Details of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review have begun to circulate, and it looks pretty much like my colleague Dan Goure predicted: a warmed-over version of the Bush defense posture. That isn’t all bad, because by the end of its tenure the Bush Administration had come to grasp the emerging security environment fairly well, and one thing the joint force doesn’t need is more upheaval in the way it operates. However, an unfortunate reality that comes through loud and clear in the new QDR is that there are limits to what the Pentagon can do in coping with emerging dangers. The document doesn’t provide real answers to the three biggest defense challenges the nation faces, and maybe it can’t.
The first of these problems, as I have noted many times before, is that new technology is empowering extremists of every stripe around the world. Every generation produces its share of zealots and malcontents, but today the troublemakers have more tools of mass destruction (or disruption) at their disposal than ever before. The QDR takes a stab at addressing these “asymmetric” threats, but the options available to adversaries today are so numerous that there’s no way of preparing for all of them. One corporate CIO told me last week that his company is so pessimistic about the prospects for keeping cyber intruders out of its networks that it now is focused mainly on keeping them in — in other words, preventing them from escaping with valuable information. That’s fine if your main concern is theft, but what if your worry is corruption or destruction of the network? The outlook is not encouraging. The same is true of biological threats. QDR sees the general problem, but it doesn’t prescribe credible, affordable solutions.
The second big problem is America’s declining economy. Everybody knows the economy is going through a rough patch, but when you lose one percentage point of global GDP each year for ten straight years, that’s more than just a downturn — it’s a secular decline. The fact that U.S. defense spending has doubled during the same period that its economy has shrunk from 32% to 23% of global output tells you a day of reckoning lies ahead for U.S. defense spending. Five percent of the world’s population can’t keep sustaining nearly half of global military outlays while generating only a quarter of global output. My colleagues at Lexington get irritated when I say it this way, but we have reached a point in our history where our resources are so constrained that the only way we can maintain our current military posture is to borrow money from the future military adversary we should fear the most — China. Obviously, this is not a tenable arrangement over the long run, but fixing it is far beyond the scope of the QDR.
Finally, there is the looming defense management challenge that the QDR could have addressed but largely sidestepped: the All-Volunteer Force is becoming unaffordable. This is less about our faltering economy than it is about how the cost of military compensation has drifted far off its historic trend-line in the present decade. Ten years ago, it cost about $60,000 annually in today’s dollars to cover the costs of an average service member, excluding healthcare. Today it costs over $80,000. Add in healthcare costs — which have increased over 150% since the decade began — and the cost per service member skyrockets to well above $100,000 annually. And I haven’t even counted the cost of training and equipping that service member. When the cost of each soldier starts exceeding twice the median household income in the U.S. (which it now does), you know that our approach to manning the force is in deep trouble. But the administration keeps adding people and the Congress keeps adding benefits, so here again, we see the QDR failing to speak to an emerging defense challenge.
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