Project on Defense Alternatives

Backwards Into the Future

How the Quadrennial Defense Review
Prepares America for the Wrong Century

Carl Conetta
Project on Defense Alternatives
Cambridge, MA, USA
June 1997

What sets the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) distinctly apart from the 1993 Bottom Up Review (BUR) is its strategic pessimism. Although both documents depict the new era in terms of challenges and opportunities, the QDR makes short shrift of the West's post-Cold War security windfall. Indeed, Secretary Cohen sees a need to dispel any "flush of euphoria" and to warn against the "temptation to relax and take comfort in the preservation of tranquility at home." The document seems oblivious to the fact that America's relative power position has improved during the past four years, not deteriorated. Instead, the QDR fixes its attention firmly on "new threats and dangers" that it says have now "gathered on the horizon."

These new dangers are all the more challenging for their stealthy character, being "harder to define and more difficult to track" than the plodding Soviet threat of years prior. Nonetheless, a semblance of that bygone threat is central to the QDR's strategy and force rationale. The QDR orients more than had the BUR toward the future possibility of a peer military competitor or a "regional great power" rival -- the latter, a new formulation referring to states that register midway between today's regional threats and a true global peer.

The character of future international competition

With regard to the economic dimensions of national security, the QDR is more sanguine than its predecessor. While the BUR uniquely posited domestic economic renewal as a primary security goal -- not just a planning constraint -- the QDR retreats to more traditional ground. It accepts a balanced budget as important to national security and recognizes a public expectation that DOD operate within a constrained resource environment. But this is minimal affirmation -- significantly different in its implication than the BUR's framework assertion that "Our primary a nation is to strengthen our society and economy for the demanding competitive environment of the 21st century."

In addition to re-emphasizing the military aspects of international competition, the QDR envisions an expanded role for miliary power in the service of US national goals. This is apparent in its promotion of "environment shaping" as a key force rationale. The BUR gave primary emphasis to deterring and defending against existing and likely threats -- international actors who had demonstrated some inclination and capability to pose a military challenge to those American interests deemed important. By contrast, environment shaping seeks, among other ends, to avert the emergence of such threats -- hitherto an objective less central to military policy, per se, than to arms controlor other nonmilitary aspects of foreign policy.

Attendant on the goals of shaping the strategic environment and preparing for the future, the QDR sets a new and uniquely ambitious standard of force sufficiency: the maintenance of US military superiority "over current and potential rivals." With regard to today's "rogue states," this should not be a major challenge: none currently spend four percent as much as the United States on defense. However, to maintain an assured margin of superiority over a true peer nation and to do so indefinitely is a different matter -- especially if "superiority" refers to the balance of capability in the peer's own backyard. This approach represents a major departure from America's successful Cold War strategy of maintaining effective parity in the military realm while out-maneuvering our peer rival diplomatically and economically.

It is a measure of the QDR's strategic pessimism that it views assured superiority not simply as a policy choice -- an expression of the freedom that our current circumstance allows -- but rather as a vital necessity. Secretary Cohen writes,

It is imperative that the United States maintain its military superiority in the face of evolving, as well as discontinuous, threats and challenges. Without such superiority, our ability to exert global leadership and to create international conditions conducive to the achievement of our national goals would be in doubt.

The priority that the QDR places on maintaining military superiority and the role it accords military power as a means of influence constitute a wager about the future character of international competition. A contending view holds that military contests among the great and emerging powers will be less important in the new era than in the old, while economic and other forms of international competition will be more critical. The BUR partially reflected this view in recognizing the primacy of economic and social renewal as a national goal. Against this perspective, the QDR implies that military power is now and will continue to be as relevant as ever to the attainment of national goals.

A shattered calculus

While the QDR speaks in terms of imperatives and necessities when justifying its proposed force posture, it resists any close correlation of "requirements" with concrete threats. This continues a post-Cold War decline in the practice of the "strategic calculus" -- that is, the methods and protocols through which military requirements are supposed to be related to national interests and to an assessment of the strategic environment.

Recent official portrayals of military threats have failed too often to take qualitative factors seriously into account, relying instead on simplistic troop and equipment "bean counts." The BUR was among the worst offenders in this regard, promulgating the image of regional rivals wielding huge arsenals of armored vehicles and combat aircraft -- so much dead weight, as it turns out. Now, the QDR declines to quantify threats at all. Moreover, the QDR's recitation of the national interests that are supposed to guide defense policy is so vague as to make it impossible to judge the appropriateness of the strategy it proposes. Regarding the link between strategy and force posture: No attempt is made to specify the requirements associated with "environment shaping" and "preparing for an uncertain future" or to show how sufficiency might be determined with regard to these goals.

Carrying forward from the BUR, the QDR offers somewhat more detail on the requirements of crisis response, but also retains the BUR's uniquely ambitious approach to fighting regional wars. This approach argues that it is necessary to possess not only a capability to conclude any single regional war in half the time required for Desert Storm, but also to have the ability to conduct almost simultaneous offensives in two widely separated theaters. The QDR assures us that war simulations prove that there is no acceptable alternative to this approach, but fails to discuss the assumptions -- the inputs -- that drive these simulations. This omission, together with the failure to present a detailed threat analysis, leaves little positive reason to believe that the QDR's proposed force posture constitutes a "requirement" or a "necessity" (in the conventional meanings of these terms).

