In the Wake of the QDR

Sept. 1, 2006

In early September 2001, the Quadrennial Defense Review for that year was in the final stages of completion. There was no mystery about what it was going to say. The details had been dribbling out all through the summer in Pentagon statements and preliminary documents.

The QDR would call for the armed forces to be sized, structured, and equipped to deter aggression in four critical theaters (Europe, northern Asia, the East Asian littoral, and the Middle East/Southwest Asia), defeat aggression in two theater wars simultaneously, and win decisively in one of them. The standard was dubbed “4-2-1.”

Before the QDR could be published, though, it was overcome by events. On Sept. 11, airliners hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center in New York and into the Pentagon in Washington.

The nation’s defense priorities changed in an instant and the United States declared a Global War on Terrorism. The QDR was hastily patched and released on Sept. 30. The force sizing standard was modified and relabeled “1-4-2-1,” the added initial “1” referring to homeland defense.

The revisions were as good as the Pentagon could manage, but QDR 2001 was rooted in a time that was now past. Fundamental changes to the QDR would have to wait for the next review, four years later.

Speculation about QDR 2005 began early. A 2004 briefing paper leaked to the news media described diminishing concern about “traditional” war. According to anonymous sources, the two-war standard would be junked. Reporters obtained a draft decision paper that proposed cutting Air Force and Navy budgets to give more money to the Army and the Marine Corps. The Inside the Pentagon newsletter quoted a defense official as saying the next QDR would present “a very infantry-centered view of the future.”

In the conventional wisdom that formed, the war on terrorism was the domain of the ground forces. Among those pushing this view were hard-core ground power advocates, who felt that the strategies of the 1990s and previous QDRs had given too much credit to airpower and that the ground forces had been slighted.

Also weighing in were the perennial defense cutters who saw a chance to kill defense programs they hated, especially the Air Force’s F-22 fighter. The Army’s Future Combat Systems, the second most expensive program in the defense budget, was sometimes mentioned, but mostly the critics concentrated their fire on the F-22.

The Critics Disappointed

When the QDR was published in February 2006, it identified “irregular” warfare as the predominant form of conflict and called for an increase in Special Forces. However, it also recognized that traditional conflict was still a possibility and it kept the two-war force-sizing standard, with modification.

The QDR did cut the Air Force. Active duty end strength would stabilize around 40 percent below the 1990 level. The F-22 program survived—as did the big development programs of the Navy and the Army—although in reduced numbers.

That wasn’t what the critics wanted. The Washington Post accused Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld of “flawed vision” and dodging the hard decisions. “What gives?” columnist Max Boot asked in the Los Angeles Times. “Why is the Pentagon still throwing money into high-tech gadgets of dubious utility while ignoring the glaring imperative for more boots on the ground?”

Earlier, in testimony to a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, Loren Thompson of Lexington Institute reached a different conclusion. “The US Army is incapable of surviving, much less prevailing, without overhead cover provided by the Air Force,” he said. “It is myopic to think that money spent to control airspace somehow detracts from Army effectiveness. It makes Army effectiveness possible.”

QDR 2005 also called for a 50-percent increase in long-range air strike capability, but that did not seem to inflame the critics the way the F-22 did, possibly because there is no aircraft development program to implement the long-range strike forecast.

The Long War

Above all else, QDR 2005 is a reflection of the Global War on Terrorism. The definition of that conflict—which the QDR calls “the Long War”—has evolved through several stages.

In September 2001, President Bush said the adversary was “a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al Qaeda,” which “is to terror what the Mafia is to crime.” Military aircraft began around-the-clock combat air patrols above Washington, New York, and a dozen other cities.

The first offensive action was Operation Enduring Freedom, which began Oct. 7 with air strikes in Afghanistan. By December, it had ousted the Taliban regime, which had given sanctuary to al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, and had the terrorists on the run. The air campaign tapered off in January as the military emphasis shifted to the ground, with airpower in support.

