September 1, 2013  

A guide to the QDR

How to meet the complex challenges of the next five years, and beyond

By Joseph J. Collins

It is a tough time for Defense Department strategists and programmers. DoD will likely take a $500 billion sequestration cut on top of an already-programmed $500 billion program reduction. Even for the Pentagon, a trillion-dollar reduction is real money, especially when operational demands remain high and deferred modernization projects abound.

Looking out five years, the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review will have to contend with these cuts while preserving America’s military power. As usual, the services are gearing up to protect their programs. The next six months are likely to be marked by increased interservice rivalry, dampened only by the clear lesson that jointness is still king and outrageous parochialism is likely to backfire.

The Defense Department is likely to move into the QDR guided by extant studies and assessments. For example, the analysis of tradeoffs in the recent Strategic Choices and Management Review will be invaluable to those working the review. At the same time, Pentagon leaders might reflect on the foundation of policy and strategy, U.S. national interests, which will take them back to the basics.

Every nation has interests that include, in descending order of criticality: survival, physical security of the nation and its allies, prosperity and welfare, and the preservation and propagation its values. The next questions are: What are the key threats to the most important interests, and then, what are the opportunities for enhancing those interests? All of this must be assessed in light of what is known about the larger security environment.

Threats large and small

For a superpower with global concerns, the interaction of interests, threats, opportunities, and the attendant assumptions makes for a complex study. On the most fundamental interest — survival — in the next few years only nuclear weapons can threaten U.S. survival. In 2001, however, Americans realized that the homeland was vulnerable to devastating terrorist attacks. In the future, a combination of terrorism and nuclear weapons could pose a nightmarish threat to our way of life. Daily, the media inform the public of new threats to the nation’s cybersecurity. In the age of globalization, defending the homeland remains the first priority. National defense and homeland security are one interactive organism.

The policy environment presents us with a number of security challenges, some small and frequent, others more infrequent, but of greater import. Power is diffuse in the system, and even a superpower like the U.S. can be frustrated by its lack of influence with friends and enemies. Today, the power of malevolent non-state actors, such as terrorists and cyber villains, is remarkable. Globalization is a powerful phenomenon, but at the same time, international issues are often “local” and understanding foreign cultures more essential than ever.

Challenges exist across a spectrum of potential conflict. Not only will the U.S. deal with the ebb tide of the war on terrorism, a major down-shifting in the war in Afghanistan, and a dizzying array of asymmetric threats, but readiness for larger conflicts demands priority attention. Among such potential conflicts, the growth in Chinese power and aggressiveness in East Asia stands out as an emerging challenge. Other contingencies include a renewal of hostilities on the Korean peninsula, a potential fight with Iran over nuclear proliferation, and the spillover of other regional conflicts. Problems with Russia could also be a cause of direct or proxy conflict. The conflict in Syria also reminds us that the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction will remain a critical problem in the years ahead.

These contingencies do not dictate any simple force structure. Many of the potential, larger-scale but improbable conflicts rely more on air and naval forces. The smaller-scale, commonplace conflicts require considerable forces of all types, but rely heavily on the Army, Marine Corps and special operations forces. While the larger conflicts have the most impact on U.S. interests, the smaller conflicts, like irregular warfare, are the most frequent. Both types of conflict are high-tech warfare. Indeed, many high-tech conventional weapons, such as remotely piloted aircraft, made their bones in irregular conflicts.

Many hard-pressed strategists would like the high-low conundrum to disappear or for national leaders to limit the problem set. In the 1990s, anti-nation-building conservatives proudly proclaimed that “superpowers don’t do windows,” but terrorism, small wars, and insurgencies have a way of finding us, even if we want to be left alone to prepare for the big wars. In the end, ignoring the demands of the security environment will hurt the national interest, and so will failing to prioritize our efforts.

The current security environment will also complicate any notion of regional priorities. For the past few years, the current administration has called for rebalancing national security efforts toward the Asia-Pacific region. Much diplomacy and modest defense initiatives have been devoted to those ends, but, at the same time, there has been a persistent pull by North African and Middle Eastern security problems that take no notice of the U.S. desire to rebalance. Many experts also believe that we have not paid sufficient attention to sub-Saharan Africa. The fact that U.S. media tend to ignore sub-Saharan Africa has not decreased the salience of any its security problems. For example, there are serious terrorist and insurgency problems in Nigeria, a major U.S. oil supplier.