A final feature of the QDR bearing on its statement of requirements is its failure to consider the restructuring of military roles and missions. Despite the occurrence of geostrategic and technological revolutions, the definition of US armed services roles and missions has eluded any fundamental revision. This has had the effect of rendering sacrosanct various redundancies in military structure and function. Neither the Bottom Up Review nor the report of the Commission on Roles and Missions ventured much beyond General Powell's early 1993 proposals, which prescribed only marginal change. Rather than challenging the lack of change in this area, the QDR seems to codify it, failing even to devote a section to discussion of the issue.

The World & Us: A Context for Assessing Military Requirements

The QDR's section on the global security environment is surprising for its brevity. Although it frames its analysis in terms of challenges and opportunities, it dispatches the "positive side of the ledger" in a single paragraph, noting that:

The threat of global war has receded.... [O]ur core values are embraced in many parts of the world.... Our alliances are adapting successfully to meet today's challenges.... Former cooperate with us across a range of security issues.... [And] many in the world see the United States as the security partner of choice.

In describing the threats and dangers of the coming period, the QDR does not attempt to gauge their magnitude. Nor does it attempt to quantify the military power that the United States has on hand to meet these challenges. These, however, are the key ingredients to any useful net assessment. What margin of security does the United States enjoy today? The answer to this question is the essential starting point for judging force development plans. Among other things, it would provide some measure of the buffer the United States has against the risks associated with uncertainty.

The QDR examines three types of threats and a variety of factors that might affect the magnitude or character of these threats. Its assessment covers:

    (i) potential regional dangers including large-scale aggression against allies, instability arising from the failure of state structures, and humanitarian crises;

    (ii) transnational dangers including terrorism, the drug trade, international organized crime, and uncontrolled flows of migrants; and

    (iii) the possibility that a regional great power or global peer competitor may emerge after 2015.
Additional factors and potential developments bearing on these threats include:
    (i) the possibility that adversaries may employ asymmetrical means of warfare, including weapons of mass destruction (WMDs);

    (ii) the effects that the proliferation of advanced technology weapons may have on warfare;

    (iii) the possibility of direct attack on the United States by means of WMDs, information warfare techniques, or terrorism; and

    (iv) the possibility that sudden, unforseen developments -- so-called "wild cards" -- may upset DOD's best laid plans.

In each case, the QDR's depiction of these dangers deserves a closer look. But it is more useful to begin an evaluation of the QDR's strategic perspective at the global level. Both the world and America's armed forces have changed significantly since the Cold War's end. The world continues to change, and some present trends are discontinuous with those of the Cold War period. How has the general "fit" between America's armed forces and the world evolved? If the official or prevailing perspective misconstrues the gross contours of our current situation, no amount of tinkering is likely to produce a stable and satisfactory fit.

Global Measures of Change: Are we keeping pace?

The extent of post-cold war retrenchment

In his introduction to the QDR, Secretary Cohen broadly summarizes the changes in US defense posture during the period 1985-1997. In a departure from the standards of the document as a whole, he uses quantitative measures to gauge precisely the reductions in DOD personnel, appropriations, and procurement spending, and the reduction in the portion of US GNP devoted to defense. For several reasons, however, his analysis is not useful in determining the appropriateness or even the true extent of post-Cold War retrenchment efforts.

First, he chooses an inappropriate baseline from which to measure change. He notes that DOD appropriations have declined 38 percent since 1985. Outlays, which the Secretary does not mention, show a much shallower decline for the period: 28 percent. The change in outlays is a more meaningful measure. During peacetime, appropriations are more prone than outlays to steep one-year spikes. Appropriations increased by 7 percent from FY 1984 to FY 1985 -- reaching a 30-year peak -- but then receded within two years to a level below that of FY 1984. 1

At any rate, whether one chooses to use the change in appropriation levels or in outlay levels to gauge post-Cold War retrenchment, the baseline should encompass multiple years, not just one. Spending moves in cycles: "excess" spending during several years may simply serve to balance "deficiencies" in earlier budgets. If the aim is to convey the general change from one period to the next, one should not measure from the high-point of the earlier period to the low-point or even the mean-point of the latter. One should measure peak to peak, or ebb to ebb, or -- preferably -- mean to mean.

A proper baseline for Cold War spending would be the recent peacetime period 1976-1990. This period is sufficiently long to capture an average procurement cycle. More important, high levels of spending during the later part of this period were rationalized (and are still understood) as compensating for insufficient levels during the earlier part.

Budget authorization for national defense during the 1976-1990 period averaged $337 billion; outlays averaged $316 billion. For the recent fiscal years 1994-1997, authorization averaged $272 billion and outlays will average about $278 billion, representing decreases from the 1976-1990 averages of only 19 percent and 12 percent, respectively. If the Secretary is right in his estimate that DOD authorization is not likely to much exceed $250 billion in constant 1997 dollars, this would imply future National Defense authorization of not much more than $260 -- a level that is 77 percent of the average for the Cold War period 1976-1990.

The secretary notes that the Pentagon's GNP share has fallen from 7 percent in 1985 to 3.2 percent today. But what is the relevance of this isolated observation? How much GNP should a nation devote to defense? Should defense spending rise with a nation's GNP? If there is an appropriate percentage of GNP that a nation should devote to defense, it depends on a trade-off among external security needs, domestic needs, and the requirements of international economic competition, which is a security issue in its own right. By itself the fact that defense GNP share has declined is weightless -- unless one wishes to argue that the defense establishment is a national constituency inherently entitled to some "fair share" of GNP.