Meanwhile, letters containing anthrax had been sent through the US mail to Florida and New York news offices and to two Senate offices in Washington. Enclosed messages appeared to be from terrorists. This added to fears that the terrorists had access to weapons of mass destruction.

The war on terrorism moved into its second phase when President Bush in his State of the Union address in January 2002 broadened the declared threat to include acquisition of biological and nuclear weapons by terrorists and hostile regimes. The specific threat, he said, was an “Axis of Evil,” consisting of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.

James Mann, in Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet, summarized the change: “Thus over a period of less than five months the Administration had progressively shifted the focus of the war on terrorism from (a) retaliating against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks to (b) stopping terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction to (c) preventing states from supplying terrorists with these weapons.”

The State of the Union address, Mann said, “set the Bush Administration on a new course. Hunting terrorists was de-emphasized, at least in public; instead, stopping rogue states from developing weapons of mass destruction became the Administration’s top priority.”

The third phase of the conflict—targeting Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq—emerged gradually. The concern with Iraq was the conviction that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and would supply them to the terrorists. Saddam’s defiance of UN weapons inspectors added to the sense of urgency.

Regime change in Iraq had been US policy since the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. Furthermore, the world’s intelligence agencies were said to be unanimous in the view that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Congress authorized the use of force against Iraq in October 2002. A consensus to disarm Iraq formed, and the fourth phase of the conflict began with Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion of Iraq, in March 2003. Coalition forces swept into Baghdad and Saddam fled. The coalition soon captured Saddam but did not find any weapons of mass destruction.

Conventional military operations ended and the war entered the fifth phase—with emphasis on peacekeeping and nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan—which continues today.

A number of critics charge that the war on terrorism was sidetracked by Operation Iraqi Freedom. Among them is Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2000 to 2002. He said, “I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat—al Qaeda.”

President Bush says that Iraq is pivotal to the war on terrorism. “It’s important for Americans to understand the stakes in Iraq,” he said in a speech in April. “A free Iraq will be an ally in the war on terror. A free Iraq will be a partner in the struggle for peace and moderation in the Muslim world. A free Iraq will inspire democratic reformers from Damascus to Tehran and send a signal across the broader Middle East that the future belongs not to terrorism but to freedom. A free Iraq will show the power of liberty to change the world. And as the Middle East grows in liberty and prosperity and hope, the terrorists will lose their safe havens and recruits, and America and other free nations will be more secure.”

In a related development, DOD declared “stability operations” to be a core military mission with “priority comparable to combat operations.”

The popular, news media image of the war on terrorism is of localized ground action, mostly in Iraq, against bands of partisan irregulars. Overlooked in that depiction is that the first two actions were against states, employed large numbers of military forces—conspicuously including airpower—and achieved the goal of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Also forgotten, apparently, was the experience of October 2001 when the counteroffensive against the terrorists in Afghanistan began. The emphasis was on airpower, and within weeks, critics were saying that the campaign was bogged down, airpower was not working, and that our best hope would be a ground offensive with as many as 250,000 US ground troops the following spring.

The critics were wrong. Airpower, assisted by US spotters on the ground, hammered the enemy positions and the defenses crumbled. Afghan irregulars, supported by airpower and US special forces, swept south, and by November, were in control of the country.

Strategic Shift

The QDR recognized four kinds of conflict:

Irregular: Terrorism, insurgency, and other forms of nonconventional conflict featuring unconventional means. Examples are Iraq and Afghanistan.

Catastrophic: Attacks that result instantaneously in unacceptable levels of destruction. Examples are Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Includes terrorists or rogue states employing weapons of mass destruction or producing WMD-like effects.

Disruptive: Development by competitors of technology, methods, or capabilities that would counter or cancel current US military advantage.

Traditional: Familiar forms of war fought by conventional forces in which the enemy is a state.

