April 1, 2011

Every four years the Air Force and sister services run a gantlet of major Pentagon processes that dissect missions and reprioritize and amputate programs: the Quadrennial Defense Review, best known as the QDR. Although Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has pushed to reduce the number of Pentagon studies, the QDR isn’t one of them.

The next QDR in 2013 or 2014 will mark two decades for the banner strategy exercise.

That dates the process back to the Bottom-Up Review of 1993, widely regarded as the root of the family tree. Since then, four QDRs have appeared: 1997, 2001, 2006, and most recently, the QDR of 2010. Along the way, they have consumed countless hours of analysis and created more than a few headlines on weapons systems cuts.

The impact on the Air Force has been dramatic. Past reviews have cut fighters, repositioned new programs, advocated a bomber, and pushed for more unmanned and special operations aircraft, to name a few initiatives.

The QDR’s purpose is noble. According to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, the goal of the QDR is to delineate a military strategy consistent with the most recent national security strategy, define the defense programs to successfully execute the full range of missions assigned to the military by that strategy, and identify the budget plan necessary to successfully execute those missions at a low-to-moderate level of risk.

Yet the QDR is not a beloved beast. “Every QDR disappoints,” said Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments expert Jim Thomas in February 2010. “Appetites are way too great for what the QDR delivers,” said Mark A. Gunzinger, who worked on three QDRs and is now also at CSBA.

Longtime Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Anthony H. Cordesman heaped the most scorn on the QDR. “If God really hates you, you may end up working on a Quadrennial Defense Review—the most pointless and destructive planning effort imaginable,” Cordesman said in a 2009 paper. “You will waste two years on a document decoupled from a real-world force plan, from an honest set of decisions about manpower or procurement, with no clear budget or FYDP, and with no metrics to measure or determine its success.”

The QDR was never supposed to be popular. The 1993 Bottom-Up Review was helmed by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin. This document, carried out for the new Clinton Administration, was the watershed in downsizing the US military after decades of focus on the Soviet Union. Its boldness set high expectations.

“The questions we face in the Department of Defense are: How do we structure the armed forces of the United States for the future? How much defense is enough in the post-Cold War era?” the review stated in its opening.

The Bottom-Up Review delivered clear answers, and was the first document to focus on regional dangers as the primary drivers of US defense strategy.

The review put “major regional conflicts” at the top of the list of potential military operations. While other operations such as small-scale contingencies and overseas presence were important, the major regional conflicts were the primary guideline. In a unique move, the review actually spelled out levels of land, sea, and air forces opponents in a major regional conflict might possess. It also stated the logic for sizing US forces to fight two major regional conflicts.

“We decided early in the Bottom-Up Review that the United States in effect makes simultaneous wars more likely by leaving an opening for potential aggressors to attack their neighbors, should our engagement in a war in one region leave little or no force available to respond effectively to defend our interests in another,” the review read.

Strategy in place, the review made significant force structure cuts to Army divisions, Air Force wings, and Navy ships. The Marine Corps structure of three wings and three divisions was set in law and left largely alone.

The speed and success of the Bottom-Up Review reflected consensus on the broad strategic direction of US policy. It had been two years since Operation Desert Storm put regional conflict in the spotlight and four years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a sense, most of the strategic thinking by Aspin and others had already taken place. Hence the BUR was debated more on programs than on grand strategy.

For its part, Congress wanted the services to seek out efficiencies and eliminate duplication wherever possible.

To that end, even as the BUR was reporting out, Congress prepared legislation for what became the Commission on Roles and Mission of the Armed Forces. This group of 10 independent commissioners was tasked with looking at many areas of service overlap in their basic roles prescribed under DOD statutes. Their 1995 report included a recommendation for a “quadrennial strategy review,” with the name later switched to quadrennial defense review, or QDR.

“It was to be the BUR over and over every four years,” recalled Gunzinger. Fundamentally, it was the key dialogue between a Secretary of Defense and Congress, the body ultimately responsible for funding the common defense.