A global economic perspective on defense spending

In order to appreciate the strategic significance of the Pentagon's GNP share we need to take a broader view than Secretary Cohen offers. The United States competes economically with both military adversaries and allies. And it is possible for a nation to suffer strategic decline due to economic factors, while holding its own militarily. In the case of the Soviet Union, for instance, the price of military parity was economic and strategic collapse.

Even nations that devote only a small portion of their GNP to military preparations must keep an eye on the opportunity costs of investing scarce resources in this area rather than in some other that might better serve economic competitiveness. Strategic policy must always balance the demands of international economic competition and the demands of military competition. The economic side of the equation is especially pressing during periods when (i) economic change and competition are accelerating and (ii) immediate military threats are diminishing. At any rate, there is no percentage of GNP devoted to defense that is so absolutely small that a nation can afford to stop asking, How much is enough?

Although, as Secretary Cohen points out, the United States today devotes about 3.2 percent of GNP to defense, the world outside the United States devotes less than 2.5 percent. 2 This includes America's NATO allies; as a group they devote slightly less than 2.5 percent of their national product to defense. Our chief economic competitors, Germany and Japan, devote much less: 2 percent and 1 percent respectively.

While the United States is leading its allies in the amount of GNP devoted to defense, it is trailing them in domestic savings and investment rates -- and has been for some time.

Table 1.
Gross Domestic Investment and Savings as Percentages of GDP for Selected Countries, 1993
Germany Japan USA OECD
Investment 22 30.3 16.5 20.4
Savings 22 32.7 15.2 21.2
Source: World Bank, World Tables 1995 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995) pp. 58-66 and 300-303. 

The US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency estimated in 1995 that China also currently spends about 2.5 percent of GNP on defense. Looking at gross domestic investment and savings, the World Bank estimates China's recent rates at 34 percent and 40 percent respectively. The gross savings rates of the newly-industrializing states of Asia -- Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong -- are comparable to Japan's. With the exception of Hong Kong, the newly-industrializing states also manage to spend a greater share of GNP on defense than does the United States. However, their central government balances tend to show substantial surpluses.3

Looking at net savings rates, the United States fares even worse. The net savings rates for the period 1980-1989 for Germany, Japan, and the United States were 11.6, 20.9, and 4 percent respectively. In 1989 the respective rates were 14.1, 20, and 3.2 percent.4 America's savings pinch has the effect of making capital formation relatively more difficult and this, in turn, can contribute to a relative decline in productivity. These concerns and problems are well-known. The reason for reciting them here is that they constitute a necessary complement to the statistics about the Pentagon's declining share of GNP put forward in the QDR. Outside a broader comparative economic perspective, such statistics do more to obscure strategic realities than clarify them.

US military expenditure in the context of global spending trends

An international comparative perspective can also help clarify the military significance of the decline in US defense expenditure. The best, if not only, rationale for defense spending is the presence or possible presence of military threats. The defense spending of other nations can serve as a rough gauge of military capability -- an essential component of threat. 5 A look at world spending trends raises questions about how well the QDR's worldview corresponds to strategic reality. In a recent article, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst Russell Travers notes that,

World wide military expenditures are down some 40 percent from the late 1980s. Perhaps 50 percent of global defense spending from this period was attributable to the Cold War, and the Cold War's end is gradually wringing those resources out of the system...Simply put, the defense industrial powers are growing up, focusing more on economic and cultural avenues to power and less on military ones.6

This encouraging view suggests, contrary to the QDR's thrust, a diminishing utility of military power in international affairs. When we take a further step and disaggregate the change in world military spending, a pattern emerges that is especially relevant to US military requirements:

Despite the reduction in US military spending between 1986 and 1994, America's share of worldwide military spending increased from 28 to 34 percent during this period.7

A similar trend is evident for the NATO and OECD countries as groups. Aggregate spending by these groups has declined, but their share of worldwide spending has increased markedly. NATO's share has increased from 43.4 percent in 1986 to 55.8 percent in 1994. OECD's share has grown from 48 percent to 64.4 percent.

The increase in spending share by the United States and by the NATO and OECD countries as groups is due largely to the collapse of military spending by "potential threat states."8 Spending for this group declined by nearly 70 percent during the period 1986-1994.

Whereas the United States spent only two-thirds as much on defense as did "potential threat states" in 1986, it spent 70 percent more than did this (diminished) group in 1994.

Similar trends are evident in regions of vital concern to the United States:

Contrary to the global trend, the Asia-Pacific region saw a 14 percent increase in aggregate military expenditures during the period 1988-1994. However, the mainstays of this increase are several nations aligned with the United States: Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. During 1986-1994 these and other pro-Western states of the region dramatically increased their spending edge over those states with a recent history of rivalry with the United States (China, North Korea, and Vietnam).

Aggregate spending by the nations of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf fell by 47 percent between 1986 and 1994. As in the Asia-Pacific region, the decline was much greater for "potential threat states" than for nations aligned with the West. Whereas in 1986 the latter had spent only 86 percent as much on military preparations as had the region's putative threat states, in 1994 they outspent the "threat states" by a two-to-one margin.

