February 1, 2006  

What the QDR should say

The Quadrennial Defense Review must stimulate long-term change

The report summarizing the work of the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review will be sent to Congress on Feb. 6. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort contributing to this process over the past year, and although I can’t leak what’s in the report — I write before the release date — I can suggest what I thought the report should say, based on the underlying strategic logic. In other words, here’s how you should think about the QDR.

I’m not going to try to be comprehensive or list every issue the report should address. But I will focus on the issues that most directly affect defense strategy and the capabilities and force structure the U.S. armed forces require to execute that strategy, and which are central to the strategic logic of the QDR.

The 2005 QDR differs significantly from its two predecessors, the 1997 and 2001 QDRs, in three fundamental ways. First, and most obviously, the 2005 QDR is the first to be conducted while the nation is at war. Fully addressing the demands of this war is imperative, while also paying adequate attention to other major, if more distant and contingent challenges that could have a large impact on the nation’s future security. Second, a review of the national defense strategy was conducted prior to the 2005 QDR. As a result, the 2005 QDR principally focuses on making the new defense strategy operational. The strategy was published simultaneously last March with the QDR’s Terms of Reference. This enabled much greater attention to be paid to potential changes to the department’s capability mix. Third, the 2005 QDR recognizes that challenges such as homeland defense, the war on terrorism, and stability operations and post-conflict reconstruction transcend the responsibilities and authorities of the Defense Department.

To be sure, the 2005 QDR also places far greater attention on enterprise management and human-capital issues. Among the most important issues in these areas are actions to speed up the acquisition cycle while reducing cost, and initiatives to attract new talent, including many more native or “heritage” foreign-language speakers, into the Defense Department. In my judgment, however, the three ways in which the 2005 QDR departs from its predecessors provide the primary means by which the review should be evaluated.

The following criteria might be used to evaluate the QDR: Has the QDR provided the capabilities and capacities required to prevail in the global war on terrorism (GWOT), including those that will be needed for battlegrounds on which the GWOT likely will be fought? Has it adequately addressed the full range of major challenges the nation likely will confront between 2005 and 2025, the time horizon for the QDR? Has sufficient action been taken, on both the investment and divestment sides, to realign the department’s capability mix with current and emerging challenges? Has the QDR produced a force-planning construct that realistically accounts for the anticipated scope and scale of aggregate demand for military capabilities? Does the force-planning construct provide plausible theories of victory for the full range of major contingencies in which force likely is to be used? Has the QDR identified a plausible approach for aligning responsibilities across the U.S. government commensurate with 21st century challenges, and has it taken steps to secure the required authorities? More fundamentally, has the QDR met its principal purpose of serving as a catalyst for long-term change? A central theme of the 2005 National Defense Strategy is that while the Defense Department requires forces to deter and, if necessary, defeat traditional adversaries, it also must be prepared for nontraditional challenges posed by adversaries who employ irregular, catastrophic or disruptive approaches and means. Current and potential adversaries include intrastate insurgents battling friendly governments and U.S. forces, transnational terrorists with global reach, rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), transnational terrorists seeking to use WMD against the United States and its partners, and rising powers that may acquire capabilities that could hold current U.S. forces at high risk.

A key challenge for the QDR was how to make the 2005 National Defense Strategy operational. The department’s leadership did so by focusing the QDR on four principal areas: defeating terrorist extremism, defending the homeland in-depth, shaping the choices of countries at strategic crossroads and preventing hostile state or nonstate actors from acquiring or using WMD. These areas by no means include the full range of operations the military must be prepared to conduct, but they do comprise the most demanding challenges that likely lie ahead. Operationalizing the strategy required describing in detail the character and scope of each challenge, the end state desired, the approaches that would be used and the key capabilities needed to employ the desired approach and achieve the specified end state.


