On Rumsfeld’s “Terms”

June 1, 2005

Locked in safes throughout the Pentagon are copies of a classified 40-page memorandum—signed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld—which contain instructions on how to draft a new blueprint for the nation’s armed forces.

The document is known as the “Terms of Reference.” It provides primary guidance for the Quadrennial Defense Review that is now unfolding in Washington, D.C. That review could sharply reorient the armed services toward the demands of the global war on terrorism. As such, it promises to bring major changes to Pentagon weapons and forces.

According to those who have seen it, the TOR instructs Pentagon officials to come up with a plan that will shift defense investment away from mission areas in which the United States enjoys comfortable “overmatch”—that is, in major conventional warfare capabilities—and redirect it toward skills and weapons needed to deal with insurgencies and unconventional dangers.

The idea is that, in a post-Sept. 11 world, those kinds of challenges have become increasingly likely to occur.

Rumsfeld came into office in 2001 with a mandate to transform the armed forces, and his QDR deputies see this review as an opportunity to make significant changes.

The TOR document reflects a view held by senior Pentagon civilian leaders that the US military is at a critical juncture, a moment of notable strategic change that could require consequential alterations to the armed forces. High-level discussions that helped influence the document liken today’s situation to three periods in the 20th century when the US embraced new thinking, organizations, strategies, and equipment.

They are referring to the 1930s, which saw the development of amphibious warfare and aircraft carrier operations; the 1950s, when the nuclear weapon and long-range delivery vehicles came to dominate US military and foreign policy; and the 1980s, a decade in which Washington mounted a broad challenge to Soviet power, exploiting Moscow’s grave economic and political weaknesses.

“We believe we have a historic opportunity” to reshape America’s defense, said Christopher Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, one of the principal authors of the Terms of Reference.

Core Problems

Now under way, the review is expected to generate by fall recommendations for altering Pentagon weapons investment. A final QDR report is due to Congress in February 2006. Issues that are not ripe for decision this year will likely be spun off into follow-on reviews that may continue for another year.

For this QDR, Rumsfeld jettisoned the previous practice of consulting the armed services for a list of issues to be studied. Instead, he set the agenda. The TOR document calls for the review to examine four “core” problems:

  • Islamist extremism (and the need for “ensuring the demise of terrorist networks”).
  • Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, whether they be nuclear, chemical, biological, or radiological.
  • Homeland security demands on the military forces.
  • Conventional and disruptive threats posed by an emerging major power.

    Emphasis on these problems, insist Pentagon officials, does not lessen the importance of preparing to conduct the three other kinds of operations emphasized by today’s military—conventional wars with China, North Korea, and Iran. However, it does suggest that the four services need skills, equipment, and organizational structures that go well beyond those developed for big battles against “traditional” military forces.

    Said Christine E. Wormuth, a participant in the 1997 QDR and now analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington: “There is a very serious belief in the Office of the Secretary of Defense that the department is not sufficiently shaped to do the types of operations that you need [in order to deal with] the four problems the QDR is looking at.”

    Accordingly, Rumsfeld over the last year has pressed his staff to develop a wider range of defense planning scenarios for full-fledged consideration.

    “What we’re looking for is greater variability within the scenarios,” said one high-ranking Pentagon civilian official who took part in their development. The goal, he added, is to “make sure we are cross-preparing our force so that it remains highly adaptable as things pop up.”

    He further explained, “We want to make sure we’re not just [assessing] risk against the things that are familiar, but also considering things less familiar and increasingly likely.”

    Some of these scenarios have raised eyebrows in the defense and foreign policy community. One example: The possible political collapse of a nation armed with nuclear weapons. This would be a catastrophe, one that could feature a staunch US ally (Pakistan), a pathological American foe (North Korea), or something in between.

    Hitting Nerves

    Though the Pentagon’s consideration of such a scenario has caused agitation abroad, DOD officials remain serene. Said one Pentagon planner: “The greater the controversy, the more it hits a nerve, … the more I’m getting to a scenario set” for which Washington needs to prepare.

    Others in the Pentagon warn that concentration on these particular four core problems is too narrow.

    “When you focus so explicitly—and almost exclusively—on core problems, some of us are more concerned that they’re missing a lot of other stuff that goes on and needs to be available in terms of full-spectrum operations and availability of forces,” said one military official involved in the review.

    Though the TOR was a Rumsfeld production, it evidently has support in the services. According to one four-star officer, all of the unified combatant commanders and all of the service chiefs got to review the document and participate in its formulation.

    At a Jan. 27 combatant commanders conference in Washington, Rumsfeld asked for feedback on a draft version of the Terms of Reference. One response: Broaden the review to look at how American forces might work in closer partnership with allies and civilian US agencies to get at big problems. That counsel was accepted; the final version was modified to widen the scope of the review.

    “One of the things that we’re going to be looking at in the QDR is this whole question of how do we structure ourselves to be more effective working with other agencies of the US government and internationally,” said Douglas J. Feith, the outgoing undersecretary of defense for policy. “We are expanding the set of problems the Defense Department recognizes we’re going to need to play a role in dealing with. We’re also very conscious of the fact that many of these problems are not narrowly DOD problems; they are broadly US government problems.”

    Clark A. Murdock, a senior advisor at CSIS, said, “I think it is an indication of the extent to which the Department of Defense recognizes that almost all of—if not all—21st century missions are really US government missions, interagency missions, not just military missions.”

    Six Panels

    To carry out QDR work, Rumsfeld established six panels—dubbed “integrated product teams.” Each panel will examine a set of issues related to the four core problems and will be co-led by a senior civilian and senior military officer.