Taken at face value, the very substantial margin in defense investment that the United States and its allies now enjoy over putative threat states suggests that the QDR's strategic pessimism is unwarranted. Of course, an overview of general spending patterns can be suggestive only. Defense expenditure is not equivalent to combat power and warfare is not an exercise in accounting. Moreover, the spending policies of other nations are independent of our will and subject to change. So we need to look more closely at the specific concerns that the QDR raises, and our focus must include not only "clear and present" threats, but also the potential for future threats. The next sections of this report deal in turn with current regional dangers, the possibility of a future peer military competitor, and technology trends that could substantially affect the calculus of military power.

Today's Regional Rogues: A Disappearing Breed?

With regard to regional stability the QDR lists three sources of concern: large-scale aggression against allies, the turbulence caused by failing states, and humanitarian crises. Given the "two war" standard, however, the requirements associated with fighting major regional wars have been an order of magnitude greater than those associated with stability and humanitarian operations. Because of the profound implications of miscalculating regional warfighting needs, our analysis focuses on the issue of large-scale aggression.

The 1993 Bottom Up Review built its statement of regional warfighting requirements around a "representative" regional military threat. It measured this threat in terms of various categories of military strength. However, the BUR's presentation suffered three serious shortcomings:

    (i) it relied on a simple tally of troops and weapons to depict military power, failing to address issues of quality;

    (ii) its numerical tallies exaggerated the current weapon holdings of most threat states; and

    (iii) it failed to present a net assessment of the power balance between local allies and adversaries.

Rather than redress these shortcomings, the QDR has compounded them. Not only does it make no attempt to revise the BUR's estimates of adversary capabilities in light of four years of change, but it abandons the measurement of major regional threats altogether. Instead, it characterizes regional challengers in the broadest of terms:

    Such states are often capable of fielding sizable military forces that can cause serious imbalances in military power within regions important to the United States. Allies and friendly states often find it difficult to match the power of a potentially aggressive neighbor.

The first step toward greater clarity is a re-evaluation of the BUR's presentation of a composite major regional threat -- which, for all practical purposes, remains the standard reference. Table 2 summarizes the BUR's presentation.

Table 2.
The BUR's Representative Regional Threat
Fielded Troops 400,000 - 750,000
Tanks 2,000 - 3,000
Armored Fighting Vehicles 3,000 - 5,000
Artillery pieces 2,000 - 3,000
Combat aircraft 500 - 1000
SCUD-class missiles 100 - 1000
Naval Surface Vessels 100 - 200
Source: Les Aspin, Report on the Bottom-Up Review (Washington DC: Department of Defense, 1993) p. 13

At the time that the BUR was written only North Korea met or surpassed the upper limit in as many as three of the strength categories. Other nations of concern -- Iraq, Iran, and Syria -- registered at or below the mid-range values for all categories except personnel.

The more significant flaws were the BUR's reliance on simple weapon tallies to depict military power and its failure to recount the strength of local allies. An abiding lesson of the Gulf War is that weapon and troop "bean counts" give no reliable indication of combat power. The importance of local allied strength is two fold: First, American power and resources are not meant to substitute for those of our allies; they are meant to complement them. Thus, the proper focus for setting US theater requirements is the net shortfall in local allied strength. Second, a fact generally recognized in US war planning is that the amount of local allied power permanently "on hand" in a theater disproportionately affects the overall requirements for successful deterrence and defense: local power, whether own or allied, goes a long way.

Beyond the bean count: Reassessing regional military balances

Table 3.
Military Power of Key Regional States Expressed in US Unit Equivalents
US Heavy Division Equivalents (M1A1) US Fighter Wing Equivalents (F16)
Iraq 1990 >6 3
North Korea 4.6 2.6
South Korea 3.3 1.2
Iraq 1995 3.6 2.4
Iran 1.9 2.6
Saudi Arabia 1.7 2.3
Kuwait 0.2 0.6
other GCC 0.8 1.1
Syria 4.7 3.5
Israel 4.6 3.7
Source: Michael O'Hanlon, Defense Planning for the Late 1990s (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 1995) p. 43

Taking local allied strength into account and viewing regional balances through the lens of qualitative measurement techniques changes the regional security picture entirely. A 1995 Brookings Institution study uses TASCFORM, a methodology developed for the Pentagon by the Analytical Sciences Corporation, to weigh the military arsenals of regional foes and allies in terms of units equivalent to US Army heavy divisions and USAF fighter wings.9

Simplicity and the availability of weapon scores dictated the use of division equivalents composed of M1A1 tanks, although the US Army has since 1990 surpassed the basic M1A1 with a "heavy" version and is now deploying the M1A2 as well. Likewise, using F-16 wing equivalents simplified the analysis but produced "wing equivalents" that are weaker than the US average.10 Thus, the military power of regional states -- foes and allies alike -- is still somewhat overstated in this analysis. Nonetheless, the Brookings study goes a long way toward correcting the skewed impression left by the BUR. Table 3 presents some of the findings of the Brookings study.

This analysis shows that nothing like the gross imbalance that existed in the Persian Gulf circa 1990 exists there or in Northeast Asia today. These findings are confirmed by several other open studies using similar methodologies. 11 Significantly, the imbalances that do exist in Northeast and Southwest Asia could be reversed by the addition of as few as two US ground force divisions and two US fighter wings -- fewer US ground units if more US air power is included. This much US power is already stationed in and around the Korean theater.

Looking forward to 2005 another recent study uses qualitative methods to calculate the likely evolution of the balance in the Persian Gulf.12 Published by the London-based Royal United Services Institute, this study estimates future arsenals based on procurement plans and arms purchase orders as of 1995. To the resulting "bean count" it applies a scoring system developed by the US Army in the 1970s, thus producing country scores in normalized Division Equivalents. 13 Finally, it adjusts the results to account for national differences in close air support capabilities, C4I capabilities, and force sustainment.

