Small Wars Journal

A QDR for All Seasons?

Mon, 08/16/2010 - 9:39pm
A QDR for All Seasons?

The Pentagon is Not Preparing for the Most Likely Conflicts

by Dr. Roy Godson and Dr. Richard H. Shultz, Jr.

Joint Force Quarterly has kindly granted Small Wars Journal permission to publish this forthcoming JFQ article.

Download the Full Article: A QDR for All Seasons?

The end of the Cold War and the massive changes in the conflict environment that ensued launched the United States on a transformational path in military force planning. In 1996, the first Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) set out a vision of the two regional contingencies model, with the Nation equipped and able to dominate in two major conventional wars at the same time. But the outlines of a different kind of conflict setting began to emerge as the United States attempted to protect its interests in several different regions. The first decade of the 21st century has shown clearly that the way the Nation thought about and prepared for war in most of the 20th century requires a major overhaul. But change comes slowly.

The years following the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq were filled with adversity and indecision among the military leadership about how to overcome a different type of foe. The 2006 QDR appeared to be an attempt to refocus the Pentagon's warfighting approach to meet the challenge. In that assessment, the Department of Defense (DOD) acknowledged that a serious gap existed between the changed nature of conflict and the doctrine and means it had available for fighting it. DOD stipulated that irregular warfare (IW) had become a vital mission area for which the Services needed to prepare. Post-9/11 combat was depicted as "irregular in its nature." Enemies in those fights were "not conventional military forces." Rather, they employed indirect and asymmetric means. Adaptation was the way forward.

The 2006 QDR also set in motion IW initiatives inside DOD leading up to the December 2008 release of DOD Directive 3000.07, "Irregular Warfare." That directive was unambiguous about 21st-century conflict, declaring: "Irregular warfare is as strategically important as traditional warfare," and it is essential to "maintain capabilities . . . so that the DOD is as effective in IW as it is in traditional [conventional] warfare." Moreover, according to Directive 3000.07, the capabilities required for each type of fight were different.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had been among the most vociferous advocates, reinforcing the message in numerous statements, lectures, congressional testimony, and popular articles. Gates was by no means alone in the Pentagon and administration. But despite direction at the top, consensus was elusive. Many within the Joint Chiefs organization, Defense bureaucracy and industry, and Services viewed post-9/11 irregular fights as anomalies—ephemeral trends generated by particular circumstances. Furthermore, they held that conventional or general purpose forces could handle them.

Download the Full Article: A QDR for All Seasons?

Dr. Roy Godson is President of the National Strategy Information Center, a Washington, DC--based nongovernmental, nonpartisan educational organization. Dr. Richard H. Shultz, Jr., is Professor and Director of the International Security Studies Program in the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

About the Author(s)


Mutuelle santé (not verified)

Thu, 09/30/2010 - 10:03am

In this era of conflicts and war we are right now , Things has changed drastically , the QDR loses totally its focus and aim to be.

Rob Thornton (not verified)

Thu, 09/02/2010 - 9:51pm

Hi Anon,

It brings up an some interesting question regarding the implications for assigning emphasis in a portion of a spectrum to services whose capabilities are aligned to domains (Air, Sea, Land - maybe Space and Cyber)?

We do have the most capable air force (and second most capable in our naval air component) and we have the premier navy - both offer a capability to deter, interdict and control significant portions of their respective domains at a given time. They also offer the capability to conduct strikes and destroy certain types of targets under certain conditions.

However, to compel in the sense of removing someone and occupying the physical space that they wish to control or retain requires a different set of capabilities - and there is a spectrum of capabilities associated with the conditions under which you might have to do that. These are land domain capabilities, and they also facilitate and enhance the use of air and naval capabilities by denying the enemy the type of land space that aircraft must traverse.

This goes back to where do you want to compete are and where do you want to accept risk at? However, if you find yourself requiring a spectrum of the capability in a domain and you don't have it you no longer have a constraint, you have a limitation of your own making.

With respect to which land forces could provide those capabilities we may need to consider the difference between an expeditionary capability and a campaign capability and what that entails in terms of size, and perhaps what other joint capabilities might mitigate those requirements in the future, and what would be the risk of assuming that something different can actually provide a like capability.

The question may not be which parts of the spectrum do I emphasize but rather what is it I want my military to do for me really, and what are the things somebody else should do? This question needs to be asked in the context of what do I need to do in order to secure those things that really matter. I'm not confident that we will ask that question, or if we did that we could agree on what the answer is.

