The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review is almost completely devoid of "news." The QDR reaffirms a long series of decisions already taken by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. There are few new initiatives; the report locks in a course that Gates had already ordered. Rather than reading a document about strategies for the future, I had the sense that I was reading a business corporation's annual report covering the past fiscal year. I stopped counting how many times the QDR said, "the Department will continue to ..." or something similar.
Yet the report hints at, but leaves unsaid, many necessary and sometimes painful changes the Pentagon will need to make. In this sense the QDR seems incomplete; it kicks several important cans down the road, leaving for future reports important decisions that should have been in the QDR. Why this QDR did not face up to these decisions now is a mystery.
The QDR should be about preparing for the Defense Department's major responsibilities five to twenty years into the future. From this perspective, the report gets a lot right. The report properly discusses some dangerous trends that are rapidly headed in the wrong direction, such as:
1) Ballistic and cruise missiles growing like springtime weeds in China, Iran, and elsewhere,
2) The rapid proliferation of adversary advanced air defense systems,
3) The growing diesel/AIP submarine threat,
4) Cyber warfare,
5) Space warfare,
6) Non-state actors with advanced weapons,
7) WMD proliferation.
At the same time, the QDR recognizes that the United States has allowed some shortfalls and vulnerabilities to develop which include:
1) Overseas bases that are increasingly vulnerable to attack and suppression,
2) The need for both the Air Force and Navy to expand long-range strike capacity (to compensate for increasingly vulnerable overseas bases and aircraft carriers),
3) Possible overemphasis by the U.S. on short-range tactical aircraft,
4) Global command and control systems vulnerable to shut-down,
5) Possible lack of preparation for long-endurance air and maritime campaigns.
The report includes initiatives designed to address these problems and mismatches. The initiatives mentioned in the report include:
1) Hardening overseas bases,
2) Next generation bomber/long-range strike programs for both the Air Force and Navy,
3) Developing a joint air-sea battle concept,
4) Electronic warfare programs,
5) Expansion of unmanned and manned ISR systems,
6) Hardening and redundancy for space assets,
7) Greater effort and improved management for cyber warfare.
The QDR thus properly calls attention to the deterioration in relative U.S. capabilities in the naval, aerospace, electronic, and cyber dimensions. Reversing these trends will be very expensive. Yet the QDR foresees almost no change to the U.S. force structure by Fiscal Year 2015 (p. 46-47). An urgent need for naval and aerospace recapitalization plus constrained Pentagon budgets plus no change in force structure doesn't add up.
What the QDR leaves unsaid will be the need to find an exit for general purpose ground forces from Afghanistan, followed by a reduction in headcount in the Army and Marine Corps. The QDR implies, but does not make explicit, the need for the Pentagon to reduce personnel costs in order to free up money for high-end hardware (see pages 40-41 for some of the report's discussion of unmentioned tradeoffs).
The report kicked some other cans down the road. Gates ordered a separate study on how the U.S. will project power into defended areas over the next two to three decades (p. 33). Another study will review the future role of the Reserve Component (p. 54). Yet another study will be a government-wide review of security assistance programs (p. 74). [In her press conference at the Pentagon, USD(P) Flournoy mentioned yet another unfinished study on USAF/USN long range strike.] With such major issues still unsettled, this QDR feels unfinished. Yet a deadline loomed and the Pentagon had to publish what it could.
Naturally Gates does not neglect current operations. The QDR calls for more helicopters, more support for special operating forces, and more foreign language and cultural training. Equally important for the long-run, the report repeats Gates's long-standing calls for warrior and family support and steps to preserve the all volunteer force. Regarding future "small wars," the report recognizes the growing importance of security force assistance for both special and general purpose forces. With a reduction in ground force headcount seemingly inescapable, greater proficiency at security force assistance will be a necessity.
The 2010 QDR had no surprises and very little news. It simply locked in Gates's long established course. It properly recognized the deterioration in the U.S. strategic position at the high end of the spectrum. But it failed to explain the difficult trade-offs that will be necessary to address these problems. In this sense it is incomplete staff work, with a lot of tough decisions left for the future.