The study finds that the Iraqi-Saudi force ratio will "tend toward equality" over the next ten years, due to Saudi modernization efforts, higher Saudi readiness levels, and Saudi investments in various force multipliers. Moreover, if the force development efforts of other GCC states are taken into account, then "[o]ver the next five to ten years the combined GCC forces will outstrip Iraq's combat potential." 14

The author offers several caveats to these conclusions. On the positive side: his analysis does not account for air superiority and interdiction capabilities -- an area of heavy investment for the GCC states. On the negative side: the GCC states suffer a shortage of indigenous personnel. Also, despite substantial host nation support, they face a variety of problems in attempting to absorb large quantities of advanced weapons purchased from several different nations. The author concludes by saying,

These caveats notwithstanding, the changing military balance should reassure the GCC states and their Western allies that their current force-building efforts are not in vain. Saudi Arabia may not be able to match Iraq by itself but it is narrowing the gap. More importantly, if the GCC states could agree on some measure of military cooperation then they would pose a credible challenge to their larger neighbors.15
Sophisticated methods of net assessment help put the absolute strength of regional "rogues" into perspective and help clarify regional power balances. Still, even the best of these methods tend to exaggerate the capabilities of regional states -- rivals and allies alike. This is because these methods fail to account fully for a variety of force attributes that are key sources of American strength -- attributes such as: force readiness and sustainability, the quality of personnel and leadership, higher-level reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, and Command, Control, Communication, Computation, and Intelligence (C4I) capabilities. US strength in these areas was critical in determining the outcome of the Gulf War.

A second look at the Israel-Syria balance presented in Table 3 indicates how much distortion may remain in our picture of regional rivals despite the use of sophisticated scoring systems. The TASCFORM scores for Israel and Syria suggest parity in both land and air strength. Does this mean that Syria has closed the startling gap in capabilities that its 1982 war with Israel revealed? Not at all. Much hinges on force readiness and sustainability, troop quality, C4I, and electronic warfare technologies and techniques. A recent study of Middle East conflict scenarios that takes these factors more fully into account finds that nothing like conventional parity exists between Israel and Syria. 16

The study, conducted by Kenneth Brower of Spectrum Associates, shows that Israel's advantages in equipment quality combines with advantages in the other areas to produce a military balance that "decisively favors Israel." Key to this is Israel's ability to suppress enemy air defense, establish air superiority (or even supremacy), and generate many more ground attack sorties of much greater lethality than its likely adversaries.

Brower calculates that, all things considered, the Israeli air force may have an advantage over the Syrian of 40:1 in the number of hard targets it can "kill" per day. Israel has the advantage in ground force quality as well. And, in this case, the qualitative edge has less to do with possessing better equipment than with other factors. Brower notes that, in the past, Israel's adversaries have brought not only superior numbers to the battlefield, but also ground force equipment of equal or higher quality than Israel's:

    Yet during previous Middle Eastern wars, IDF ground forces were shown to have two to three times the military effectiveness of Arab ground units of equivalent size. This reflected the impact of better leaders, training, and tactics as well as the use of higher educated, more socially-cohesive personnel. 17
The Brower study is relevant for two reasons: First, it corrects the image of Israeli-Syrian parity given by the TASCFORM scores presented in Table 3. A similar correction is probably due with regard to the balance between North and South Korea. Second, it suggests that the scores of all the regional powers surveyed should be further discounted relative to US military forces, although Israel may be an exception.

The studies reviewed above strongly suggest that the BUR's original representation of a composite threat substantially exaggerates both (i) the raw military power of America's regional rivals and (ii) the imbalances that exist between regional friends and foes. A closer look at recent developments and conditions in "rogue states" reinforces the impression of diminished and diminishing capabilities for large-scale conventional aggression.

The Gallery of Regional Rogues

Although both the BUR and QDR assert that we cannot know with certainty "when or where the next major theater war will occur [or] who our next adversary will be," concern about current regional rivals has focused on North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. Among these, North Korea and Iraq have figured more centrally in force planning overall because they pose the more credible threat of large-scale aggression against important allies. So our examination of recent developments begins with these two states. The Strategic Assessment 1997, produced by the National Defense University in Washington DC, observes that

With each passing year, the North Korean armed forces are operating with equipment that is increasingly aging and obsolescent. The North Korean economy is in extremely poor shape. Similarly, Iraq's armed forces have aging equipment and its economy is doing badly. The most likely prospect is that the US will face declining military challenges in both areas, especially in Korea.18

North Korea

The Strategic Assessment 1997 concludes that the Korean situation was "significantly different at the end of 1996 than it was in 1993 when the Bottom Up Review was completed." 19 Indeed, it speculates that the North Korean regime may collapse entirely. With the loss of superpower patronage and China's growing entente with South Korea, the decrepitude of the North's Stalinist economic system has become manifest. The North's economy declined 3 percent in 1996 -- the seventh consecutive year of decline. 20 Business Week observes that "It's hard to overestimate how dire the situation in North Korea has become. The country has almost no food or electricity and is on the verge of what the World Food Program call 'one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in our lifetime.'" 21 The North's crisis is so deep and chronic that the military no longer stands immune.