Of these, “irregular warfare has emerged as the dominant form of warfare confronting the United States, its allies, and its partners.” The challenges most likely to occur are the ones in which US vulnerability is lowest, and vice versa. This assessment is depicted on a matrix known as the “Quad Chart,” which was widely used in QDR discussions and presentations, but which does not appear in the QDR itself.

The Quad Chart showed up regularly in the news. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius called it “a powerful intellectual weapon” and “bad news” for the Navy and the Air Force because it “suggested that the imminent danger to America came from al Qaeda” rather than the kinds of war that justified their budgets.

In fact, the inverse relationship in war between the level of violence and the probability of occurrence is a familiar military concept. For good reason, defense strategies have put more attention to the threats that posed the greatest danger than on the lesser threats that were more likely to occur.

The QDR says specifically that the single biggest threat to the United States is Iran. China, North Korea, and the Hamas regime in Palestine are also potential problems. All of them are formal states, with governments, capitals, and organized armed forces.

For all of its focus on the emergence of irregular warfare, QDR 2005 was careful to preserve the standard—as the two previous QDRs had—that US armed forces should be able to fight two overlapping regional conflicts.

Origins of the Quadrennial Defense Review

The Quadrennial Defense Review grew out of a recognition by Congress in 1996 that the defense program was seriously out of balance. The armed forces were not sized or funded to carry out the declared national strategy.

The defense authorization act for Fiscal Year 1997 directed the Secretary of Defense to conduct, every four years, a “Quadrennial Defense Review” to address the imbalance. Subsequent legislation directed that the QDR take a 20-year perspective.

The QDR did not attract much notice at the time. When President Clinton signed the Fiscal 1997 authorization bill into law, the White House issued a three-page statement on various aspects of it. The QDR was not mentioned.

That changed. The QDR has become a center-ring event in the world of defense planning and draws an enormous amount of attention and comment.

No special authority is reserved for the QDR. Anything that the QDR can do can also be done in between reviews by the regular process of government. For example, the Bush Administration’s pre-emption strategy in June 2002 was implemented between QDRs.

The Two-War Problem

In the 1960s, the United States followed what was then called the “two-and-a-half war strategy.” The specification was for a conventional force that could (1) conduct an initial 90-day defense of Europe against a Soviet attack, (2) simultaneously meet an all-out Chinese attack in Asia, and (3) handle a regional contingency.

The force never came close to meeting that ambitious goal, and believing that a realistic objective would be of more value, the Nixon Administration in 1970 switched to a one-and-a-half war strategy. The peacetime conventional force would be prepared for one major communist attack, either in Europe or in Asia, and a major regional contingency elsewhere.

In 1982, Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger rejected numerical standards as “mechanistic” and adopted instead a no-number approach in which, he said, “our long-range goal is to be capable of defending all theaters simultaneously.”

That was the policy until the Bottom-Up Review in 1993, when Secretary of Defense Les Aspin was desperately searching for a strategy that would fit with his ill-fated decision to cut the defense budget before calculating the feasibility and consequences. (See “The Legacy of the Bottom-Up Review,” October 2003, p. 54.)

Unable to get Congress to consent to anything less, Aspin set the force sizing standard as the capability to fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously. That, however, had nothing to do with the two-and-a-half war strategy of the 1960s, in which the “half war” was the major regional conflict in Vietnam. Aspin’s yardstick was equivalent to about a fifth of the 1960s standard.

In 1996, prior to Congressional creation of the QDR, there was a clamor to abandon the two-war standard on the grounds that it was excessive and unaffordable. Upon further consideration, QDR 1997 kept the two-war standard, as did QDR 2001. To the surprise of those who thought the two-conflict standard was done for in QDR 2005, it survived again, although in modified form.

“During this QDR, senior leaders confirmed the importance of the main elements of that force planning construct: maintaining the ability to defend the US homeland; continuing to operate in and from forward areas; and above all, the importance of maintaining capabilities and forces to wage multiple campaigns in an overlapping time frame—for which there may be little or no warning of attack,” QDR 2005 said.