I predict more muddling along (every 4 and 8 years) and trying not to get it too wrong - and maybe that is the best way for us. What I do think is imperative is that when time does not allow us the room that geographical positioning once did that we have the means to extend that time line - something I'm not sure air and naval air power alone can accomplish.

Best, Rob

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 09/02/2010 - 11:12am

Great discussions, I really enjoy the back and forth bewteen thoughtful men. But, the problem is that the US is unwilling to pay for a force that is large enough to be full spectrum capable--the old capability vs capacity challenge. So, we are now trying to cut up the spectrum by giving each Service a primary focus. For the Army it appears to be that the SEC DEF wants it to be IW. For the USAF and Navy it is the high end, traditional warfare slice as its primary focus. He appears uncertain with the USMC. Anyway, trying to do full spectrum with a small military is that you create a force that can do a slice of the sprectrum OK for a single situation, maybe. But, once commited the US is/will be incapable of doing any other mission anywhere else.

Bob's World

Thu, 09/02/2010 - 8:14am

I do think that there are two polar, nearly equally off target, forces pulling at each other here. I don't mean the US and AQ; but rather those who still see the Ways and Means of the Cold War as the proven path to successfully achieve our Ends as a nation and those who believe that everything is new and that the US now must engage in a massively expensive IW/Nation Building Program that will somehow keep the many irregular threats out there at a low simmer.

Perhaps two wrongs will drive us blindly to a clumsy "right", as the inevitable compromise of the two perspectives take shape. There is a whole lot of 'hope' and not much design in that outcome, so not one I would roll out in front of any boss I ever worked for.

At some point we have to step back from the two poles and really look at this honestly. It Taiwan really more important to the US today than China is? Is the possibility of physical sanctuary in Afghanistan really the critical capability that we must deny them in order to negate that threat? Is Israel really more important to the US than the dozen other countries around them? Does labeling every organization that acts out to challenge government that in large deny any legal venues to raise those same challenges, as "terrorists" or "Violent Extremist Organizations" really help us to understand and assist with addressing the causation of those friction points?

Bottom line is we need a military that can deter states from acting out in ways that threaten our interests, and a military that can quickly generate and deliver effective combat power to wherever those interests may be being challenged. Using archaic Cold War rationale to validate this force should not be necessary, as it drives the wrong capabilities, and we can't afford to be wrong in what we build. The stakes are too high.

We also need a military that is prepared to, when necessary, go to places where we see the risk of violent insurgency growing in ways that could destabilize a region that is important to us, and enact a holistic program of engagement that is designed to address the problem, and not just reset the conditions of failure by preserving the current government unnaturally. Insurgency is a condition, like a disease in an unhealthy plant or animal. One must understand what weakness allowed the disease to take hold and grow, and not just treat the symptoms of the disease and call it good. We don't understand this disease very well, and IW doesn't cut it in that regard. IW is all about treating symptoms. We can do better. We must do better.

Rob Thornton (not verified)

Wed, 09/01/2010 - 3:04pm

Part of the problem I have with orienting a security transformation specifically to meet IW threats is that Ive only seen subjective assessments about how these threats represent anything approaching existential - not just to ourselves but our long term security interests - unless you include:

- an overreaction on our part that extends our capabilities in ways that take years to recoup;
- commits billions of dollars with little strategic context;
- is incongruent with our strategic and political cultures;
- by extension of promises we make that are contingent upon people and events beyond our control;
- jeopardize our international credibility while simultaneously providing strategic openings for competitors and adds undesired friction to other - perhaps more important policy choices

The other part of the problem I have with the prescription is that it radically departs from the golden mean - or the opportunity not to get it too wrong, but providing the flexibility to make course corrections based on things we cant control or did not/could not anticipate.

I am in favor of addressing IW threats, tasks and capabilities proportionate to DoDs roles and responsibilities. As many of these threats get beyond the purpose of existence of DoD, it is not unreasonable to that the QDR would not orient itself wholly on them. I think a better argument, and one Ive heard some good discussion on recently is the questions regarding the broader security environment and what it means for how we interact with the world.

That question should not originate in DoD - ours would be to consider the parts of the question that only the military can and should do as matter of either last recourse or greatest return. Once we introduce military force into a policy objective we have introduced new long term constraints in an effort to overcome a short term policy objective. I think we see that in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes its a requirement and sometimes it is just short sighted and as a result may be incongruent with our long term interests.

I think there is certainly room for military options as long as the foot print is kept small and reasonably of short duration - or is something that is viewed as routine, supports an enduring interest and is able to sustain enough international and national support (of the type where mutual interests equate to mutual commitments) as to lower the risks to other policy objectives and provides enough strategic context as to support clarity at the operational and tactical level.