....[T]he shortage of fuel, along with Pyongyang's lack of hard currency, bad credit rating, and loss of major-power sponsorship all reduce the KPA's combat readiness. As a result: Large-unit training exercises have been canceled, pilot proficiency is low as planes sit idle owing to lack of fuel, [and] new equipment and spare parts are in short supply. 22

This is not an atypical view of the North's military situation. 23 Indeed, the above analysis probably understates the severity of the North Korean military's plight. To say that large exercises have been canceled is certainly true. More accurately: the North Korean military today seldom conducts exercises above the battalion level (500-700 soldiers)! To lend some perspective: In the Gulf War, Iraq had an army supposedly adept at brigade-level operations (2000-3000 soldiers) -- but it could not function effectively against US land forces that were proficient at division- and corps-level operations (12,000-100,000 soldiers).

The implication for the North Korean military today is that it might hope to conduct and repulse mid-sized raids -- but not much more. In fact, the North's military seems to be setting its sights lower: in the past year field training has been de-emphasized in favor of renewed political indoctrination and the military has increased its investment in riot control gear. 24 Even in this role the reliability of the common conscript is to be doubted. Chinese returning from North Korea have recently told Hong Kong newspapers that soldiers were roaming the cities using their weapons to extort food. 25

Summarizing the decline of North Korea's war capability, the Strategic Assessment 1997 states that by 1996,

Pyongyang's ability to mount and sustain high intensity, large-scale offensive combat operations...was increasingly in doubt. Absent significant internal reform and outside assistance -- neither of which appears in the offing -- this trend is likely to continue.... Given current and foreseeable conditions, major war would not seem a rationale option for the North Korean leadership. Indeed, an all-out attack could be suicidal, spelling the end of the North Korean state. 26


Iraq's efforts to rebuild its military strength have been severely hampered by international sanctions, economic stagnation, internal dissent and disorder, and punitive strikes by the United States. After the Gulf War, Iraq sought to refashion a smaller military out of the remnants of the old. 27 But this was a strategy that could succeed only if international sanctions were soon lifted or became porous. Instead, sanctions remained in effect and, with regard to military equipment, grew tighter. With stockpiles running low and equipment cannibalization approaching its limits, a series of internal and external challenges during and after 1994 accelerated the decline of the Iraqi military. 28 Today, six years after Desert Storm,

Iraq's military remains less than 40 percent the size of the force that invaded Kuwait. Moreover, the military mirrors an Iraqi civil society that has been virtually crushed; it is rife with problems. 29

According to the NDU's Strategic Assessment:

Sanctions have greatly eroded [the Iraqi military's] logistics and support capacity, while repeated purges of officers raises doubts about loyalty and morale, even in the more privileged Republican Guards. Lack of spare parts means that Iraq cannot easily undertake extended campaigns, and it has no high-tech equipment. Iraq has no navy and is highly vulnerable in air power and land-based air defense. Among its 350 aircraft, as few as 80 may be serviceable with another 30 semi-serviceable. Iraq's air defense system has a low level of operational efficiency. 30
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that, although Iraq still possess the largest number of tanks (2200) in the Gulf, 40 to 50 percent of these are not operational. 31 Reviewing Iraq's capacity to threaten Saudi Arabia, DIA analyst Russell Travers concludes that,
Few militaries in the world have demonstrated the capability to rapidly prosecute large-scale armor operations across hundreds of miles; with the Iraqi force in its current state of decay, disrepair, and continued vulnerability to air strikes, it simply does not have the capacity to conduct such operations deep into Saudi Arabia. 32


The Iranian military has never recovered fully from the Iran-Iraq war. (Nor, for that matter, has Iran's economy managed to return to pre-1980 levels; in 1994, Iranian per capita income was only 80 percent that of 1984.) Although Iran had planned a $10 billion modernization program for the mid-1990s, economic stagnation and sanctions have held weapon imports to less than 40 percent of this goal. 33 Today, arms imports are down 75 percent from their high-point in the late-1980s. Japan and European countries have curtailed loans to Iran and have halted shipments of military goods. The Strategic Assessment 1997 notes that, under pressure from the United States, Russia also agreed "to limit arms sales to the fulfillment of previous orders -- not that Iran could afford to import even what that permitted." 34

Reviewing the recent evolution of Iranian military power, the Strategic Assessment reports that Iran's "forces on the whole are not improving" and "its ability to conquer ground is deteriorating." The Iranian navy, however, has fared somewhat better: "its sea-denial capability is growing stronger." 35 This improved capability derives from three Russian Kilo-class subs, 12 patrol boats armed with cruise missiles, shorebased batteries mounting anti-ship missiles with 20-km range, and a stockpile of 2000 mines.

Like its efforts with regard to ground forces, Iran's "[e]fforts to improve its air force appear to have foundered on scarce resources." The Strategic Assessment further cites estimates that "put Iran's operational combat aircraft at only 175, most of them second and third generation." 36 Regarding air defense capabilities, Russell Travers of DIA observes that "Iran's air defense system has long been porous; even with China's help, Iran's future air defense may only approximate the limited Iraqi capabilities shown in the Gulf war." 37

According to Traver's analysis Iran's limitations involve more than a simple shortage of equipment. He notes that,

[T]he Iranians now maintain aircraft from four countries.... Their logistics system is a nightmare.... The pilot cadre, trained by the United States, is aging, and Iran's indigenous pilot training has been extremely poor. Other training -- such as the crews of the much-vaunted, Soviet-built Kilo submarines, for example -- is also suspect. 38
Traver's concludes that "Iran's conventional military capabilities do not constitute a major threat to the region." 39 But he agrees with the Strategic Assessment 1997 that Iranian sea-denial capabilities are improving. The two also agree that the issues of greatest concern are Teheran's support of terrorism, development of NBC weapons, and acquisition of ballistic missiles in the 300 to 1300-km range. (Iran already poses 400 missiles able to reach the Saudi coast.) It is worth noting that these few areas in which Iran's military development efforts are (or may be) producing results are asymmetrical to the bulk of American power. The scenarios that guide most of America's current and planned defense investment center on very large-scale conventional attacks.

