Four in a Row

Dec. 1, 2005

The Pentagon’s first three post-Cold War strategic reviews—staged with great fanfare in 1993, 1997, and 2001—generally have been viewed, and accurately so, as budget-cutting drills without much supporting analysis. Things were supposed to be different the fourth time around.

A year ago, officials pledged that the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review, now nearing an end, would assess US forces and policies and let facts dictate the conclusions. DOD first would establish the requirements, it was said, with budgets to come later.

That, as they say, was then, and this is now. Today, there is much evidence to suggest that QDR 2005 has mutated into something fairly familiar: a search for a way—any way—to clamp down on military spending.

Item: In December 2004, Pentagon officials stunned the armed services with a measure known as Program Budget Decision No. 753. It slashed $55 billion from spending plans, striking hard at the Air Force and Navy before the Pentagon had done much analysis.

Item: In an Oct. 19 memo, Gordon R. England, the acting deputy secretary of defense, instructed the services to find ways to lop another $32 billion from Pentagon spending over the next several years. The Air Force was nominated to give up $8.6 billion.

Item: In a July 29 interview with, Ryan Henry, a senior QDR official, declared, “We are going to stay within the [spending] guidelines the President’s budgeting folks have given us.”

These developments have generated concern among defense-minded figures on Capitol Hill. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, worries the QDR will wind up stating what the services think they will be permitted to spend, not what they need to spend.

In response, Hunter has launched a companion defense review. A participant, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), told Defense News that the panel has drawn “a line in the sand” aimed at protecting “our conventional capabilities” from unjustified reductions.

No one claims that money considerations alone are driving the QDR. However, finances are compounding other pressures coming down on the services. Nowhere is this more evident than in USAF’s effort to preserve its F/A-22 fighter program.

At the outset of the QDR, the Air Force was emphatic about its need for adequate numbers of F/A-22s. To preserve funding for 381 of them—considered the minimum fleet size—USAF was prepared to give quite a bit of blood. In pre-QDR action, the Air Force announced plans to cut its overall fighter force by 25 percent and overall aircraft fleet by 10 percent. This concept was designed to save funds with a smaller, more-efficient, and more-lethal fleet.

USAF also set about a major restructuring of Air National Guard units, and it agreed to take down the active force by another 10,000 troops. That’s not all. USAF was prepared to sacrifice some 600 of a planned fleet of 1,800 F-35 fighters.

Air Force officials hoped that these steps would ward off further cuts to its premier fighter program, but it was not to be. Almost immediately, the Pentagon slashed $10 billion and 100 fighters from the F/A-22 program. The Air Force in the past year has repeatedly argued for restoration of the cut, without visible effect so far. DOD obviously believes that the savings will help offset increased expenditures in other areas.

In addition, all signs are that more “efficiencies” are on the way. Last summer, England launched a military-wide fighter review aimed at “optimizing” the force, and Air Force observers have voiced wide-ranging concerns about what it might mean for the USAF fleet—perhaps “consolidation” of fighter aircraft from all of the services. England ordered that findings of the first phase of the military-wide fighter review be completed in time to help shape the Defense Department’s 2007 budget.

All along, Pentagon officials have wanted to use the QDR to truncate or terminate programs they believed to be useless in the global war against elusive terrorist networks, and fighters were among those targeted. Rather than spend more on “traditional” mission areas, they said, the US should spend more to combat so-called irregular, disruptive, and catastrophic threats.

The impulse to cut traditional forces ignores certain realities.

First, the burden of defense spending on the taxpayer is still reasonable, by historical standards. The Pentagon has estimated its 2007 budget at $443.1 billion, rising to $502.3 billion by 2011. Even a $600 billion Pentagon budget would consume only five percent of the nation’s $12 trillion Gross Domestic Product, less than at any time in the Cold War.

Second, “traditional” threats are alive and well. Pentagon planners have included in the QDR three major combat scenarios—most particularly China. “The enhancements … of the Chinese military [do] cause concern,” Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF Chief of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

In general, the QDR is not the best place for preparing detailed budgets. It is intended to provide a broad, 20-year view of DOD needs and not delve deeply into programs. It would make quite a lot of sense to give each service a budget figure, and then let uniformed leaders forge the most workable plans.

The real issue is not even so much the size of the budget, but whether the defense program as planned and projected is adequate to provide for national defense. Getting that part right is critical. It is a legitimate task for Pentagon civilians, working in close cooperation with the armed services and Congress.

DOD failed to do it this way the first three times it tried. One hopes the Pentagon will not make it four in a row on this score.