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QDR Fails To Boldly Confront Future

Michael Vickers
16 June 1997

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is the Pentagon's fourth major attempt to come to terms with the post-Cold War world. The QDR, according to John white, outgoing deputy secretary for defense, was intended "not to rationalize and protect what we have now," but rather to "visualize and pursue what we will need tomorrow."

Yet if the QDR is any guide, our military in 2020 will be slightly smaller but essentially similar to the one that fought Operation Desert Storm. It will be a military still centered overwhelmingly on short-range fighters, tanks, and aircraft carriers -- measures of military power that first reached maturity during World War II.

But if the QDR, unveiled May 19 by U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, is correct in stating that a transformation of war is underway, these systems may have far less utility than they do today.

To be sure, the QDR got a number of things right. The Pentagon now acknowledges that it can no longer dismiss the requirement to engage in multiple "smaller-scale contingencies" -- the challenges future Bosnias and Haitis will pose -- simply as smaller versions of major theater wars.

Even more important, Pentagon planners correctly identify the central problem facing the U.S. military as twofold:

  1. retaining sufficient capabilities to be engaged globally and respond to a full spectrum of near-term crises, while
  2. taking advantage of a strategic pause in the international system to prepare for an uncertain future that will likely be shaped by a revolution in warfare.

The QDR also addressed the Pentagon's roughly $10 billion to $20 billion annual program-funding mismatch. Regrettably, while there is talk of exploiting an emerging revolution in military affairs, precious little of this thinking is translated into the actual defense program. Rather than setting the defense program on a new course to meet the very different challenges it correctly identifies, the QDR settles for modest adjustments.

For example, active-duty forces are shaved by another 60,000 (after having been reduced by 600,000 since 1989), while two major tactical air modernization programs (the Air Force's F-22 and the Navy's F/A-18 E/F) are sliced by about 100 aircraft each. There is a clear disconnect between strategy and capabilities.

This impending transformation of war, of which there have been six in the past two centuries, should have been central to the QDR. This revolution's promise was foreshadowed during the Persian Gulf war by U.S. F-117 stealth fighters, which struck 40 percent of strategic targets in Iraq while comprising just two percent of total sorties; by Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, which have become America's strike weapon of first resort; and by the space-based Global Positioning System, which enabled U.S. forces to precisely maneuver across trackless desert.

When this revolution is complete, the principal measures of military power will no longer be fighters, tanks, and aircraft carriers. Not only will battle fundamentally change, but also concepts for overseas presence and deterrence. The transformation will bring to prominence systems and forces that strike from extended range with great precision, are stealthy and information-intensive, are increasingly unmanned and are highly networked.

In the hands of a future adversary, these kinds of capabilities could marginalize many current U.S. forces, or even render them obsolete. By holding at risk fixed and high-signature targets such as airfields, ports, large ground force concentrations and offshore surface ships, an adversary armed with stealthy, standoff, precision weapons and commercially available sensors and communications could deny the bulk of American forces access into a future theater of war.

Is this revolution affordable, given the relatively tight budgets in store for defense? The answer is yes -- DoD's problem is more strategic and cultural than financial. But such an outcome also will require an explicit transformation strategy that:

  • provides for robust experimentation with emerging systems and capabilities such as unmanned aerial vehicles,
  • arsenal ships, and information-intensive ground forces that employ greater use of robots,
  • fields additional high-leverage systems such as long-range stealth bombers to offset reductions in other capabilities, and
  • hedges against a catastrophic failure of the defense program, through, for example, a challenge to U.S. dominance in space or undersea warfare.

Pursuing a transformation strategy will require some hard choices. Some currently funded incremental modernization programs, such as the Air Force version of the Joint Strike Fighter and the Army's Crusader artillery system, could be candidates for termination.

Even more painful from an institutional perspective, substantially deeper cuts in force structure than the QDR envisions would probably be required over the long-term.

But if the U.S. economy and society are in the midst of fundamental change, can the Pentagon remain immune?

A strategy for transforming the U.S. military will also require a new long-term partnership between DoD and Congress. DoD needs to be allowed to reinvest the savings it accrues from reducing its force structure and foregoing incremental modernization. The bargain for American taxpayers in all this would be a military capable of dealing with substantially different and increased threats to American interests without necessarily requiring an increase in future defense budgets.

The Pentagon has learned to talk the talk of the information age. It must begin to walk the walk.

Michael Vickers, "QDR Fails To Boldly Confront Future" Defense News, 16 June 1997.

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