We really need to begin the discussion with how we see the U.S. participating on the world stage (not owning it). Is it the tradition of having access to markets and safety at home which will drive how we promote and defend our interests, or there some new paradigm? I suspect its the former and Im not sure embarking on a course where IW is the guiding light will get us there; it may be more likely that it will run us afoul. We need IW capabilities, and we may need to relook how DoD is organized, manned and equipped, but we dont need to form ourselves writ large in the image of IW.

The last thing I will bring up is that few capabilities can be built in a crisis (shamelessly stolen and adapted from a SF buddy) - I think this is true regardless of if we are talking about IW or conventional capabilities - this runs the gamut of advisors to nukes. However, the absence of some based on conditions may leave you in a much worse position where a fall can break your neck vs. your arm. I dont think it is prudent to assume that because weve not identified the specific state that will advantage them when they are most prepared and we are least prepared that we will have sufficient warning and can just whistle up the capabilities needed to deter, counter or compel them. I may not need the 20 lb sledge all the time, but I dont want to wish I had something more than a tack driver when I do. I also believe there is more to it than just having one available, you have to know where and when to hit, and to do that you have to have some degree of muscle memory.

Do we have any large enemies? Not that I can see.

Would also note that we don't need anyone to "come over to our side", willingly or not. We should expect other countries and other people to pursue their own interests, as we do... that's normal and natural and we're certainly able to deal with it. As long as their pursuit of their own interests doesn't involve violence against us or our allies, we should have no problem with it at all.

All well and good to use influence (to the minimal extent to which we have any), but we need to get away from the archaic cold war notion of using influence to persuade people to support US interests. It makes more sense to use influence to persuade people to buy into a fairly minimalist framework of mutually agreed rules - essentially eschewing the use of violence - within which nations are free to and are expected to pursue their own interests.

Bill C. (not verified)

Wed, 08/18/2010 - 8:39pm

If our enemies (both large and small) determine that, as their primary focus, they will not confront us conventional and will not, otherwise, engage us in any manner that might allow us to fight and kill them en masse.

And these enemies determine that, instead, they will primarily engage us on the field of battle one might call "influence."

Then should fielding an Army that is proficient in doing offensive and defensive combat operations -- and in fighting and killing the enemy -- still be our primary concern?

Or would such an Army become a modern-day version of the "Maginot Line" (to wit: ripe for being "outflanked")?

If so, would the United States be better served by shifting some or much of its focus to preparing and fielding "forces" which could effectively counter and prevail in these "influence warfare" scenerios; wherein, the goal is not to fight and kill the enemy (he does not present himself for such purposes) but, instead, to have the population(s) being fought over willingly come over to our side?

<i>Would one consider those types of problems, disruptions and/or conflicts... Which might lead to a weakening and/or collapse of the global economy (an existential threat?)... As sufficiently important as to require that our forces also be prepared to deal with these potential problems (deter/preclude/prevent if possible -- but correct if necessary), as first-line priorities?</i>

Certainly events that threatened to cause a collapse of the global economy would be a threat that would warrant response. No such threat is in the least bit imminent today. There are a few that are plausible, most notably extended interruption of the Arabian Gulf oil supply (can't think offhand of any others), but they are regionally concentrated and we've been preparing to deal with them for a long time. That's no assurance that we can deal with them, but such assurances rarely exist.

The primary threats to the global economy today involve financial management, not military force, and an economic collapse is more likely to cause a military confrontation than the other way around.

<i>As the world makes the difficult transition -- more toward capitalism/markets -- are such threats as these (those that threaten the global economy) (1) more likely to be experienced, (2) more likely to be a priority and (3) more likely to require the use of military forces?</i>

The transition has already been made. It's not universal, but the areas where it has not yet penetrated are for the most part pretty irrelevant in any economic sense.

I'd say the threats are probably of a lower order and less likely to cause problems than they have been in the past. They still exist - there will always be a problem somewhere - but I see no evidence that they are increasing.

Bill C. (not verified)

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 7:06pm

Would one consider those types of problems, disruptions and/or conflicts,

Which might lead to a weakening and/or collapse of the global economy (an existential threat?),

As sufficiently important as to require that our forces also be prepared

To deal with these potential problems (deter/preclude/prevent if possible -- but correct if necessary),

As first-line priorities?

As the world makes the difficult transition -- more toward capitalism/markets -- are such threats as these (those that threaten the global economy) (1) more likely to be experienced, (2) more likely to be a priority and (3) more likely to require the use of military forces?