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen guided the first QDR. He also started the tradition of minimizing expectations, introducing his 1997 QDR as a “cautious approach” with “more emphasis on continuity than on change.”

To its credit, QDR 1997 presciently discussed the possibility of terrorism, but its authors still felt a need to speak out against the specter of American isolationism. This QDR also crystallized the framework for force sizing. The 1997 QDR did go beyond the BUR by adding the operational concept of the “halt phase”—using rapid power projection to stop an invading army—and approving forces for it. It also defended maintaining the ability to fight in two places at once. Without it, “our standing as a global power, as the security partner of choice, and as the leader of the international community would be called into question,” the report said.

A Major Departure

The 1997 QDR echoed the BUR with some major force structure moves such as cutting bombers and submarines. “In a nutshell, tactical airpower (Tacair) dominated the QDR. Conventional wisdom held that current budget projections did not support the desired amount of Tacair assets. As such, the Air Force challenged the Navy’s request for 1,000 F/A-18E/Fs, while defending its requirement for four fighter wings of F-22s,” said Paul Nagy, an analyst involved in the first QDR.

Both lost out in the end. The F-22 was cut to three wings and the Super Hornet slashed in favor of Navy Joint Strike Fighter procurement.

Congress liked the process. In August 1999, the 106th Congress moved to make it a permanent Title 10 requirement. Official language chartered the Secretary of Defense to “conduct a comprehensive examination … of the national defense strategy, force structure, force modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plan, and other elements of the defense program and policies of the United States with a view toward determining and expressing the defense strategy of the United States and establishing a defense program for the next 20 years.”

The QDR was here to stay. Next time, the services wanted to be prepared. The Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University convened a group of handpicked military officers chaired by Michele Flournoy. They spent more than a year producing “intellectual capital” and a full book of studies intended to guide the 2001 QDR.

The Bush Administration’s SECDEF, Donald H. Rumsfeld, arrived with few kind words for the QDR process. It all came out in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in June 2001 when Rumsfeld was asked by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) about progress on the next QDR.

“There’s only been one QDR prior to this,” Rumsfeld answered. “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.”

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred as the 2001 QDR was days from release. A hasty rewrite acknowledged the tragic events before release on Sept. 30, 2001.

The 2001 QDR dove deeply into a definition of the Rumsfeld strategy for military transformation in the 21st century. “Transformation results from the exploitation of new approaches to operational concepts and capabilities, the use of old and new technologies, and new forms of organization that more effectively anticipate new or still emerging strategic and operational challenges and opportunities and that render previous methods of conducting war obsolete or subordinate,” explained QDR 2001.

The essay on transformation marked a major departure from reviews of the 1990s by using the QDR as a philosophical showcase.

Its other unique trait was a longer list of specific recommendations on the day-to-day business of the Pentagon. Navy carriers went back up to 12. The Air Force was tasked to get to work on contingency basing in the Pacific. The Army was told to hurry up on introducing its interim brigade combat teams. Policy markers like these became standard with the 2001 QDR and would cause much dread and anticipation in the next two reviews.

By 2006, the QDR release was synchronized with the budget, in February. It was again undersold by Rumsfeld and his deputy Gordon R. England. England termed it a “midcourse correction” while Rumsfeld cautioned against it being seen “as some sort of a new menu for program adjustments,” he said.

However, a dilemma arose. There had been no change of Administration. Transformation was still a goal, yet the embroilment in Iraq and Afghanistan brought counterinsurgency operations to the forefront.

“The expectation was that as the cost and the difficulty of the Iraq and Afghan campaigns mounted, that this QDR would end up being a forcing function that would compel a choice,” said Stephen Biddle, at the time an Army War College professor. “The great irony of the QDR that we got, of course, is that they decided they’d do both,” he added.

Defense budget expert Steven Kosiak found little to praise. “The Defense Department has made a few choices that might, potentially, move us in a better direction, such as the decision to accelerate the fielding of a new bomber. Unfortunately, the QDR did very little to make the department’s long-term plans more realistic and affordable,” Kosiak told a Council on Foreign Relations roundtable in February 2006.