Failing states and regimes will remain a source of trouble, and may put a demand on security and economic assistance assets. What would the U.S. do in the unlikely event of a North Korean or Cuban governmental implosion? In the past, economic and migratory problems from nations as small as Haiti have created unprogrammed demands on Defense Department resources. For all such contingencies, there is room for more play by allies and reserve component forces, especially in stability operations. Unfortunately, the complexity of regional issues does not favor cutting any of the geographically-focused combatant commands.

The economic realm

The third category of national interests, the prosperity of the nation, is both the basis for military power and something that is affected by military spending. Budget deficits and the national debt — both being driven downward by sequestration — are tough economic problems, compounded by partisan strife and legislative gridlock. Experts in both parties also believe that the nation needs to make deep investments in economic and transportation infrastructure. National security is job one for the federal government, but wasteful defense expenditures can hurt the economy, the basis of U.S. power. After 12 years of wartime defense spending, national security leaders will have to provide a smart, effective defense for less money, which is much easier to type than to accomplish. Reducing base infrastructure and military entitlements — pay, medical care, family programs, retirement benefits — will be as essential as they are challenging.

The state of the economy also provides challenges and opportunities. The five-year recession has ended but unemployment remains high and middle class wages have been stagnant for decades. In the positive column, the exploitation of domestic resources will make the U.S. a net energy exporter as early as 2030. This will help employment and the health of the U.S. economy, but it is not clear how it will affect the competition for international energy resources. A single world price for oil suggests that stability among oil producing states will remain a key concern. More oil and gas at home will not reduce near-term anxieties about the Middle East.

Protecting values

The last of the classical interests — the protection and propagation of values — is also in play in national security affairs. With resource limitations, it will be more difficult to pursue humanitarian interests or democracy development. Drastic humanitarian catastrophes — like Somalia during the George H.W. Bush years, Bosnia and Kosovo in the Clinton years, and Syria of late — will still have the power to draw the U.S. into these noble but frustrating missions. Complicating matters, well-intentioned interventions can quickly go south, leaving the U.S. in a prestige trap, unable to secure meaningful objectives, but unable to walk away from a troubled policy.

Prudence is required on interventionary issues, but even more importantly, U.S. leaders must avoid even the appearance of violating humanitarian norms or American values. In the war on terrorism, early decisions on detainee policy and abuses in the field still cast a long and dark shadow over U.S. national security policy. Of late, the Obama administration has seen that legal but aggressive data collection can cause significant domestic and international problems, lowering trust at home and abroad, and diminishing the urge for collective action.

A re-examination of U.S. national interests tells us that nuclear deterrence and counterproliferation measures are as important as ever. The U.S. needs a balanced, agile force, capable across the spectrum of conflict from irregular conflicts to wars against major powers. The U.S. requires a multi-contingency capability, but it can tailor the ways in which a force would meet such a demanding scenario. This force will need near-term capabilities, as well as the “next-gen” capabilities to keep us on the technological cutting edge.

The Defense Department will have to provide a potent force at less expense, but one that retains its high quality and readiness. Cutting forces in the present and posturing for the future will be a challenge, but the force will come down and so will its operations tempo and global presence. While the focal period of the QDR is five years, it will have to tee-up longer term issues that are beyond its assigned time horizon. Indeed, QDR 2014 might be more important for the problems it identifies for solution than for the problems that it actually solves.

What can be done

Here are some specific suggestions: First, a review of interests and the outline of the security environment should give us humility. Our ability to predict the exact contingencies that will occur in the next five years is poor, and the variety of potential missions is daunting. All of this recommends a flexible and balanced force. Of course, this short paper can’t say whether 290 ships, 2,400 F-35s, and 490,000 soldiers represent balance or excess. In the end, the budget will force the U.S. to accept risk in each of the services and combatant commands.