The new force planning construct, however, represents a significant change. The size and structure of the force will be based on three “objective areas”:

  • Defend the homeland.
  • Prevail in the war on terror and conduct irregular operations.
  • Conduct and win conventional campaigns.

Both “steady state” and “surge” requirements will be established for each of these three focal points. The main determinant for sizing the force will be the steady state requirement, which includes “Long War” operations against terror networks.

The two-war requirement is part of the conventional campaign category, and it is a surge requirement, not a steady state capability. After a surge in time of crisis, the force is to be able to “wage two nearly simultaneous conventional campaigns (or one conventional campaign if already engaged in a large-scale, long-duration irregular campaign), while selectively reinforcing deterrence against opportunistic acts of aggression. Be prepared in one of the two campaigns to remove a hostile regime, destroy its military capacity, and set conditions for the transition to, or for the restoration of, civil society.”

Force Structure Questions

QDR 2005 left many questions unanswered. Previous QDRs had included details about force structure—fighter wings, strategic forces, bombers, land divisions and brigades, warships, submarines, and so forth—but the current report is sketchy in that respect.

The review made no sweeping changes in the size of the armed forces. The general conclusion was that force size was about right, but that the mix of capabilities was disproportionately skewed toward conventional operations.

The QDR introduced further ambiguity with its decision to “organize the Air Force around 86 combat wings (e.g., fighter, bomber, ISR/battle management/command and control, mobility, air operations centers, battlefield airmen, other missions and space/missile) with emphasis on leveraging reachback to minimize forward footprints and expedite force deployments.”

The Air Force today has about 81 combat wings. This new way of counting Air Force units is not compatible with decades of historical data, and the change discourages direct comparison of past and future force structure. It is unlikely that this is a coincidence.

The Pentagon was somewhat more forthcoming about changes for the Army. Rumsfeld said, “The centerpiece of the Army reorganization plan is a shift away from a structure based on large divisions—the ‘building block’ of the Army since World War I—into an active and reserve force configured into 70 more capable combat brigades and over 200 support brigades—all fully manned and fully equipped.”

Total Force

In 1970, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird announced a “Total Force concept,” in which capabilities of the National Guard and Reserve were incorporated, along with those of the active forces, in all aspects of planning and budgeting. In 1973, Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger upgraded the concept to the Total Force policy.

QDR 2005 broadened the definition of the Total Force to include not only the active and reserve military components but also civilians and contractors. The QDR cited “the need to rebalance military skills between and within the active and reserve components” and said that “joint force commanders need to have more immediate access to the Total Force.

“In particular, the reserve component must be operationalized, so that select reservists and units are more accessible and more readily deployable than today,” the QDR said. “During the Cold War, the reserve component was used, appropriately, as a ‘strategic reserve,’ to provide support to active component forces during major combat operations. In today’s global context, this concept is less relevant.”

QDR findings on Total Force fed into a heated argument, already in progress, about the relationship of the active force and the National Guard. Guard units have three identities—as Total Force components of the military services, as elements of the National Guard, and as assets of their home states—that are sometimes in conflict.

As the armed forces diminished in size and closed bases and facilities, there were repeated clashes about the effect of the drawdown on Guard units. The Air Force was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the Total Force policy and had put a considerable part of its prime force structure into the Guard and Reserve. The partnership began to fray in 2005 as state governors and the National Guard Bureau bridled at actions proposed by the Air Force in the reduction, reshaping, and relocation of Air National Guard units. (See “Total Force Turbulence,” October 2005, p. 44.)

The head of the National Guard Association of the United States said that in a drawdown, “the most expensive forces (the active component) should be sacrificed first, followed by the least expensive (the Guard and Reserve).”