Twilight of the Rogue Giants

The coincident decline in North Korean, Iraqi, and Iranian conventional military power is not a random occurrence. It reflects the gradual extinction of that peculiar creature of the Cold War: the otherwise underdeveloped, regional military giant. The eclipse of these states reflects three circumstances: (i) the accelerating economic marginalization of most Third World states -- especially those adhering to command-style economic policy, (ii) the decline in big power patronage since the Cold War's end, and (iii) the relative increase in US diplomatic clout, which has produced an exceptionally effective series of sanction measures against regional "rogues."

Regarding the dependence of third world military giants on the Cold War, one analyst observes:

The conventional military buildups of most Third World countries in the 1980s were due to the availability of subsidized weaponry from a superpower. ... With the cold war gone, such subsidies are going to be increasingly hard to come by and the potential of most Third World countries to buy such large amounts of weapons is going to decline. 40

ACDA reports that between 1984 and 1994 military expenditures by developing countries declined 30 percent and their arms imports declined a startling 80 percent. At the same time, Western control of the arms trade increased. Between 1984 and 1994 the US share of the arms export market grew from 24.5 percent to 59 percent; the aggregate share of NATO countries grew from 50 percent to 82 percent. This change occurred in the context of a 73 percent global contraction in the market. Thus, not only has the general diffusion of military power slowed dramatically, it has come substantially under the control of the United States and its allies.

The capacity of third world producers to substitute for Western supplies and suppliers has also diminished. As in the case of weapon imports, weapon exports by developing countries declined 80 percent between 1984 and 1994, which suggests a weakening military industrial base. Specifically regarding the production of advanced weapons by developing countries, Amit Gupta observes that,

Most of the Third World's advanced weapon programs have run into major developmental delays or have been scrapped outright. Southern producers' capacity to emerge as challengers to Northern producers has been severely hampered. 41

These recent trends and developments are interacting with and exacerbating a long-standing set of strategic weaknesses. The problems of third world militaries entail more than a sudden dearth of money and technology. They have long suffered from shortages of sufficiently skilled personnel and severe problems regarding social-cohesion, military professionalism, and civil-military relations. These problems limit their capacity to integrate modern technology, build and operate efficient C4I networks, and conduct rapid, large-scale joint operations.

In the final analysis, underdevelopment places insurmountable obstacles in the way of third world countries that seek to build very large, modern, and well-trained armed forces. And, while the QDR concerns itself with these nations' theoretical access to the market in advanced weaponry, it grows truer every day that they lack the wherewithal to buy, support, or effectively employ cutting-edge capabilities in operationally significant quantities.

General Colin Powell foresaw the end game for the rogue giants when he testified to Congress in 1991 that "I'm running out of demons; I'm down to Kim Il Sung and Castro." Since then, "threat-based planning" has given way to "capability-based planning" and "uncertainty" has become a leading force rationale. In its own way the QDR recognizes the eclipse of the Iraqi-type threat when it de-emphasizes regional crisis response as a force rationale in favor of "environment shaping" and preparing for an uncertain future. Nonetheless, the fact remains that our armed forces are presently sized, structured, equipped, and budgeted to deal primarily with contingencies and threats that grow less substantial everyday.


1. During the period 1976-1996 authorization levels varied by $160 billion between the highest and lowest; outlays varied only $135 billion. For historical budget figures in 1997 USD see Steven Kosiak, Analysis of the Fiscal Year 1997 Defense Budget Request (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 1996).

2. World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1995 (Washington DC: US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1996); and, International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1996/97 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

3. Bill Orr, The Global Economy in the 1990s (New York: NYU Press, 1992) pp. 276, 288, and 289.

4. Orr, The Global Economy, pp. 271-275

5. For a discussion of the benefits and limits of using comparative defense spending statistics as a gauge of relative military capability see Carl Conetta and Charles Knight, US post-Cold War Military Expenditure in the Context of World Spending Trends, PDA Briefing Memo 10, February 1997.

6. Russell E. Travers, "A New Millennium and a Strategic Breathing Space," Washington Quarterly (Spring 1997), p. 99.

7. These calculations are based on the 1996 edition of World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers (WMEAT), an annual review published by the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), and are drawn from a more extensive treatment appearing in PDA Briefing Memo 10, US post-Cold War Military Expenditure in the Context of World Spending Trends. We have chosen the years 1986-1994 to review because US defense spending as measured by ACDA peaked in 1986 and 1994 is the last year for which this edition of WMEAT provides statistics. Where ACDA does not provide data for a country we used an estimate from a second source, International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1996/97, -1995/96, -1994/95, -1993/94, -1992/93 (London: Oxford University Press, 1996-1995; London: Brassey's, 1992-1994).

