06 Jan 2010
The Pentagon’s Defense Review Trap
As Washington awaits the upcoming release of the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, some expect it to represent an about-face while others fear it will fail to bridge the gap between strategy and reality, Peter A Buxbaum writes for ISN Security Watch.
By Peter A Buxbaum in Washington, DC for ISN Security Watch
The Washington defense and contracting communities are anxiously awaiting next month's release of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, in a speech in New York last month, promised the report would be driven by current Afghanistan and Iraq war needs, placing an emphasis on ground troops and counterinsurgency operations and less on the modernization of weapons systems.
If that proves to be the case, it would amount to a Pentagon about-face since the last QDR, released in 2006, which had a rather short shelf life. The last edition was replete with proposals for spending on a laundry list of military modernization programs, much of which were to be scrapped or scaled back after the Department of Defense decided a year later to increase ground troop strength and emphasize counterinsurgency operations.
The fiasco associated with the last QDR may be explainable, at least in part, on the change of leadership at the Pentagon. Donald Rumsfeld was pushed out as secretary of defense and his replacement, Robert Gates, who continues to serve in the Obama administration after having been appointed by George W Bush, emphasized planning for the wars the US was actually fighting instead the wars Rumsfeld would have liked the US to be fighting.
Somewhere between strategy and reality
But observers fret that a gap between strategy and reality has become embedded in the QDR process, and that the 2010 edition will be no different.
The QDR was instituted in the late 1990s with the admirable purpose of institutionalizing strategic thinking among Department of Defense echelons.
"QDRs help Secretaries of Defense to set out their strategic vision for the department, and better align the military posture with the strategy," Jim Thomas, vice president for strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a non-partisan Washington think tank, told ISN Security Watch. But "the results of QDRs have been mixed."
Why? "Past QDRs have generally done a better job of articulating strategic approaches than aligning the military posture - investments, force structure, basing - with the strategy," Thomas explained. "There are powerful institutional forces in the military, Congress and industry supporting status quo investment programs and force structures, but there are rarely strong countervailing forces for new program starts or developing new types of forces."
Indeed, there is a school of thought that believes that the QDR as a strategic planning tool is doomed to failure.
A report recently released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a bipartisan Washington think tank, concluded that the goals of the QDR - to serve as a means to develop new policies, capabilities and initiatives - "have so far been unrealized." The report is less than optimistic that the 2010 QDR will turn things around.
"The issues the QDR must address have been greatly complicated by the Department of Defense’s past failures to develop effective plans, programs, and budgets; carry out effective systems analysis; develop credible cost estimates; and create timely and meaningful future year defense plans," the report said.
"Past reviews have been decoupled from meaningful budget figures, realistic force plans, honest procurement decisions, and metrics to measure the success of their recommendations. As a result of this strategy-reality gap between concepts and resources, they have had limited practical value."
The DoD's broken procurement processes are a particular cause for concern. The DoD has not "made the kind of procurement reforms that will stop it from continuing its past behavior of undercosting and overestimating capabilities until production delays and cost escalations force another series of terminations," the report said. It estimated a procurement shortfall of $60 billion over the next five years.
CSIS believes the upcoming QDR should "answer the question of whether the US should posture its forces and focus its acquisitions on dealing with conventional threats from rising peer competitors or more asymmetric threats emanating from weak and failing states."
Gates has been promoting the concept of "hybrid warfare," which would require a broad range of force capabilities and flexibilities across a spectrum of operations.
"It may be an intellectual improvement over the emphasis on conventional warfighting in past reviews," said the CSIS report, "but so far hybrid warfare is so loosely defined, that it does not provide clear criteria for decision-making."
Efforts to define hybrid warfare have yielded "little more that shopping lists for every possible contingency," said the report. "It will be difficult to use hybrid warfare to define and cost end strength goals or to develop a new force plan."
In other words, if as CSIS expects, "hybrid warfare" will be the defining concept of the next QDR, the review will follow in the footsteps of its predecessors with a lack the strategic clarity and decisiveness.
Thomas sees things somewhat differently. "One of the key themes for this QDR is balance," he said, "balancing the demands of current operations with preparations for future contingencies, which may have distinctly different characteristics."
For Thomas, "hybrid warfare is unassailable as an intellectual proposition." "It helps to avoid artificial distinctions between extreme caricatures of warfare types," he explained.
Where the dollars will go
But it doesn't help the defense establishment make critical choices. "The terms of reference for the 2010 QDR make it likely that it will fall into the same trap [as past QDRs]," said Laurence Korb, a former DoD official and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank.
If the upcoming QDR embraces "hybrid warfare" and advocates institutionalizing counterinsurgency capabilities and foreign military assistance, while maintaining its conventional and strategic technological edge against other military forces, it will "leave unanswered the question of which gets priority, counterinsurgency or conventional war, and thus where the marginal dollar should go," Korb told ISN Security Watch.
In fact, Korb believes the 2010 QDR will advocate adding $100 billion in spending to the next five-year Pentagon budget plan. Korb, who advocates paying for an escalated war in Afghanistan with cuts in non-critical defense programs, sees such a move as "going in absolutely the wrong direction."
Military strategy should be "all about making choices and taking risks," he said. "In theory, the QDR is meant to outline the Department of Defense’s strategy and priorities. In the past, it has been an unrealistic exercise. This is unlikely to change."
Peter Buxbaum, a New York- and Washington-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for nearly 20 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Jane’s Defense Weekly, Military Information Technology, Homeland Security, and Computerworld. His website is www.buxbaum1.com.
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