If so, what skills, etc., should these forces have -- to be able to get the job done?

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 1:54pm


Excellent post, especially your last three paragraphs. Because I argue against the Coin zeitgeist I am sometimes (understandably) perceived to be calling for the glory days of fulda. I am not, I am all about the transformation of the American Army and military writ large away from these antiquated Cold War structures and mindsets. But not that is toward a brave new world of ONLY irregular and small wars, which the authors of the article to this thread desire us to head.

Good as always to be in discussion with you


Bob's World

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 1:43pm


The mission you describe in Korea is more of a deterrence mission; I have no problem with that. To be fair, much of what we do in East Asia is deterrence based. The problem is this (Jones on deterrence):

Anything that deters also provokes. Deterrence works when one walks that fine razor's edge between provocation and irritation. The challenges with modern deterrence are several.

1. Deterrence is designed for state vs. state; and we now have non-states (AQ, etc) and quasi-states (LH, Hammas, etc) and even criminal states (Liberia, with others trending in that direction) that these tools don't work on. We need new tools and perspectives, and the only ones who really spend much time thinking about deterrence are the "old tool" guys who drive bigs subs, big airplanes, and polish big missiles.

2. Strategic uncertainty. This is huge. When success is riding the razor's edge, but the balance point has changed in unknown ways, it is easy to make a big mistake and push too hard or not hard enough. Our senior leaders are experts at Cold War balance, but what used to work now either does not or produces unintended effects. We need to appreciate this issue and seek these new balance points that are critical to effective deterrence.

Didn't mean to call you 'clingy' :-) But I assure you, there are many far senior to either of us who cling desperately to what they know; and an army of defense contractors who are also rooted in that past in terms of their military experience, but who's future depends on building and selling toys based on that past that we don't really need.

Then there is the Army of intel guys who stoke these old fires with similar vigor. I say pull the plug and see if this patient can live on its own with out these life support systems. My money is that it can't.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 1:26pm


Not to quibble over future scenarios but with regard to South Korea I am not constructing a whiggish, cold war scenario but a very real possibility of the modern world. Do you not think it possible that the North might collapse in the reasonably near future? And if it collapses there are plenty of indicators that it will not be relatively peaceful and clean like Germany at the end of the Cold War. What role will China play in the collapse? Will the North Korean military peacefully lay down its arms? Who knows, but it seems to me hard to imagine with our presence still in place in the South that we would sit quietly by as it all transpired, especially if it turned out messy with blood being spilled between the Koreans.

Problem Robert is that there is still a possibility, and not wildly unlikely, of state on state conflict. There is still the Middle East, Iran, Turkey, Kurdistan, who knows.

As far as your point about the situation between the two Koreas being an "existential threat" to the US well sure, it isnt. But existential threats have never been a prerequisite for American military intervention in the world from 1607 onward, so why raise that as an issue here?

Agree with your last paragraph, except of course for the last sentence, which I am not.


Bob's World

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 8:55am


While I'd toss defense of South Korea and Taiwan into the same bonepile with the Fulda Gap, I do agree that we have become dangerously focused on what should be a supporting effort for DoD.

One way to help get thinking (and then actions) on track is to fix where we draw the line between warfighting and MSCA. We currently see MSCA as purely domestic, but in reality most of what we are bundling under stability operations, IW, COIN, SFA, etc is MSCA. Move the cut-line over and then I think we can have an honest discussion about how much of out time, money, energy, effort and force to we commit to the two primary DOD missions (warfighting and deterrence) and how much do we commit to the supporting mission of an expended perspective on MSCA.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 8:05am

building on dcaggie's above post, here are my thoughts.

The article stated this:

"To be sure, competent authoritarian states--China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia--may well constitute future conventional security challenges for the United States, and attention to their long-term maturation is essential. However, this should not take priority over preparing for the most likely security threats and predominant conflicts."

Man-o-man do I disagree with this statement. Where do we want to take risk (by way of future hypotheticals), with a humanitarian mission to Darfur or with a major combat operation to assist South Korean occupation of the North after it collapses? I would prefer to take risk in terms of force structure, training, and optimization with the former.

It has been the trick of the Coin experts to hugely overstate and overargue the notion that armies trained and optimized for conventional war can not do wars of the irregular type. This article seems to represent that sort of thinking which has become stock amongst the majority of defense analysts and thinkers.

As General McMaster has said the ticket to get into any, ANY, kind of operation, conflict, war, etc for the US Army is combined arms competencies.

