The Pentagon and military services are gearing up for a bruising quadrennial review that could reshape the way we fight.
Six years into the longest period of sustained combat since Vietnam, the U.S. military is suffering from strategic drift, uncertain about which of many potential security threats should determine the future size and composition of the armed forces.
The military services already are building their analytic capabilities for the looming budget battle many expect to coincide with the next Quadrennial Defense Review. The congressionally mandated QDR occurs every four years and is designed to align national security strategy to resources and force levels to address future threats. The next QDR, due in early 2010, will coincide with a new presidential administration and new management team at the Pentagon. That group will have almost a year to shape the final draft of the review. This QDR-the fourth since Congress mandated the reviews in 1997-must issue specific guidance and make tough decisions regarding Defense budgeting and force levels. The Defense Department's base budget, not counting emergency supplemental appropriations for Iraq and Afghanistan, is approaching $500 billion. Planned investment in new weapons systems has doubled from $750 billion in 2001 to almost $1.5 trillion in 2007.
Whatever the outcome of the next presidential election, it's likely that the steady growth in Defense budgets since the Sept. 11 attacks-on the order of 6 percent per year-will be slowed as ground force levels in Iraq decline and the next administration addresses neglected domestic concerns such as decaying transportation infrastructure and burgeoning benefits obligations. As mandatory entitlement spending rises, driven in large part by Social Security payments to retiring baby boomers, discretionary spending will fall. Comptroller General David M. Walker issued a clear warning to the military in congressional testimony last fall: "Given the security environment and growing longer-range fiscal imbalance facing our nation, DoD, like other federal agencies, will increasingly compete for resources in a fiscally constrained environment."
The 2006 QDR was widely viewed as a wasted opportunity to provide much needed strategic guidance to shape force levels and spending plans and to create a match between stated goals and actual resources.
Anthony Cordesman, an expert on national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, says the 2006 effort began with much promise as the first comprehensive strategic review since the Sept. 11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, he says, it was rendered meaningless as it degenerated into "planning by hope and wish list." The review that emerged projected a constant budget through 2013, but personnel, operations and maintenance, and weapons programs since have grown dramatically.
Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, speaking before the House Armed Services Committee in June, pronounced the 2006 QDR a "great disappointment" because it made no tough choices about where money should be spent and presented no answers about the future of warfare. Having participated in every past QDR, Krepinevich said the process has become like the movie Groundhog Day: "Every four years we wake up, and here we go again."
Speaking at the same hearing, John Hamre, president of CSIS and newly appointed head of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, a panel that advises Pentagon leaders, said, "They almost all start out as a very grand process of thinking about the future, and they always end up as a budget drill." He said officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense must identify and then force the military to focus on the most important issues; otherwise, the process dissolves into a fistfight among the services as they struggle to retain their share of the Defense budget.
In a Nov. 19 editorial in Defense News, Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dean Patterson and Air Force Lt. Col. Lenny Richoux, military fellows at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said the QDR is a vital part of American democracy that must be beefed up. In the sense that it provides Congress with a view on where taxpayer money is going, they wrote, "it provides the necessary cross checks on the DoD budget."
What Share of Wealth?
In public comments over the past year, the heads of the military services have called for a greater share of the national wealth to be spent on defense. Most advocate either an increase on the order of a percentage point over current expenditures-roughly 4 percent of the gross domestic product-or a spending floor of 4 percent of GDP. They argue that the military's current share is too low, even by historical standards.
And they have a point. According to the Office of Management and Budget, military spending accounted for 9.5 percent of GDP during the peak year of Vietnam in 1968 and then declined to 4.7 percent of GDP in 1979. During the Cold War defense buildup of the Reagan years, military spending rose to 6.2 percent of GDP in 1986.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, the attendant desire for a peace dividend and the economic expansion of the 1990s prompted a decline in military spending to 3 percent of GDP by the late 1990s. It didn't begin to increase in percentage terms again until 2002. OMB projects that the defense share of GDP in 2008 will be 4.2 percent of GDP, but then projects it will fall to 3.1 percent by 2013. In 2007, the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based public policy research organization favoring limited government, published a monograph titled "Of Men and Material" that proposed increasing the Defense Department's allotment to an amount equal to 5 percent of GDP. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, said last year that the Defense budget should be sustained at 4 percent of GDP.
Cordesman says Pentagon leaders' failure to choose among major weapons systems purchases has led to serious underfunding of programs already on the books and will "confront the next administration with a major crisis." He says the only solution might be an increase in federal outlays of 1 to 2 percentage points.
Writing in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs, Richard Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, said while America can afford to spend more on defense, focusing on the spending side of the equation reflects a failure of strategic thinking. As David Scruggs, a senior fellow at CSIS, said in a recent interview, "resources should follow strategy, not the other way around."
Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations said at a roundtable in 2006 that many observers had expected the QDR would choose between a high-tech, capital-intensive force needed for conventional warfare and a lower-tech, labor-intensive force suited for battling insurgencies such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The great irony of the QDR that we got, of course, is that they decided to do both. The document basically tries to do everything," he said.
It wasn't long ago that the military felt confident that if it was sized, trained and equipped to fight and win major conventional warfare, it could handle guerrilla fighters, factional militias and terrorist cells. The bloody fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown the vulnerability of conventional armies to the unconventional tactics of small, agile armed groups.
Speaking at the Army's annual convention in Washington in the fall, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said fighting irregular foes using unconventional tactics would be the mainstay of the future battlefield, and warned the Army not to make the mistake it did after Vietnam when it shifted its focus to fighting massed tank battles and lost the unconventional warfare experience it had gained. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey has said he worries that his service has become too focused on counterinsurgency and is losing its ability to fight conventional battles.
During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee last summer, incoming Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen worried that the excessive focus on Iraq might cause the military to "lapse into complacency" about future regional powers with potent conventional armies.
The divergent views of Defense officials reflect the effects of the lack of a single threat to focus on in the post-Cold War era. Planning works most effectively when the military is challenged by a readily identifiable problem to which it can muster solutions. Past investments in stealth technology, precision munitions and remote sensors were driven by the need to challenge a numerically superior Warsaw Pact, for example.
Major weapons programs are efficient to the extent that they are designed to counter specific threats. Today, major weapons are being developed in the hope they'll be able to address any and all potential challenges. The result is large cost increases. A March 2007 GAO assessment (07-388) of 64 major weapons systems said the total estimated costs for those weapons in 2007 was $165 billion more than had been projected in 2004.
The Pentagon is realizing that in wartime, recruiting and retaining skilled people in an all-volunteer force and equipping them to defeat any potential foe is hugely expensive. One of the largest failures of the 2006 QDR was that it identified irregular warfare as a significant challenge, but failed to cut weapons system spending to shift funds to counterinsurgency.
While the QDR said no additional troops were needed to wage irregular wars, a year after its release, Defense announced plans to increase the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000 personnel.
The justification was that soldiers and Marines were stretched thin by the continuing deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But adding that many to the ranks will raise fixed costs roughly $13 billion annually. Already, active-duty personnel costs increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2005, largely due to pay and benefits increases and expanded medical benefits for retirees.
The Services vs. the Secretary
"The QDR is really a pitched battle scenario," says Kathleen Hicks, formerly director of policy planning in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, who participated in the last QDR and now is a fellow at CSIS directing a study on how to improve Defense governance. The services always are better prepared than the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the review, she says. They're better funded, have more personnel dedicated to the QDR and "the services run QDR shops in the off years," she adds. By contrast, the Office of the Secretary of Defense is highly reliant on outside expertise for its QDR work, and its analytic staff essentially stands down in off years.
Hicks says that when the military services see something they don't like emerging during the QDR process, they go to members of Congress and begin building political support to stop it. "Usually, they just want to protect the status quo," she adds. She foresees a big push by the services, particularly the Air Force and the Navy, to focus on China, one of a few potential enemies with large conventional forces, in the upcoming QDR. "The voices looking at Asia are getting much louder," she says, ascribing part of that interest as a function of strategic planning. "When you have a particular enemy, it helps the whole engine of government focus," she notes.
Hicks has been working with congressional staffers to strengthen the QDR process. She says lawmakers feel they are short on effective oversight. "[Legislators] want to understand how the strategy is being executed," and how weapons programs match that strategy, according to Hicks. Congress members are frustrated that the only way they can respond when they disagree with the Pentagon's plans is by holding back money from major weapons programs.
To force better justification for spending plans, language in the 2007 Defense Authorization Act requires more specifics in the QDR. Significantly, Defense officials must provide the general number and specific types of military weapons needed to achieve stated strategic and warfighting objectives. The law also created an outside independent panel to review the QDR and assess its conclusions no later than three months after it is submitted to Congress.
Hicks looks to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Staff to improve Defense Department governance and to beef up their QDR efforts. The OSD needs additional decision-support capabilities, analytical competence and effective performance measurement that can identify six or seven top priorities for the Defense secretary, she says. She also recommends that Defense hold quarterly board meetings including the Defense secretary, leaders of combatant commands, military service chiefs, the Joint Staff and Defense undersecretaries to "discuss where we are on our priorities, how well the performance is being measured and tracked through the system, and what are we learning from current operations."
GAO has called on the Pentagon to come up with data-driven, alternative force structures and personnel requirements matched to potential threat environments. The agency also suggested that Congress urge Defense to focus on high-priority strategic issues that are more in tune with the changed security environment, and that Congress detail the budget information the QDR should include.