8. For 1986 "potential threat states" include all nations participating in the Warsaw Treaty as well as China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Vietnam. For 1994, Russia and Belarus have taken the place of the former Soviet Union and all other former participants of the Warsaw Treaty have been excluded.

9. Michael O'Hanlon, Defense Planning for the Late 1990s (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 1995) pp. 42-44. TASCFORM scores weapon systems for attributes such as lethality, mobility, and protection. O'Hanlon discusses the benefits and limits of TASCFORM and other similar scoring methodologies in an earlier work, The Art of War in the Age of Peace (Westport: Praeger, 1992) pp. 64-70.

10. The F-16 is a great work-horse aircraft -- but less capable than some other US aircraft, including the F-117, F-15, and recently upgraded versions of the F-14 and F/A-18.

11. Planning for Defense: Affordability and Capability of the Administration's Program, CBO Memorandum (Washington DC: CBO, March 1994) pp. 20-28; Limiting Conventional Arms Exports to the Middle East (Washington DC: CBO, September 1992) Appendix B; and, Structuring US Forces After the Cold War: Costs and Effects of Increased Reliance on the Reserves (Washington DC: CBO, September 1992) pp. 46-53.

12. Andrew Rathmell, The Changing Military Balance in the Gulf, RUSI Whitehall Paper Series (London: Royal United Services Institute, 1996). The author is Deputy Director of the International Centre for Security Analysis, Department of War Studies, King's College London.

13. The study uses the WEI/WUV methodology -- Weapon Effectiveness Indices/Weighted Unit Value -- because a veýÿÿÿcirca 1980. Consequently, the division equivalents produced by WEI/WUV cannot be compared directly with current US divisions.

14. Rathmell, The Changing Military Balance in the Gulf, p. 105.

15. Rathmell, The Changing Military Balance in the Gulf, p. 107.

16. Kenneth S. Brower, "A Propensity for Conflict: Potential Scenarios and Outcomes of War in the Middle East," Jane's Intelligence Review Special Report 14, February 1997.

17. Brower, "A Propensity for Conflict," p. 20.

18. Hans Binnendijk and Patrick Clawson, eds., Strategic Assessment 1997: Flashpoints and Force Structure (Washington DC: NDU Institute for National Strategic Studies, 1997) p. 236.

19. Strategic Assessment 1997, p. 236.

20. For a summary of the North's economic dilemmas see, "The Korean Peninsula: The Last Throw of the Dice?", International Security Review 1997 (London: Royal United Services Institute, 1997) pp. 339-343.

21. Sheri Prasso, "Catastrophe in North Korea: The Only Hope is China," Business Week, 26 May 1997.

22. Strategic Assessment 1997, p. 101. The May 1996 defection of a North Korean pilot revealed the extent of some of the North's problems. The pilot reported accumulating only 350 hours flight time over ten years; US pilots often average 240 hours per year. Commenting on the 1960s vintage MiG-19 flown by the pilot, the Pentagon's deputy assistant in charge of Asia/Pacific, Kurt Campbell observed that, "Very few countries in the world would allow that kind of an aircraft to be flown." But only 100 of the North's combat aircraft are of 1970s or more recent design. Barbara Opall and Naoaki Usui, "Defection Shows South Korean Military Preparedness," Defense News, 3-9 June 1996, p. 6; "North Korean Rockets, Artillery Seen as Most Serious Threats," Aerospace Daily, 27 April 1997.

23. See Travers, "A New Millennium and a Strategic Breathing Space," Washington Quarterly (Spring 1997), p. 101; Richard Halloran, "Pyongyang's Military Threat Diminishes by the Day," Asia Times, 19 March 1997, p. 9; and, "The Korean Peninsula," ISR 1997, pp 343 -344.

24. "The Korean Peninsula," International Security Review 1997, pp. 343 -344.

25. "North Korean Crisis: Events and Developments," For Your Eyes Only, 26 May 1997.

26. Strategic Assessment 1997, pp. 236-237.

27. Andrew Rathmell assesses these efforts in The Changing Military Balance in the Gulf, pp. 24-35.

28. Post-1994 developments and their impact on the military are summarized in "Saddam Hussein and the Politics of Sovereignty," ISR 1997 (London: RUSI, 1997) pp. 120-159; and, Philip Finnegan, "Sanctions, Not Missiles, Sap Iraq," Defense News, 9-15 September 1996, p. 4.

29. Travers, "A New Millennium," p. 101.

30. Strategic Assessment 1997, p. 89.

31. Cited in Finnegan, "Sanctions, Not Missiles, Sap Iraq," Defense News, 9-15 September 1996, p. 4.

32. Travers, "A New Millennium," pp. 101-102.

33. A review and assessment of Iranian plans can be found in Rathmell, The Changing Military Balance in the Gulf, pp. 9-23.

34. Strategic Assessment 1997, p. 236.

35. Strategic Assessment 1997, p. 236.

36. Strategic Assessment 1997, p. 90.

37. Travers, "A New Millennium," p. 103.

38. Travers, "A New Millennium," p. 102.

39. Travers, "A New Millennium," p. 102.

40. Amit Gupta, "Third World Militaries: New Suppliers, Deadlier Weapons," Orbis (Winter 1993) p. 61.

41. Gupta, "Third World Militaries," Orbis (Winter 1993) p. 66.

Citation: Carl Conetta, Backwards Into the Future: How the Quadrennial Defense Review Prepares America for the Wrong Century, Project on Defense Alternatives. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, June 1997.

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