The Guard has always had considerable political clout, a combination of the interest by states in Guard affairs and a general popularity and support in Congress. Extensive use of the reserve components in the Global War on Terrorism has added to that leverage. In 2005, the Guard and Reserve accounted for 36 percent of the forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is not yet clear what the role of the reserves, especially the Army and Air National Guard, will be in the new Total Force. The National Guard caucus in Congress has proposed promoting the director of the Guard Bureau to four-star rank and giving him a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A Congressionally chartered commission on the Guard and Reserve is plowing through a number of issues and is to report back by March 2007.

Repeating the Flaw

QDR 2005 has the same basic flaw as the two previous QDRs. It was decided ahead of time that the outcome would be “revenue neutral.” Financial constraint was not the only principle that guided QDR deliberations, but it was significant enough to prevent an uncluttered analysis of national security needs.

The defense program currently costs 3.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. The President and the Pentagon say the nation is at war, but this is not a wartime allocation of resources. At the peak of World War II, the nation spent 34.5 percent of GDP on the war effort. In the Korean War, it was 11.7 percent of GDP, and 8.9 percent in the Vietnam War. Even the short Gulf War of 1991 was allocated 4.6 percent of GDP.

The fears and commitment so prevalent in the days following the 9/11 attacks have faded with time. There are dark hints from Congress that the budget is not “unlimited.” The Wall Street Journal reports that “the Pentagon’s days of open checkbooks are numbered.”

We will not know for certain about adequacy of the force until it is tested in actual conflicts of the future. It is also difficult to make analytical judgments because of the lack of specificity in the QDR about force structure. Even so, 3.9 percent of GDP—if that is what is meant by “unlimited”—is cutting it short.

“The Bush Administration plans a large-scale modernization effort in the coming years, the first in over two decades,” said Andrew F. Krepinevich, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “Yet it also proposes to reduce defense spending toward the end of this decade, in part by holding down spending on personnel.”

In the QDR, Krepinevich said, “the tough choices were deferred, raising doubts whether the existing defense program could be executed, let alone one including initiatives to address new threats.”

With stability operations coming on line as a priority supposedly equal to that of combat operations, the Pentagon should not expect to save much money by reducing the force, which is already stressed, for the most part.

Main Provisions of the QDR

The Quadrennial Defense Review was completed in 2005 and published in February 2006. The entire text is available on the Internet at Following are the main provisions.

1. The Global War on Terrorism will be a “Long War” that cannot be won only or even principally by military force. Currently the struggle is centered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

2. Irregular warfare is the dominant form of warfare confronting us. Future ground forces will be as proficient in irregular operations, including counterinsurgency and stabilization operations, as they are today in high-intensity combat.

3. The QDR identifies four priorities: defeating terrorist networks; defending the homeland in depth; shaping the choices of countries at strategic crossroads; and preventing hostile states and non-state actors from acquiring or using weapons of mass destruction. These four “focus areas” are not the full range of activities the Department of Defense might have to conduct, but senior leaders regard them as “among the most pressing.”

4. The new force sizing standard to replace 1-4-2-1 is based on the combined requirements for homeland defense, the war on terrorism, and conventional campaigns. The QDR retained the yardstick of fighting two major theater wars (now called “conventional campaigns”) but with modifications. US forces will be structured for a surge capability to win two nearly simultaneous conventional campaigns and be prepared in one of those campaigns to remove a hostile regime and destroy its military capacity.