Operationalizing the National Defense Strategy then required determining whether the current defense program is sufficiently aligned with the major challenges the department anticipates, and, if not, taking necessary action to reorient it. An examination of the QDR’s four focus areas suggests that early action, persistence, global reach, freedom to operate, strengthened intelligence and the ability to leverage the contributions of partners while imposing increased costs on current and potential adversaries will be key attributes for the future defense-capability mix. It also strongly suggests that the current defense program needs rebalancing in several areas. Capabilities and capacities that at present are insufficiently supplied include special operations forces (SOF); general-purpose ground forces with greater irregular warfare capabilities; persistent, penetrating long-range strike and surveillance capabilities; small, survivable surface combatants; and, over the longer term, additional undersea warfare capabilities. There also are capability and capacity shortfalls that need to be addressed in nuclear detection and “render safe” capabilities and in broad defenses against advanced biological threats. Capabilities and capacities that are oversupplied include attack fighters, general-purpose ground forces oriented toward traditional conflict, and large surface combatants.


The global war on terrorism and irregular warfare more broadly will likely be the dominant form of conflict over the next two decades. The GWOT soon will shift from operations in combat zones (i.e., Iraq and Afghanistan) to a largely indirect and clandestine fight in multiple countries with which the United States is not at war. This will place a premium on SOF. Substantial resources have been provided to SOF since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — the budget of U.S. Special Operations Command almost doubled between fiscal 2001 and 2006, and several thousand additional personnel have been added — but most of these resources have gone to staffing SOF global and theater headquarters for a protracted war, bringing operational units up to near full strength, and replacing combat-equipment losses. The SOF force structure that existed prior to Sept. 11 essentially is the same force structure we retain today. Meanwhile, operational tempo has nearly doubled. A high percentage of deployed SOF, moreover, are concentrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving little capability for other areas. To prevail in the GWOT and to operate effectively on the indirect and clandestine battlefield on which the war will principally be fought, it is imperative that SOF force structure be increased significantly in several areas. Force-structure increases are most needed in Special Forces and in classified Special Mission Units. To reduce the ungoverned areas in which terrorists find sanctuary, additional force structure also will be needed for persistent air surveillance. Next-generation clandestine air mobility platforms will need to be developed to insert and extract SOF into and from denied areas, and a significant increase in locating, tagging and tracking capabilities is needed for global manhunts and other clandestine operations.


General-purpose ground forces likely will be called upon to conduct a wide range of irregular warfare missions. These missions likely will run the gamut from training and advising foreign forces to conducting small (battalion- to brigade-size), medium (division-size) and large-scale (multidivision-size) counterinsurgency operations and campaigns. Counterinsurgency missions involving U.S. combat forces could be focused on small–scale combat assistance to U.S. partners. Larger-scale operations could be conducted in the aftermath of major combat operations, or in response to state and societal failure. U.S. ground forces also could find themselves engaged in “hybrid wars,” or complex contingencies, in which irregular warfare operations are conducted simultaneously with traditional operations, and perhaps operations to eliminate WMD. Improving ground general-purpose force capabilities for irregular warfare will require creating additional foreign military training units (FMTUs), establishing a foreign advisory corps, improving general-purpose force skill sets for counterinsurgency operations, procuring appropriate counterinsurgency equipment and reorienting and making additional investments in professional military education and training. To free resources needed for increased irregular-warfare capability, a hard look at ground-force modernization and force structure will be required in the 2008-2013 defense program review.


A conflict with China could take multiple, unpredictable paths. Our primary goal should be to dissuade and deter conflict with a rising China, but, should deterrence fail, we must also be prepared to defeat Chinese aggression and counter coercion. Access-insensitive, long-range surveillance and strike aircraft are needed to ensure U.S. freedom of action in any future conflict. Current capabilities and capacities in these areas, however, remain limited. Development and procurement of next-generation, penetrating, long-range surveillance and strike aircraft will not only significantly increase U.S. options in a conflict, but also will increase U.S. ability to dissuade and deter multiple adversaries. New Air Force and Navy programs in these areas should be started as soon as feasible. Additional investment also is required to provide expanded, assured basing options in the Western Pacific. To free necessary resources, current fighter attack-force structure will need to be substantially reduced across the services. This should be a key agenda item in the 2008-2013 defense program review


Undersea superiority is a major area of U.S. advantage. Attaining the attack-submarine force structure that could be required to dissuade, deter and, if necessary, defeat a more powerful China will likely necessitate an increase in the build rate to two boats per year. To further ensure U.S. undersea superiority, additional investment also should be made in distributed antisubmarine warfare capabilities and in unmanned systems. To provide increased capabilities in anti-access environments, fleet ballistic missile submarines not required for strategic deterrence should be converted to conventional platforms. A conventional submarine-launched ballistic missile should be developed to provide an improved prompt global strike capability. To provide the persistent maritime presence required by the GWOT, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) or other small combatants should be procured in large numbers. To free necessary resources for increased undersea warfare capabilities and a large fleet of small surface combatants, large surface combatant modernization should receive close scrutiny during the 2008-13 defense program review.


