In general, Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs) are like State of the Union addresses: long on vision and short on practical steps to be taken. Having reviewed a draft of the 2010 QDR I can say that it is the best of the lot. It makes a serious effort to connect strategy to missions and concepts of operations, and from there to the force posture and investment strategy. It abandons an outdated force sizing construct in favor of a more nuanced and realistic approach that recognizes the range of missions that the armed forces are routinely called on to perform.
There is much that is commendable in the 2010 QDR. First and unlike the 2006 document, it explicitly addresses the reality that we are fighting two wars. Second, it makes it a priority to preserve the all-volunteer force and to provide resources for the people in uniform and their families. Third, it provides a clear and convincing case for forward presence and for expanded interactions with friends and allies. Fourth, it makes homeland defense and support to civil authorities a key defense planning objective. Fifth, it addresses the defense department’s broken acquisition process as well as the difficulties created by an evolving national economy and a stressed defense industrial base.
A remarkable feature of the 2010 QDR is how little it changes the current force structure. This reflects the clear sense in the document that while the character of missions to be performed may change, the overall demand for military forces will remain high. Virtually all the proposed investments in new capabilities were foreshadowed in prior decisions and directives. It claims that earlier decisions provided the “head room” needed to make these new investments. Rumors of major cuts in amphibious forces, tactical aircraft or nuclear platforms did not come to pass. The most significant change is the proposed transformation of up to four Army heavy brigade combat teams into Stryker brigade combat teams. The QDR did not call for the creation of specialized units for stability operations or to assist foreign militaries. It merely adds some trainers of trainers, SOF forces and civil affairs capabilities.
So, the 2010 QDR is thoughtful, balanced and internally consistent. It is also irrelevant. It fails to recognize the dominant reality of our time which is that the United States is out of money. Unfortunately, nothing in President Obama’s address yesterday suggests that this situation will change soon. But the QDR maintains virtually all of the current force structure, expands the potential missions for the armed forces, increases the size of the Army and Marine Corps and promises additional spending on personnel. It calls for additional investments for homeland defense, cybersecurity and ISR. Despite the promise to try and reduce the cost of weapons systems, the QDR’s proposed initiatives will inevitably cause the cost of defense to rise. This is an unsustainable plan.
While one can admire the reasonableness of the QDR’s recommendations, particularly in light of the threats and challenges it identifies, it is hard to accept its lack of realism. The QDR is to be commended for explicitly addressing the issue of potential risk. However, that discussion fails to even mention the most obvious risk which is that there will not be sufficient resources to fund the proposed force structure and enhancements. The QDR implies that there will be a problem by noting the risks that would occur if there is not adequate investment in so-called enablers but this is too veiled and indirect. In reality, the QDR really accepts very little risk by proposing a force structure and spending plans that will be impossible to sustain.
The QDR is irrelevant because it fails to make any significant strategic choices. It is merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic into a more pleasing configuration.
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