5. A number of findings affected the Air Force.

  • The Air Force will be organized around 86 combat wings of various kinds.
  • Joint air capabilities will be reoriented to favor greater range and persistence, larger and more flexible payloads, and the ability to penetrate and sustain operations in denied areas.
  • Long-range strike capabilities will be increased by 50 percent, and the penetrating component of long-range strike will be increased by factor of five by 2025. A new land-based long-range strike capability will be fielded by 2018.
  • Approximately 45 percent of the future long-range strike force will be unmanned.
  • The F-22 fighter program will be restructured, stretching production out to Fiscal 2010 (to abut Joint Strike Fighter production, which begins in 2011). The QDR did not change the supposedly provisional 2004 decision to reduce the program from 381 aircraft to 183.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicle coverage capability will be doubled with the acquisition of additional Predators and Global Hawks. An Air Force UAV squadron will be established under US Special Operations Command.
  • The C-17 airlifter procurement will be capped at 180. The additional strategic airlift will be 112 modernized C-5s.
  • The Department of Defense “is also considering” a KC-X tanker-airlifter aircraft.
  • The E-10 intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft was reduced to a technology demonstration program; procurement was terminated.
  • The Minuteman III ICBM fleet will be reduced from 500 missiles deployed to 450.

6. By 2011, Army strength will be stabilized at 482,400 active duty (down 10,600 from current strength) and 533,000 in the reserve component. The Marine Corps will have an active force strength of 175,000 (down about 5,000 from the present level) and 39,000 in the reserve component. Air Force end strength will be reduced by 40,000 with “balanced cuts across the Total Force.”

7. The Navy will “build a larger fleet that includes 11 carrier strike groups.” That is one less carrier than the Navy has today. It will also deploy a precision guided conventional warhead on Trident SLBMs.

8. Special operations forces will increase by 15 percent. Psychological operations and civil affairs will be expanded.

9. The QDR redefines Total Force to include not only active and reserve military components but also civilian and contractor personnel. Reserve components will be “operationalized” to be “more accessible and more readily deployable.” Their traditional Cold War role as a strategic reserve has become “less relevant” in the world of today.

The Air Force is far below its end strength at the time of Gulf War I, and is still cutting people and programs.

Thomas Donnelly, editor of Armed Forces Journal and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says that QDR 2005, like its predecessors, was worthless and that the QDR should be discontinued.

“The Quadrennial Defense Review process, from 1993 until now, has utterly failed to do what it was intended to do: provide a link among strategy, force planning, and defense budgeting,” Donnelly said. “Indeed, with every QDR, the situation has gotten worse; the ends-means problem has grown.”

According to Krepinevich, “Independent estimates conclude that over the long term, the defense program may be short some $50 billion a year, a shortfall that will prove difficult to erase given the Administration’s plans to cut the deficit in half by 2009.”

Barry M. Blechman of DFI International offered a more positive evaluation. The QDR should be regarded as “a statement of intent,” and “critics who charge that the QDR offers nothing new are usually looking first for radical changes in modernization or force structure planning. While the latter constitutes an important consideration, it risks putting the cart before the horse. The first task of the QDR is to set strategic priorities in response to evolving national security circumstances. Accordingly, the QDR is a highly relevant document that codifies a number of shifts in strategic thinking.”

One of the things that the QDR got right was resisting the pressure—which was considerable—to base US military posture on the short term and on a single threat. The 9/11 attacks introduced a new threat, but that did not mean the older threats had gone away.

QDR 2005 confirms the principle of “capabilities-based planning.” The earlier approach, threat-based planning, pegged strategy to a specific enemy and anticipated where and how the next conflict might occur. Capabilities-based planning is more flexible, concentrating on the capabilities that potential adversaries have or might obtain.

Some critics of the QDR would like to return to threat-based strategy. In their view, the threat is clear: It is global terrorism, and the defense program should be structured to deal with that, not with some unknown threat years away that might never materialize.

Ryan Henry, DOD policy chief and Pentagon point man for the QDR, explained why that is unwise and why the strategy must take a longer view that looks beyond the immediate threat.

“Within the next decade, US forces will be engaged somewhere in the world where they’re not engaged today,” Henry said. “We’re clueless on where that’s going to be, when that’s going to be, or in what manner they’re going to be engaged.”

John T. Correll was editor in chief of Air Force Magazine for 18 years and is now a contributing editor. His most recent article, “Barrel Roll,” appeared in the August issue.