    Of these groups, the most important is the so-called “capabilities mix” panel which is examining the mix of equipment and types of organizations needed to deal with new security threats. Tapped to lead this panel was Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, and Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Pace has since been nominated to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Wolfowitz has since left the Pentagon to head the World Bank.)

    The capabilities mix panel began its work in April with a series of high-level Saturday meetings to examine each of the four core challenges. Plans called for this panel to begin to report its recommendations in July.

    The Defense Secretary served notice to the services last fall that “everything is on the table in this review.” And it is in the work of this panel and a second panel, the “joint enablers” team, that so much is at stake for the services.

    The joint enablers panel is examining how the core problems can be attacked through capabilities such as airlift, sea lift, and logistics, as well as intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) assets and command, control, communications, and computers (C4). This panel is led by Stephen A. Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force vice chief of staff.

    “The fundamental issue—the most important issue—is to what extent the US military is going to reprioritize investments toward the low end of the spectrum,” said John Gordon, a Rand analyst and former Army officer.

    That is being debated as part of a wide range of specific issues:

  • Air dominance, covering integrated joint capabilities, contributions of different types of tactical aircraft in warfare of the future, and the combined capabilities of space, airborne, and terrestrial communications and intelligence sensors.
  • Ground forces capability, covering the mix of active and reserve forces, force structure, and modernization.

    Henry said the review will not, however, focus on particular weapons systems. Instead, the Pentagon will concentrate on “capabilities” that convey a military effect.

    “It is the effect that we want,” said Henry. “It’s not the platform that we’re interested in. … We have to think through what the capabilities are and how we use them and not immediately jump to the solution of a piece of hardware.”

    Nevertheless, an underlying goal is to recommend changes to procurement plans this fall, in time to make adjustments to the Pentagon spending plan for the period 2007-11.

    The billowing costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and pressure to reduce federal spending are putting a big squeeze on military procurement accounts. The QDR will recommend higher investment in some preferred areas, but it must be offset by “divestment” in other areas—essentially, existing programs.

    “There is a need to have a resource-neutral QDR,” Henry said, meaning the shake-up and realignment exercise must add no new net cost to the defense program. This budget pressure will bring new scrutiny to existing programs that could be cut in favor of new priorities, he said.

    Many defense analysts believe that the big-ticket modernization programs the Air Force and the Navy are advancing will be tempting targets, as defense officials look for ways to pay for new capabilities.

    The other four panels cover (1) manning and balancing, (2) roles and missions, (3) “authorities,” meaning aspects of US code that might have to be changed to implement desired changes, and (4) business practices and processes.

    New Strategy

    The new Terms of Reference does not require an examination of basic defense strategy. Rumsfeld has already done that. He issued his National Defense Strategy on March 1.

    This new strategy, Pentagon officials say, is essential for interpreting the Terms of Reference. It reiterates many strategic goals Rumsfeld has advanced since 2001, including the objective to “assure” allies and friends; “deter” aggression against the United States and its allies; “dissuade” potential adversaries from challenging US interests; and—if necessary—“defeat” foes in combat.

    It also sets forth new requirements for US armed services to prepare for a wider range of threats—including “irregular,” “catastrophic,” and “disruptive” threats.

    The US military is well-positioned to deal with “traditional” threats—enemies that attack with conventional air, sea, and land forces, according to the strategy. However, the chances of an attack against the US military anytime soon by a conventional military are considered by some to be slim. More likely, they say, are “irregular” attacks designed to erode US power in unconventional ways; “catastrophic” threats aimed at paralyzing the United States with surprise hits on major targets; and “disruptive” challenges that could end-run US military technical superiority.

    The strategy upholds, if only temporarily, the existing “1-4-2-1” concept for determining force needs. This formula called for forces able to mount one defense of the American homeland; deter aggression in four critical areas (Europe, Northeast Asia, Southwest Asia, and the Greater Middle East); carry out simultaneous military operations in two of these areas; and “win decisively”—that is, eliminate a regime—in one of these areas.

    The NDS state s directly that this strategy is now under review and could change.

    At Stake for USAF

    The new TOR document, though of recent date, reflects the thinking that senior Pentagon civilian officials have been moving toward—and directing the services to consider—for more than a year.

    Indeed, the seriousness of that effort was first manifest late last year, when DOD slashed $55 billion from existing programs and pumped about $25 billion into others.

    The lion’s share of cuts came from Air Force and, to some extent, Navy programs and missile defense. Critics of the cuts argued that they were made without analysis. However, said Henry, formulation of the Terms of Reference over the past 18 months paved the way for those cuts.

    “So,” he said, “in some ways, the preparatory work … has already started to impact decision-making.”

    The Air Force will have to present a compelling case for its major programs in this review, and, problems notwithstanding, Air Force officials believe they have a good story to tell.

    “We think that we’ve built a pretty good program out in the future to address all the strategic challenges,” said Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III, deputy director of strategic planning on the Air Staff.

    The question for the Air Force is whether recent plans to trim its fighter force by 25 percent and overall aircraft fleet by 10 percent while organizing into smaller, more agile organizations will inoculate it from further cuts to the F/A-22 fighter, its cornerstone weapon program.

    “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the Air Force was in a worse position,” said a former senior USAF official. “You don’t have any senior leadership at a time when you’re doing this very important review and a review that everyone anticipates will lead to some substantial change. So you don’t have a way of injecting your priorities or positions as effectively as you did if you had an effective civilian leader. What’s at stake if the Air Force can’t hold its position? Future modernization is in jeopardy.”

    Jason Sherman is senior correspondent for InsideDefense.com, part of the Inside the Pentagon family of newsletters, based in Arlington, Va. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.