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A First Glance at the Quadrennial Defense Review

Flipping through the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, a report prepared by the Defense Department every four years for Congress, an image of Ricky Ricardo telling Lucy that she has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do comes to mind.

It’s not that the Quadrennial Defense Review (or more precisely, its executive summary that I’ve just torn through) is “bad” per se. But it certainly requires a bit of context to understand the coded defense-ese. In its purest form, the QDR is supposed to be a review of the Pentagon’s strategy and priorities. In short order, strategic priorities are turned into budgetary ones, as billions of dollars pour into programs that execute the top-tier missions.

The good news is that in this year’s version, certain strategic priorities are credibly enshrined. The Pentagon articulates Secretary Gates’ highly sensible focus on the wars we’re in. (That might seem like a no-brainer, but read the 2006 QDR, where Rummy essentially ignored Iraq and Afghanistan, choosing to focus on pie-in-the-sky “transformation” issues instead.) Other “new” priorities like counter-insurgency, climate/energy, and caring for America’s service members also get deserved top-billing and, eventually, new defense dollars. Reforming the acquisition process also gets a significant nod – but more on that in a second.

As for broad strategies, umbrella priorities like “Prevent and deter conflict” and “Prepare to defeat adversaries on a wide range of contingencies” are necessary missions that the Pentagon has to undertake. I mean, who’s going to do it? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? And certainly, because future conflict and contingency operations will take on unknown forms, their presentation in the QDR has to permit for both continued dollar flow to needed weapons programs while allowing room for unanticipated spending to mitigate new and emerging threats.

The I Love Lucy parallel was triggered only when I dug down within those blanket priorities. Lurking in the fine text is language that suggests the Pentagon continues to evade hard choices. Most glaringly, the QDR continues to include one little phrase with huge implications: U.S. military forces must maintain “the ability to prevail against two capable nation-state aggressors.” Many experts expected this long-held doctrine to be cut from the 2010 QDR because the “two theater” approach — considered almost a placeholder in the strategic void post-USSR, pre-9/11 — was essentially out-of-date in the 21st century. With America preoccupied with a new range of threats arising from rogue and failed states, maintaining this nebulous mission was of dubious importance.

This language distorts priorities. On the one hand, continuing the “two theater” approach is an invitation to defense contractors to pitch too many potentially unnecessary weapons systems, at the expense of new ones better suited to the conflicts we’re actually embroiled in now.  And because this is how the Pentagon has always done business, we’ll probably buy more than we really need. On the other hand, this QDR is clear about the need to reform defense acquisition — and has highlighted cuts in the F-22, Future Combat Systems, and the DDG-1000 — even though it doesn’t state how to institutionalize the reform. (If you’re looking for a place to start, Jordan Tama’s memo to the president is a good one.)

And that’s a central tension in the QDR — can the Pentagon continue to add missions without scaling back others? There is no question that the Defense Department needs to maintain a healthy defense industrial base to do what we need to defend America’s interests. But Pentagon officials need to think harder about how to align that vital goal with the new threats of unconventional warfare. In short, the QDR has to make a clean break with outdated strategic assumptions so that our finite military resources can go where they’re needed most.


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