January 1, 2006  

Much ado about QDR

Quadrennial Defense Review triggers great anxiety, little change

The QDR is winding down, at last. The Quadrennial Dread Ritual, that is.

Every four years, senior military officials and defense industry executives drive themselves to deep anxiety over the virtual certainty that the Quadrennial Defense Review will order deep cuts in programs that their particular service or their company can’t live without.

There are months of worried strategizing, fretful meetings with lawmakers and dire pronouncements to the media of studies about the indispensability of their program to U.S. national security.

Then, gradually, word begins to trickle out from the secret meetings at the Pentagon: The QDR probably won’t be recommending many big changes after all.

For the third time, this cycle, mercifully, is drawing to its predictable denouement.

Program guardians who had slunk for months like condemned men are suddenly smiling, energetic, ebullient.

Following one late-November QDR session in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld endorsed the Navy’s troubled and costly DD(X) destroyer, a relieved program partisan e-mailed, “This is really great ? Eight (8) Ships! What a Thanksgiving ‘gift’ — what a battle!” Soon after, senior Air Force leaders were gleefully, gratefully divulging that after grim months of uncertainty, the F-22 would survive after all. So would the Joint Strike Fighter and the new search-and-rescue helicopter and the new aerial-refueling tanker.

Even the Army’s Future Combat Systems would live to fight another day, although parts of the program are likely to be delayed.

As the QDR — the Quadrennial Defense Review, that is — rushes toward its Feb. 6 completion date, the Quadrennial Dread is lifting. And as with previous QDRs, there wasn’t much more to fear than fear itself.

“In general, Quadrennial Defense Reviews have proven to be something of a nonevent,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a research firm based in Arlington, Va. “They seldom change defense priorities, and they seldom correctly anticipate the future.”

The 2001 QDR is the perfect example, Thompson said. Due to be delivered to Congress on Sept. 30, 2001, that QDR was fixated on such things as ballistic missile defense and increasing the B-2 bomber fleet — weapons better suited to battling the vanished Soviet Union. Then the Sept. 11 terrorists struck.

The 2001 QDR was conducted on the basis of a series of assumptions that proved to be dead wrong, Thompson said.

For example, many defense experts — including Thompson — “assumed we were in the midst of a strategic pause.” Just before the terrorist attacks, for example, Thompson said he predicted the United States would not be involved in a land war in Asia for at least a decade.

Less than three months later, the United States was involved in two land wars in Asia.

QDRs have plenty of critics. Among them is the author of two QDRs: Rumsfeld.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in June 2001, Rumsfeld was asked by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., about the document he was preparing.

Rumsfeld said: “There’s only been one QDR prior to this. As you know, it’s not my idea, it’s mandated by Congress. There was one in 1997. It seemed not to be impressive in its outcome, when one asks the various people who participated. Whether this one will be, I don’t know.”

A National Defense Panel of retired flag officers and civilian defense experts also found the 1997 QDR wanting. It complained that the QDR was shortsighted, maintained the two-war strategy without adequate justification, added missions at the same time it cut spending, failed to set priorities and failed to connect strategy to programs and budgets, among other shortcomings.

“All of the QDRs have been a disappointment in terms of really reshaping the force posture to fit the national defense strategy,” said Charles Knight, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives.

“Maybe, in a funny way, the QDR may work against change, because it generates such tension. If everybody’s focused on change, that makes it harder to make change,” he said.

While a formal review such as the QDR can spark ideas for change, it also inevitably triggers defensive reactions from program managers and service chiefs whose cherished programs may be cut or whose roles in important missions may be reduced.

So while the QDR offers “an opportunity to revisit everything, typically not much gets changed,” said James Carafano, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation think tank. A key reason is that much of what needs changing is not within the Defense Department’s power to change; it’s up to Congress, he said.

And the House of Representatives has already signaled its distrust of the very QDR it has ordered. In September, the House Armed Services Committee launched its own Committee Defense Review (CDR) as a counterweight to the Pentagon’s QDR.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., the committee chairman, said he worried that the Pentagon would produce a QDR that calls for a military designed to fit the defense budget rather than one designed to counter the threats the United States is likely to face.

To be better able to conduct a critical evaluation of the 2005 QDR, the committee convened a series of hearings on defense topics ranging from rising regional powers such as China, to unconventional threats, troubles in the Middle East and radical Islam.

“We’re now, finally, in a position to dissect what the Pentagon puts forward and come up with an alternative if that’s necessary,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who is co-chairman of the CDR panel on asymmetric and unconventional threats.

His panel examined issues such as cybersecurity and the defense requirements for satellites.

“What we’re really doing is trying to identify where there are gaps” between the U.S. military’s capabilities and the threats it must be ready to confront, said Rep. Thelma Drake, R-Va. She co-chaired a panel that focused on terrorism.

Some suspect the lawmakers’ real aim is to protect hometown interests.

Canceling or curtailing weapons purchases eliminates jobs at defense plants, Thompson said. That’s reason enough for members of Congress to worry about a QDR that appeared initially to emphasize terrorist attacks, weapons of mass destruction and unconventional warfare and downplay traditional threats that have long sustained conventional air, sea and land forces.

“Congress has been fairly explicit that they’re interested in protecting existing programs,” Knight said.

As work on the 2005 QDR wraps up, the services appear anxious to accommodate. In December, senior service officials said they would cut personnel in order to free money to keep buying weapons. The Air Force is preparing plans to cut 40,000 active and reserve troops and civilian workers. The Navy hopes to shed a similar number and the Army is targeting three National Guard brigades, which would eliminate about 10,000 part-time troops. The Army also hopes to head off planned force increases.

Personnel cuts of that magnitude could give the Air Force alone an extra $6 billion a year to spend on weapons.

“The key to buying things in the future is controlling our people costs,” Vice Adm. Lewis Crenshaw said at a December investors conference in New York. Crenshaw is the deputy chief of naval operations for resources.

Cutting personnel is a QDR standard. The 1997 review called for cutting 115,000 troops. The 2001 proposed force planning was based on the premise that technology now makes it possible to “achieve significantly greater military capability at lower total personnel levels.” However, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan precluded troop reductions.

Like its two predecessors, the 2005 QDR is expected to stick to the requirement that the U.S. military must be able to fight two major wars more or less simultaneously. According to Thompson, the 2005 QDR almost certainly will contain language that endorses a shift in focus from traditional threats to “irregular” threats and unconventional warfare. But the shift will be mostly philosophical. The QDR will rely on existing weapons to confront the new challenges, he said.

“Obviously, if they didn’t talk about homeland defense and counterinsurgency, et cetera, people would scratch their heads and ask what was the threat matrix for,” said Carafano. “But you’re not going to see cuts in hardware or in terms of what the military does day in and day out.”

“The notion of adapting what we already have or already plan to have to the challenges of the future is emerging as a theme of this QDR,” Knight agreed.

So if QDRs do little more than endorse the status quo, why do them? QDRs are important because they force the military to peer into the future and think about the kind of force it will need to deal with the world it foresees, Knight said.

“But the true value of the QDR is that it is an opportunity for debate to go on within the Pentagon, and an opportunity for Congress and the public to engage in the debate. It’s good for the republic if people look at the QDR and raise questions,” he said.