It was a mistake for the Army to equate stability operations on the same level with offensive and defensive combat operations and it is a mistake to argue for a QDR that places irregular war in the world's troubled spots as a priority in terms of force structure and optimization over combined arms competency and the core capability to fight at all organizational levels.

This is not a call for the Army to jump back into Bill and Ted's time machine to 1982, bring back Huba and Don back to active service to write Airland Battle version 2, and prepare for war for with Russia in the Fulda Gap. No No, instead it is a call to focus our Army on what is most important in terms of core competencies and priorities. First and foremost the American Army must be able to fight and kill the enemies of the United States. It must be able to do many other things as well, but it must be able to do that core competency first.

In my view, the ideas contained and espoused in this article miss the mark.


dcaggie (not verified)

Mon, 08/16/2010 - 10:16pm

It doesn't matter whether these irregular fights are anomalies or not - in the end, the fact is that they are NOT existential threats in the same way that an all-out war with Russia or China and their hangers-on would be. So what would you rather do, and at what cost: minimize the impact of an existential threat, or minimize the possibility of another 9/11 attack (of which almost every expert will tell you that it's not if another one happens, but when)?

Bob's World

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 1:08pm


"MSCA" is Military Support to Civil Authorities. Its what we operate on anytime we provide military support to civil authorities within the US.

This is a good reference for those unfamiliar with the rules we operate under at home:…

The key aspects being:
1. Civil Authorities never surrender lead, and can request any type of staff support etc they need to perform that role;

2. Military is last in and first out;

3. All military operations require a tasking from the civil authority.

These are things our civil authorities demand at home, and we respect them without (much) complaint. When we go overseas, and also declare the operations a "war" we throw all of this away and soon it is the US military leading the way, setting the tone, and devising the strategy and operations to achieve it. Once we reclassify Host Nation COIN operations as Civil Emergencies rather than wars (violence does not equal war); and our own supporting operations as FID or IDAD; it becomes much more logical to see that the procedures laid out in MSCA are tried and true and equally appropriate for such operations overseas.

As to Sorth Korea and Taiwan, seriously. What existential threat to US security rests in these countries? This is Cold War baggage that we need to let go. These situations are more likely than not going to sort out peacefully over the next 50 years (or sooner); so why would we risk thousands of US lives; Billions of dollars, and untold US prestige and influence over them?

Taiwan is particularly troublesome, as the best we could possibly achieve there is to reset the conditions of failure that led to the event we responded to. There is no upside. Even if we "win" and China sinks a carrier or two and bloodies our nose in the process we lose. It's a sucker's bet. China holds us by the nose on that one, and is bleeding our coffers waging asymmetric "peacefare" getting us to spend billions to counter the millions they spend around that same mission.

The Cold War is over, and we are in a new era of Strategic Uncertainty; abandoning our warfighting skills for nation building is IMO a mistake. Clinging to Cold War Ghosts and boogymen is a bigger one.

I cannot be surprised the QDR loses its focus when I observe the consensus-seeking staffing process in the department. Is it helpful or is it symptomatic that multiple DoD entities each publish their own "futures" documents in addition to those produced by the intelligence community to define the threat? I think the latter. But then again, is it helpful that Congressional committees ask Service chiefs to state requirements that were unfunded in a budget approved by the Secretary and the President? So the whole situation reeks of a spoiled child hedging his bets by not asking for a specific gift he wants, knowing that he will be lavished with plenty others. And here we have another of the yammering crowd of think tanks telling Congress what to provide.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 12:01pm


Yes I think that at the heart of combined arms comeptencies is tactical, kinetic action. I am not sure that I can imagine any other kind, can you?

If one reads the Army Capstone document that Gen M had such a strong hand in writing it does pay due attention in multiple places to the importance of combined arms. General Dempsey has also made similar points in many venues as well.


Brett Patron

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 11:56am

COL Gentile:

You typed "As General McMaster has said the ticket to get into any, ANY, kind of operation, conflict, war, etc for the US Army is combined arms competencies."

Just so i'm clear on scope, this means <b> kinetic </b> combined arms competencies?

Brett Patron

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 11:49am

MCSA: Military Support to Civil Activities?

I thought it started with a D (Defense).

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 11:23am


Would like to respond more fully but alas I am not sure what the acronym MSCA means.

And to your first sentence I would not chuck the Korean scenario into the same unlikely batch as the Russians in Fulda. I think that is what you were getting at is the unlikelihood of the Korean scenario, yes? If so my point in the hypothetical was not a World War III like encounter in Korea but the very real possibility that the North collapses requiring an occupation of it by the South with some kind of American assistance and cooperation along the way. That was the hypothetical that i was getting at, just to clarify.