Kosiak was proved right. The budget was on an uphill climb to a 2008 topline that was the highest since World War II, but the bomber program survived only three years. Cordesman termed the 2006 QDR a “morass of half thought-out ideas,” with calls for further study and deferred decisions.

One lasting legacy was the Deputy’s Advisory Working Group or DAWG, established during the 2006 QDR process. The group was originally convened to tee up forthcoming recommendations and stayed active afterward.

The DAWG meets twice a week, under the chairmanship of the deputy secretary of defense and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and includes senior civilian and military leaders. Supporting the DAWG is a system of boards and committees, chaired by senior civilian and military officials, each focused on a broad functional area. The new creation became a central forum for debate at the highest levels—and gave the QDR legs.

“DAWG after DAWG, people had to explain how it fit the QDR,” Gunzinger recalled.

Despite the elaborate process, the QDR was spinning off course. By 2010, the next QDR would find itself badly out of alignment, with major budget decisions coming a year in front of it and the new national strategy showing up months later. “April 2009 was the beginning of the QDR,” said Gunzinger, referring to the long list of program cancellations Gates announced in April 2009.

A Game of Catch-up

In this case, the new Obama Administration wanted to make a break with the past. Cutting spending, rebalancing the force with more irregular warfare capabilities, and scoring some early executive branch wins were all part of the package. The “reform budget” for Fiscal 2010 did all that—a year ahead of the QDR.

This QDR was a game of catch-up rather than a clean-sheet review. Flournoy, now the undersecretary of defense for policy, said, “You saw this vision first expressed in the FY ’10 budget. The QDR builds on the momentum from that period.”

There was another major schedule problem. Congress wrote in law that the QDR should take place after delivery of the national security strategy. The Obama Administration instead put off this task until May 2010, nearly four months after the QDR’s unveiling.

This was not due to the unimportance of the national strategy. When the NSS was released, the A-list rollout put the Pentagon QDR in the shade. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton amplified the need for American leadership, while then-National Security Advisor James L. Jones briefed on military aspects. QDR 2010 ended up sandwiched between early budget cuts, a late strategy, and other initiatives such as the 2010 effort to trim defense overhead costs.

It still drew criticisms—including a fiscal warning not heard in reactions to previous QDRs. Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell Jr. criticized the QDR and budget documents for being “virtually silent on the dire fiscal straits the country finds itself in, huge federal deficits as far as the eye can see, and the consequences this will have on future defense budgets.”

Looking to the QDR to set out a new strategy is a tough task. But some believe this is what the next QDR must do. Change in the economic foundation of American security policy is one major shift; the rise of China is another. Recent developments have also de-emphasized relationships with longtime NATO allies.

The F-22 buy was slashed from four wings to three in the 1997 QDR, while the Navy’s Super Hornet buy was cut in favor of additional F-35 procurement. (Photo illustration by Erik Simonsen)

According to Gunzinger, the broad assumption of a relatively permissive, regional conflict environment dated from the BUR and “worked for the last 20 years.” Many observers “think the next QDR should revisit these assumptions” because the permissive environment is slipping away as peer threats re-emerge.

The QDR Independent Panel last summer called for a much more thoughtful, long-term view to grapple with issues like these. “The Department of Defense needs to look past the QDR and its focus on today’s conflicts and today’s planning needs to the broader set of defense challenges our nation will face in the next 20 years.”

Under those conditions, the next QDR could be make-or-break for the Air Force. It is likely to contain further policy and budget decisions on cyberspace, for example. It will either push forward or throttle back the new long-range strike efforts. Most of all, it will be a QDR largely free of the necessary preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan. Peer threats will be real and present. The next QDR, too, can hardly avoid a close look at manpower in the ground forces and, perhaps, in all services.

These are the things the review should do. As critics will quickly point out, however, previous results have been less impressive.

Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research. She has written extensively on airpower and serves as director, Mitchell Institute, for AFA. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “Victor Alert,” which appeared in the March issue.