Second, resource reductions will be the driving force for immediate change in the force. The Defense Department will have to reduce expenditures and costs all around. To do that rapidly, the Pentagon will have to reduce the force and cut back on procurement, while maintaining some form of tiered readiness in all of the services. Changing the strategy of engagement and forward presence is not a requirement, but exercising more prudence over interventions is clearly in order. Closer interaction with allies and partners is warranted, as is more reliance on reserve components.

One way to reduce expenditures is to reduce redundancy and overhead. Perhaps the most pressing but politically difficult area here is in excess base infrastructure. Sadly, gridlock in Congress will work against a solution to excess bases, a great waste of defense resources. The QDR is likely to put excess bases in the “too hard” box, but the Defense Department can tee up base closure for the period beyond its charter.

The services each present redundancies. Army and Marine forces are not huge but do have duplicate capabilities. Forward stationed troops from one service could well be replaced by rotational troops from the other. As the war on terrorism reduces requirements for forces, it is not clear that U.S. needs a Marine element in the Special Operations Command. Those Marines might be better used in the Fleet Marine Force.

In the air, the U.S. can pare back its three tactical air forces. The F-35, a short-legged, three-variant stealth fighter that will cost between $130 million and $160 million per copy, is a case in point. Eliminating one of the three versions of the F-35, or cutting the total buy and deploying wings that have a high-low (new-old) mix of aircraft may be a solution. Money saved from the F-35 could be put toward the development of a new, long-range bomber — desperately needed to replace aging B-52 and B-1 bombers and to meet the requirements of potential warfare in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. In grappling with air issues, one must not forget that for many contingencies, the real strategic air command is made up of transport and tanker aircraft, both of which require programmatic protection.

Naval forces have suffered in the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, the price of admiralty is high and the cost of ships, submarines, and naval aviation has never been higher. Equipment-wise, remotely piloted aircraft may help reduce the naval aviation bill. Many naval officers believe that the littoral combat ship should be redesigned or cancelled. Attack submarines will remain expensive but irreplaceable. At least nine deployable carriers with standard battle groups will remain the centerpiece of the fleet in the next decade. Next-gen carriers — a few decades from now — will likely be smaller, have more remotely piloted aircraft, and possess systems to help defeat the latest, land-based reconnaissance-strike complexes. This issue is not likely to be solved in the Quadrennial Defense Review, but the “carrier after next” is a critical national security issue, worthy of its own post-QDR blue-ribbon commission.

Third, the QDR should begin to address a gamut of personnel issues that now take up nearly 30 percent of the defense budget. Pay must be tied to some meaningful index. The military retirement system can be modified to save billions without harming the future force. Military retiree health care and Tricare must be rationalized — a fancy way of saying that they are a tremendous bargain and the better-compensated recipients need to pay more to keep the system afloat. Again, the QDR is not likely to solve all of these complex issues, but it can recommend longer-term efforts to solve them.

Fourth, the QDR should consider the value of education and training. The U.S. has the best-trained and most-experienced force in the world. In the future, it must continue to work hard on its midgrade and senior officer education systems. During the interwar years, a period of intense resource constraints, the staff and war colleges developed a well-educated officer corps that was ready for the demands of a new and global conflict. Indeed, Adm. Chester Nimitz famously reminded us that the war games at the Naval War College anticipated all the problems of World War II in the Pacific, except the kamikaze and the atomic bomb. Sadly, some critics and many amateurs see the training and education infrastructure as mere overhead. Education and training must be protected from these salami slicers.

Finally, as the Pentagon looks for ways to reduce expenditures and maintain high levels of capability, it will be important to remember that the Defense Department is not alone. The U.S. has an unprecedented system of alliances, and the potential for allied cooperation is and will remain great. At home and abroad, U.S. diplomats can dampen tensions, negotiate the end of conflicts, and bring about useful arms control and anti-proliferation measures. Local diplomats and geographically assigned special operations teams can work together to prevent conflicts by preparing new partners for the collective defense. The men and women in pinstripes can be the Pentagon’s best partner in achieving high levels of security in a period of budgetary downturns, but hard choices face the Pentagon leadership. Keeping an eye on the national interest will help them make better decisions.

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.