculate about futures and to work on real cases or hypotheticals. Any public Commission product would be available to both the Executive and Legislative branches, but either branch could also request an eyes only study. The National Strategy Commission would not be a public think-tank, but it would be a consumer of think-tank products. Indeed, it should help in-box strategists by vacuuming up and assessing think-tank products.
The Commission could study the issue of how small the US Armed Forces could become before it was necessary to change the strategy. Risk assessments could become its specialty. It could also do alternative strategies, comparing, for example, today’s strategy of forward presence and engagement with an over the horizon, off-shore balancing strategy, favored by John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Christopher Layne.
We will never have neutral vessels of knowledge working for the government. Policy, strategy, program, and budget are branches of the same tree, and we will need senior leaders who can bring them into harmony. We can also benefit by having strategists who are more like the mythical rational actor, and who can do studies with greater bureaucratic objectivity. In the process, they may be able to inoculate us against the quadrennial defense delusion.
Joseph J. Collins teaches strategy at the National War College. A retired Army colonel, he served for nearly 12 years in the Pentagon. From 2001 to 2004, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. This article is his alone and does not represent the policy or the opinion of any U.S. government agency.