Every four years the Department of Defense is forced to undergo a painful exercise in self-flagellation and self-deception known as the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Mandated by Congress in 1997, the QDR is a study by the Department of Defense that purports to define U.S. strategic objectives and potential military threats, describe the overall military strategy for pursuing such objectives and countering those threats and assess the adequacy of military forces to support the strategy. Most defense experts don’t think much of the QDR process or its results. Part of the problem is that they almost never make the connection between strategy, requirements, forces and capability shortfalls. They tend to be self-serving, used to justify decisions already made, particularly with respect to resources. Congress has several times created parallel structures to do an alternative analysis in an attempt to keep the QDR “honest.” The process also gets preempted by events. The 2001 QDR had to be rewritten in the aftermath of 9/11. Secretary of Defense Gates made a series of force posture decisions and program changes in 2009 that rendered the 2010 QDR an afterthought.
In addition, changes to resources available to the Pentagon as a result of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) forced the Obama Administration to rewrite its military strategy at the beginning of last year. When it put forth the new strategy in 2012, the administration dodged the question of a strategy-resources mismatch by changing the force sizing metric from fighting and winning two major wars nearly simultaneously to winning one but only denying the adversary a victory in the other. This single phrase allowed the Pentagon to downsize the Army and reduce the demand for related lift and logistics capabilities.
Another QDR is due this year. This one may be different. There are two reasons. The first is the anticipated end of the prolonged conflicts in Southwest Asia. The U.S. withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011 and is planning to be largely out of Afghanistan by no later than the end of 2014. The second reason is the deep cuts to the defense budget that will make all but impossible for the military to maintain the forces necessary to support the strategy articulated only a year ago. If Congress and the administration cannot find a way around it, the BCA mandates some $500 billion in additional cuts to the defense budget beginning this fiscal year. Most observers believe that any deal will still result in additional spending cuts for the Pentagon. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have already gone on record warning that the military is at a tipping point created by too many demands and too few resources. The result, they warned will be a hollow force.
The 2013 QDR will matter. It will be the administration’s primary vehicle for explaining how it intends to manage a continuing high level of demand for U.S. military capabilities and forces in the world with the reality of declining resources and, hence, a shrinking force posture. Just since the President won re-election we have witnessed North Korea’s successful launch of an ICBM-like missile, the Syrian civil war spill over into a NATO country’s territory, half of Mali fall to Islamist guerrillas, Algeria experience its worst terrorist incident in a decade and China and Japan sending ships and planes to defend their rights over a couple of rocky islands in the East China Sea. The notion that the United States can either withdraw from the world or continue to maintain its global leadership role after absorbing almost a trillion dollars in defense budget cuts is ridiculous.
The 2013 QDR needs to address the strategy-forces-resources mismatch. One approach is to emphasize air and sea power, recognizing that this means a much smaller Army, one more dependent on the National Guard and Reserves. Even if this were the choice, there needs to be significant new investments in long-range strike capabilities, warships and submarines, space launch systems and cyber warfare. Another approach is to take down all forces deeply, minimizing our forward presence and crisis response capabilities and creating an arsenal system and mobilization-oriented military, something like what existed before World War Two.
Congress would be shirking its responsibility if it did not demand of the Pentagon and the Obama Administration that the next QDR provide an honest and documented case for a strategy that aligns with a force that is sustainable at projected spending levels. The next QDR, much like the first in 1997, is likely to determine the U.S. military posture for decades to come.