The Pentagon’s current force planning construct, reduced to shorthand as “1-4-2-1,” calls for the capability and capacity to nearly simultaneously defend the homeland, deter forward and operate in and from four critical regions, swiftly defeat two adversaries in major conventional operations (MCOs), with the option to decisively defeat (i.e., overthrow the regime and occupy the country) one of those adversaries. Essentially a slight modification of the two-major-theater-war construct that provided the foundation for force planning in the 1990s, 1-4-2-1 is a pre-Sept. 11 force shaping and sizing tool that has grown increasingly out of synch with the current and emerging security environment.

First and foremost, it treats the GWOT as a small-scale contingency, and thus does not provide the level of effort required to prevail in this long, unconventional war. Second, it focuses on speed in seizing the initiative and defeating an adversary in a first MCO (10 days and 30 days, respectively), and on minimal separation time between MCOs (30 days), in lieu of, for example, the timelines required to kill or capture a terrorist overseas, defend the American homeland against air or missile attack and prevail in a long, irregular war. Third, it treats MCOs as largely undifferentiated conventional campaigns, focusing on the forces required to swiftly or decisively defeat regional rogue states, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, while giving insufficient emphasis to the need to possibly conduct a protracted, large-scale, air and maritime-intensive campaign against an adversary armed with disruptive capabilities and possessing great strategic depth. Fourth, it suffers from narrow conceptions of strategic victory — swiftly or decisively defeating traditional adversaries — that are at odds with those needed to prevail in a protracted, global unconventional war or to prevail in a major war against a nuclear power with a large internal resource base and global reach.

A revised force-planning construct is urgently needed. A revised construct should place far greater emphasis on irregular, catastrophic and disruptive challenges. It should differentiate between continuous or steady-state and surge levels of effort, not only between forward regional deterrence and levels of effort with regard to MCOs, but also within the domains of homeland defense and the war on terrorism/irregular warfare. Variation in the form, as well in as the scale and duration, of major combat operations should explicitly be taken into account. An expanded concept of deterrence that is applicable to transnational adversaries without easily identifiable “return addresses” and not just state actors also is needed. Without a doubt, the Defense Department must retain a two-war capacity, but the concept should be expanded to include protracted, irregular wars and not just conventional conflicts.

Different contingencies will stress different portions of the force. The required number of SOF, persistent air-surveillance capabilities, and small, naval surface combatants will be principally driven by the GWOT. The size of general-purpose ground forces, on the other hand, will be driven by the need to conduct a protracted, large-scale stability operation while also maintaining the capability to alternatively conduct a wider range of smaller-scale irregular warfare operations along with a ground-intensive campaign against a nuclear-armed power. For high-end air, space and maritime forces, the driving scenario for both capabilities and capacity will be war against an adversary that has disruptive capabilities, great strategic depth and a large resource base.


The process begun in the 2005 QDR needs to be extended across the U.S. national and homeland security establishment. To effectively address the challenges the QDR identifies, responsibilities will need to be clarified and capabilities must be created or strengthened in several departments and agencies. New authorities also will be required to facilitate integrated operations across departmental and agency lines. Within the Defense Department, it is imperative that the QDR begin to rebalance the capability mix along the lines described above. The fiscal 2007 budget, however, can only represent the leading edge of the change that will be needed. Forthcoming Strategic Planning Guidance for the 2008-13 program will need to continue whatever momentum is established.

Michael G. Vickers is director of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent, nonpartisan, public policy research institute in Washington, D.C. He served as a senior adviser to the 2005 QDR. The views in this article are his alone.