In recent years, Pentagon planning has been dominated by a rolling series of special defense reviews. The regular planning, programming, and budgeting system has had to operate in whatever leeway was left.
First, there was the Bottom-Up Review in 1993, then the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces in 1994-95, followed by the Quadrennial Defense Review in 1996-97, and the National Defense Panel in 1997.
One reason for this string of special reviews is that the nation’s political leaders, particularly in Congress, believe that the armed forces are still stuck in a Cold War mentality and will not make any real change–which Congress regards as imperative–unless they are pushed to do so.
Now comes the Boren-Rudman Commission, officially, the National Security Study Group, headed by former Sens. David Boren and Warren Rudman. Between 1998 and 2001, it is charged with performing “the most comprehensive review of the national security environment, processes, and organizations since the National Security Act of 1947.”
Although previous defense reviews led to force cuts, they did not induce any fundamental change. The armed services look about the same as they did before, except smaller. The Boren-Rudman Commission differs from its predecessors in several respects, though.
It has longer tenure and a more expansive charter than the other review groups did. Its final report, due in February 2001, will “delineate a national security strategy” and recommend “concomitant changes to the national security apparatus.”
Previous study groups consisted mostly of defense insiders. The 18 members of the BorenRudman Commission are drawn from more diverse backgrounds. They range from former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger and former Secretary of the Air Force Donald Rice to former Ambassadors Anne Armstrong and Andrew Young to former NATO commander John Galvin to historian Stephen Ambrose and former NBC correspondent Bud Dancy.
The first meeting on Oct. 6 was attended by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who sponsored the legislation that created the group, and by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, who appointed the commissioners.
Compared to earlier reviews, the Boren-Rudman Commission is less likely to approach its task with preconceived conclusions. It will also be less vulnerable to capture by the rival service factions. It is entirely possible that this group could produce real change. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.
It is not the job of the commission to write war plans. Its focus will be the National Security Strategy, a White House document that describes in broad terms the nation’s interests and how they will be defended. The National Military Strategy derives from that, and so on down the line.
However, the commission could have a direct effect on the organization of the Defense Department, the roles and missions of the services, and the shape of the defense program, depending on what it decides on five critical points.
The Revolution in Military Affairs. Both the QDR and the NDP recognized that a combination of information technology and long-range precision strike has taken us beyond the inevitability of force-on-force attrition warfare. This “Revolution in Military Affairs” puts great reliance on aerospace forces. That is very threatening to those who insist that wars are won or lost by ground forces. They argue, therefore, that technology is overrated and undependable.
Their position has gotten a boost from planning models that rate airpower as less effective than it has proved to be in actual combat and by the manipulation of joint exercises to artificially constrain airpower and give the ground forces a bigger role in the fight. The commission might ask why we undervalue the best thing we’ve got going for us.
Level of effort. Should US armed forces be prepared to win quickly, decisively, and with as few casualties as possible, or just strong enough to hold parity? If the choice is parity, that means that about half the time, we are going to lose. We are drifting toward parity because the defense budget has been cut too much.
Purpose of the force. It is essential to make distinctions and priorities between missions that occur often but which may not be critical-such as military operations other than war-and vital missions at which the force must not fail, such as fighting and winning the nation’s wars.
Space. The growing importance of space must be obvious to all. Yet our commitment to use space for more than support and peripheral roles-much less dominate space in wartime–is hedged and underfunded. Some nation will be the leader in space in the 21st century. Let us hope that it is us.
New regimes of conflict. We can barely imagine warfare in which computers fight each other and when information is used directly as a weapon. We have, at best, a very weak grasp of how to employ such capabilities or defend ourselves against them.
The QDR and the NDP pulled close to some of the answers but then veered away, in part because of internal pressures. The Boren-Rudman Commission will not have that particular set of organizational problems. This could be the defense review that breaks the inflexible grip of tradition and gets it right.