Writing at the newly-launched Defense One, CNAS vice president Shawn Brimley proclaims, “The next nine months will be the most important period for United States defense strategy since the end of the Cold War.” That’s highly unlikely.
First, the bar is rather high.
The nine months following the collapse of the Soviet Union were themselves hugely important in shaping the country’s defense strategy. President George H.W. Bush, defense secretary Dick Cheney, national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, and Joint Chiefs chairman Colin Powell had to completely rethink a defense posture that had governed US foreign policy since at least 1947. They needed to manage the collapse of a nuclear superpower while coming to grips with what columnist Charles Krauthammer dubbed “The Unipolar Moment.”
And, certainly, the decisions to launch the global war on terror and invade Afghanistan and then Iraq in the months after the September 11 attack had rather profound effects on US defense strategy.
Second, Brimley bases his assertion on the fact that the Pentagon is in the process of writing its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). If history is any indication, that document will be a punt.
The QDR has its roots in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols act which, among other things, mandated that the JCS chair “shall submit to the Secretary of Defense a report containing such recommendations for changes in the assignment of functions (or roles and missions) to the armed forces as the Chairman considers necessary to achieve maximum effectiveness of the armed forces.”
The first of these was rendered dead on arrival with the collapse of the USSR. The second, the October 1993 Bottom-Up Review, recognized the “epochal events” that had unfolded necessitated that, “We cannot, as we did for the past several decades, premise this year’s forces, programs, and budgets on incremental shifts from last year’s efforts. We must rebuild our defense strategy, forces, and defense programs and budgets from the bottom up.” In reality, though, they recommended what was essentially a proportionally smaller version of the Cold War force. The report paid the necessary lip service to “modernization” and “new dangers” but nonetheless structured itself around a massive nuclear capability and the notion that it would be “prudent for the United States to maintain sufficient military power to be able to win two major regional conflicts that occur nearly simultaneously.” But not only was the strategic rationale at odds with the world situation but the Joint Chiefs couldn’t even agree to plan for the force it said it needed. Indeed, the “nearly” in “nearly simultaneously” was a nod to the fact that the United States lacked the strategic lift assets to get our troops and their equipment to two big wars at the same time and had no intention of correcting that deficit at the expense of procuring weapons assets.
With the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, Congress supplanted the every-three-years reporting requirement for the present QDR, which directs DOD to “undertake a wide-ranging review of strategy, programs, and resources” and issue a report “to delineate a national defense strategy consistent with the most recent National Security Strategy by defining force structure, modernization plans, and a budget plan allowing the military to successfully execute the full range of missions within that strategy.”
Allowing an extra year and changing the name, however, didn’t cause the reviews to become more strategic or overcome the inertia of Service boxes. And the fact that there’s a rolling series of National Security Strategies, National Defense Strategies, and QDRs pretty much ensures that the changes from increment to increment will be slight.
There have thus far been four QDRs: 1997, 2001, 2006, and 2010. None of them were any bolder than the Bottom-Up Review. Perhaps most interesting was the 2001 edition, released less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, which essentially threw in the global war on terror on the fly as the report was going to press.
Brimley hopes things will be different this time. So do I. But it’s extremely unlikely. While one would think that the pain that the ongoing sequester is causing and the general prospect of rather substantial cuts in the force would cause some creative thinking in the Pentagon and cause cherished but long outdated programs to go by the wayside, history tells us that the opposite is true. Bureaucratic organizations faced with diminished assets invariably cleave to their core competencies and allow everything else to wither. As much as defense leaders decry a hollow force, they will almost surely opt for cuts to personnel and training rather than forgo R&D and the acquisition of major end items. Not because they’re stupid or short-sighted but simply because it takes years, if not decades, to get those systems fielded and they fear being left with antiquated equipment when war invariably comes.
Brimley observes, “The longest ground war in American history is ending, defense budgets are declining sharply, and internationalists on both sides of the aisle are being pressured by those who believe, not unreasonably, that the U.S. ought to be less involved overseas militarily.” But recall that Bill Clinton came to office promising a peace dividend, George W. Bush promised a “humble foreign policy” that eschewed nation-building, and Barack Obama rose to prominence on an anti-war agenda. While Congress will doubtless cut the defense budget more than the brass would like, it would be foolish for Pentagon planners to base the QDR on the notion that America is going out of the intervention business.
Indeed, Brimley acknowledges that, though “one might expect that Congress and the executive branch would be devoting significant time and effort to prepare for major changes in the size and shape of America’s military and effort to prepare for major changes in the size and shape of America’s military,” the reality is “it’s not happening.” And he fully recognizes, as “the lead drafter” for the last QDR, “DOD’s inability to make hard choices” and “the difficulty in suppressing the ravenous appetite” of the services and combatant commands.
So, why should it be any different this time? He points to the creation of the National Defense Panel, co-chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry and former U.S. Central Command chief General John Abizaid which is supposed to act as ” the Simpson-Bowles Commission for DOD, speaking hard truths to both Congress and the Pentagon, and providing useful top cover for leaders to make tough decisions.”
I’ll believe that when I see it. But I would note that the actual Simpson-Bowles Commission was an utter failure.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. This essay was originally published at RealClearDefense.