Mixed Signals From the Quadrennial Review

July 1, 1997

The Quadrennial Defense Review is billed as “a fundamental and comprehensive examination of America’s defense needs from 1997 to 2015. The Pentagon labored over it for months before releasing the comprehensive report in May. If Congress goes along with it, the QDR will become the “overall strategic planning document” for the Department of Defense.

Three elements are said to define the “essence” of the QDR strategy: shaping the strategic environment to advance US interests, maintaining a capability to respond to the full spectrum of threats, and preparing for the threats and dangers of an uncertain future.

The QDR keeps some major provisions of the previous strategy–notably the requirement to win two major theater wars nearly simultaneously–but it puts more emphasis than previous strategies did on “smaller scale contingencies” and military operations other than war. At the same time, the QDR calls for stiff reductions in force levels, infrastructure, and programs, particularly in aircraft programs.

Among those seeing a gap between the strategy and the force projections is Rep Floyd D. Spence (R-S.C.), chairman of the House National Security Committee, who says “the QDR will have our forces transiting from “doing more with less” to “doing even more with even less.”

The report says that we will always defend vital US interests and will selectively defend interests that are important but not vital. It says that the strategy and the force projections is Rep. Floyd D. Spence (R-S.C.), chairman of the House National Security while smaller-scale contingencies will be the most frequent use of forces over the next 20 years, the capability to defeat aggression in two theaters is “essential to the credibility of our overall national security strategy.” (An early QDR draft said that major theater wars “will remain the ultimate test of the US militaryóone in which it must always succeed.” The line was inexplicably dropped in the final version.) No “global peer competitor” is likely to emerge between now and 2015, but “it is reasonable to assume that more than one aspiring regional power will have both the desire and the means to challenge US interests militarily.”

In the QDR, the Defense Department recognizes for the first time that a prime operational requirement in theater war is to halt an enemy invasion force rapidly, short of its objective, and perhaps heading off a long and costly campaign to evict the enemy from captured territory. The “halt” phase of regional conflict is almost completely a mission for airpower. The ground forces, who have little or no part in it, disparage its importance.

The QDR further anticipates that a revolution in military affairs “will fundamentally change the way US forces fight.” The components of this revolution are generally understood to be information technology and precision strike, capabilities that are concentrated in air and space forces.

All of this would suggest emphasis on airpower and spacepower. In fact, it is airpower that is cut most under the QDR, with the Air Force taking the deepest cuts of all. Active duty ground forces of the Army and the Marine Corps survive the restructuring intact. So do all 12 of the Navy’s carriers.

The Air Force gives up one active duty fighter wing, replacing it with a general purpose reserve component wing created by converting force structure from Air National Guard air defense squadrons. The Air Force also absorbs 43 percent of the total active duty force cuts for all services and takes substantial reductions in the numbers of F-22 fighters and Joint STARS surveillance and targeting aircraft to be procured.

The Air Force concurs in these reductions and says it can get the job done with the reduced force. Even so, there is a mismatch between the QDR strategy and the implementing actions that sends, at best, mixed signals about the direction ordained. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the QDR process was budget-driven. That does not mean strategic considerations got short shrift, but the financial perspective was pivotal.

Several years ago, the Department of Defense announced that, to modernize the force, procurement funding would rise to about $60 billion by Fiscal Year 2001. Since then, unfortunately, each yearly defense program has had to postpone the previous year’s plan to begin increasing procurement spending. The QDR report cites a “chronic migration of funds,” attributable to unprogrammed operations, unexpected requirements, and savings that failed to materialize.

The QDR says there is virtually no chance that the defense budget will be increased. Thus, if the force continues at present levels, there is little hope that procurement funding can rise above $50 billion a year. With the internal realignments specified by the QDR, $60 billion a year is possible.

Maybe. If Congress balks at the proposed infrastructure reductions, such as proposed base closures, assumptions about cost reductions and procurement funding may fall by the wayside.

If the savings do work out, it would be good to see them applied to bringing the force projections into better alignment with the strategy and to a stronger priority on defense of our vital interests in the conflicts that are most consequential.

As it stands, the QDR is less a measure of what the nation needs than it is of what the Pentagon believes the nation is willing to pay for.