Briefing Book

How to Read the QDR

What the Pentagon’s most highly anticipated planning document says about the gap between its aspirations and reality.

If the annual budget is where the U.S. Defense Department lays out its needs for the coming year, the Quadrennial Defense Review is where the Pentagon lays out its vision of the years ahead. It’s an important guide to how military and civilian leaders see the world, and since the U.S. military plays such an enormous role in setting America’s foreign policy, it’s a document that demands careful study. And it’s also vital to examine the gap between the soaring ambitions of the QDR and the hard realities of the budget.

This year’s QDR, the Obama administration’s first, portrays the security challenges of the future as fundamentally different from those of the past. In the 21st century, conventional U.S. military superiority will increasingly drive potential adversaries toward asymmetric responses to American power. Recognizing this new state of affairs, the./ QDR emphasizes the nontraditional threats posed by WMD terrorist attacks, hybrid warfare combining high- and low-tech tactics, and the loss of shared access to the global commons in air, sea, space, and cyberspace. Even potential competitors like China are more likely to attack the United States using asymmetric means, such as by countering American power in cyberspace rather than in a blue-water naval battle in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Together, these asymmetric security challenges could erode America’s freedom of action and ability to influence the course of world events in the years ahead — if the United States does not begin to prepare for them now.

While the new defense budget released alongside the QDR continues to reallocate resources in response to nontraditional threats, it is difficult to compel dollars and plans to follow words. The quip about past QDRs — "Civilians propose and services dispose" — still holds true today. In its innovative "Quad Chart," the 2006 QDR masterfully sketched out the four main challenges facing the United States in the future. However, the Government Accountability Office judged that the 2006 report did not comprehensively consider "different options for organizing and sizing its forces to provide needed capabilities." Similarly, the 2010 QDR concedes that further narrowing of the gap between vision and reality may be required. In its own words, the new QDR "describes some of the tradeoffs that Defense Department leaders have identified to enable the rebalancing of U.S. mili­tary capabilities," but admits, "More such tradeoffs could be necessary in the future."

The new QDR and defense budget illustrate the challenge of matching vision to reality, even with more than $700 billion in annual funding for the Department of Defense. Closing the distance between strategic priorities listed in the QDR and realistic budgetary plans to implement them will prove a major challenge in 2010 due to persistent structural constraints on reallocating defense spending. Moreover, last year’s overall success in reshaping the defense budget does not mean that members of Congress will unflinch­ingly accept and implement the vision illuminated by the new QDR. Some lawmakers may favor the status quo during 2010, thanks to the lingering economic recession and upcoming congressional midterm elections.

The Budget Squeeze

The strategic rebalancing called for by the 2010 QDR will confront structural constraints that will make change difficult to implement. These impedi­ments, which are deeply rooted and long running, include:

  • Rising personnel costs for the Department of Defense’s military forces and civilian employees, which are being compounded by 1) increases in the end-strength size of the Army and Marine Corps; and 2) the addition of 19,200 new governmental acquisition workforce employees.
  • Growing DOD operations and maintenance costs.
  • Higher price tags for advanced weapons systems, including the additional acquisition costs associ­ated with design problems and schedule slippages.
  • The cost of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which 1) may not immediately decrease when troops are withdrawn if historical precedent is any guide; and 2) will require future investments to bring depleted equipment stocks back to pre-war standards.
  • Steady growth in federal spending on mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which will increasingly squeeze discretionary spending in other areas, including national defense.

Taken together, these trends leave alarmingly little room to maneuver. They present formidable obstacles to strategic flexibility, as well as budget­ary realignment when needed, in the pursuit of national security needs.

In the years ahead, fierce competition for federal budgetary resources may prevent the Pentagon from receiving enough money to do all of the things it has already committed to doing, let alone the things required to cope with emerging nontraditional security threats. When combined with byzantine congressional and interagency budget processes, which are not conducive to "whole-of-government" approaches to national security, the structural constraints described above are a significant drag on responsive, forward-oriented strategies for overcoming the wide range of irregu­lar, disruptive, and catastrophic challenges to the United States laid out in the 2010 QDR.

In the wake of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, political leaders may be reticent to increase defense spending and to keep it elevated for most of the next two decades, as would be required to execute existing initiatives. Excluding costs for Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon’s base budget must average $567 billion per year between 2011 and 2028 in order to carry out current plans. Defense policymakers should not delude themselves into thinking that it will be easy to secure this high level of funding over such a long period. The Pentagon will struggle to obtain resources as it competes against ballooning interest on the national debt, non-defense domestic priori­ties, and a generation of baby boomers driving mandatory spending higher than ever. Further, public opinion polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans think current defense spending levels are either "about right" or "too much." Even if the required funding were to be appropriated, the high costs for personnel, operations and maintenance, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq threaten to crowd out investments in procurement and research and development, which together provide new solutions for today, such as mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, and alternative options for tomorrow, such as unmanned aerial vehicles and the next generation bomber.

Thus, the Pentagon cannot rely on American taxpayers’ future largesse. Instead, the Department of Defense should concentrate on putting its own house in order by using the new QDR as a mandate to continue to bring strategic vision and force plans into closer alignment. In making these tough deci­sions, however, Pentagon leaders must also clearly explain to Congress and the American people the attendant risks. The U.S. military cannot alter its force plans without serious repercus­sions for the policies of U.S. allies, the strategies of potential U.S. adversaries, and the robustness of the defense industrial base.

Tradeoffs Still Required

Pre-existing budgetary commitments make it dif­ficult for the Pentagon to devote adequate resources to the new capabilities necessary for success in mis­sions U.S. troops are actually performing today and are likely to perform tomorrow. Despite the persis­tent challenges of global terrorism and two ongoing wars, the Department of Defense still spends more each year on administrative activities like claims processing than on the special operations forces that are so important for success in Afghanistan, Iraq, and counterterrorism missions. The Pentagon also continues to pay for major defense acquisition programs, initiated decades ago in some cases, that no longer serve current security needs.

Reforms to the defense budget made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates last year certainly brought the Department of Defense’s priorities and plans into much closer alignment. Indeed, last year’s 2010 budget will likely go down in history as one of the most revolutionary budgets ever because of the specific programmatic changes made to approximately 50 weapons systems. The new 2011 budget does not recreate the fireworks of last year. Instead, it consolidates last year’s gains within a long-term evolutionary framework in accordance with the future needs of the U.S. military.

Yet more hard tradeoffs are still required to ensure that the commitments of the past do not become a strategic drag on overcoming the challenges of the future. The worst-case scenario going forward is that policymakers whistle past the graveyard by avoiding difficult choices today — only to discover five years from now that things have become even less fiscally sustainable and that the United States is still not prepared for the uncertain future that lies ahead.

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