Home / Articles / The Quadrennial Defense Review and U.S. Defense Policy, 2006-2025
Much ink has been spilled in the aftermath of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) since its release in February 2006. Overall, many reactions appear to be the same: the document is a mixed bag. Depending upon one’s views, the document either gets some things right and other things wrong or else it gets many things wrong and few things right.  The purpose here is to address four issues:
what is a QDR supposed to accomplish?
how is QDR 2005 different from QDR 2001?
what are its relative strengths?
what questions does it leave unanswered?
What Is the QDR and What Does It Do?
The Congress established the QDR process to ensure that the Pentagon was conducting long-range thinking and planning in regards to the Nation’s defense policy.  QDR 2005 is the third such Review. By statute the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will conduct a comprehensive review every four years “.with a view toward determining and expressing the defense strategy of the United States and establishing a defense program for the next 20 years.”  The conduct of the Review requires: a defined national defense strategy that is consistent with the President’s most current National Security Strategy; defining necessary force structure levels, modernization plans, infrastructure, and the defense budget plans sufficient to provide for the common defense across a full range of missions called for in the National Defense Strategy; and, identifying a budget plan and any additional resources needed to carry out such missions at a “low-to-moderate level of risk.” 
The report must be submitted to the Armed Services Committees of both the Senate and House of Representatives “in the year following the year in which the review is conducted, but not later than the date on which the President submits the budget for the next fiscal year to Congress..”  Fifteen specific areas must be incorporated to include defined or assumed national security interests of the United States, threats- assumed or defined-to those interests, force structure and global force posture assumptions, and so on. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must also submit an assessment with the review. Principally, the Chairman is charged with assessing whether there is any unnecessary duplication of effort among the services and what changes in technology “can be applied effectively to warfare.”  This is no small order. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace, USMC, states in the current report, “Any attempt to predict the future security environment of 2025 is inherently difficult.” 
QDR ’01 and QDR ’05
The 2001 QDR was the product of truly inopportune timing. Released shortly after 9/11 its assumptions and recommendations were not ideally suited for the new realities. The four strategic priorities of QDR 2001 were to: assure allies and friends, dissuade future military competition, deter threats and coercion against U.S. interests, and if deterrence failed, decisively defeat any adversary. The ongoing Global War on Terrorism-also called the Long War in the new document-heavily shapes QDR 2005. The current strategy seeks to: defeat terrorist networks, defend the homeland in depth, shape the choices of countries at strategic crossroads, and prevent the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction. As will be seen, the whole document is permeated with an emphasis that extends beyond “traditional” state-on-state military affairs.
The new force planning guidance is of particular interest. Perhaps the most recognized portion of QDR 2001 was the so-called “1-4-2-1” planning construct. Under that system the U.S. would organize, train, and equip sufficient forces in order to defend the (one) homeland, operate in and from four prescribed areas of Europe, Northeast Asia, the Asian littoral, and the Middle East/Southwest Asia, be able to “swiftly defeat” two adversaries in near simultaneous campaigns while being able to “win decisively” in one of those campaigns, and conduct a limited number of “smaller-scale contingency operations.” 
QDR 2005 has three pillars of force planning: (1) defend the homeland, (2) prevail in the Global War on Terror and conduct irregular operations, and (3) conduct and win conventional campaigns. It makes a useful distinction between “steady-state” (continuous) and “surge” (episodic) activities. In the steady-state the military will: detect, deter, and, if necessary, defeat external threats to the U.S. homeland; deter and defend against external transnational terror threats, enable partners, and conduct “multiple, globally distributed irregular operations of varying duration”; and, deter inter-state coercion or aggression through forward deployed forces, enable partners through theater security cooperation, and conduct presence missions. In surge mode the guidance calls for: contributing to the response to a natural disaster or manmade catastrophe and, if directed, raise the level of defense responsiveness in all domains (air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace); conduct a large-scale, potentially protracted irregular warfare campaign including counterinsurgency and security, stability, transition, and reconstruction (SSTR) operations; and, conduct two near simultaneous conventional campaigns (or one if engaged in a large-scale, protracted irregular campaign) while selectively reinforcing deterrence against opportunistic acts of aggression. In one of those conventional campaigns the military should also be prepared for regime change and transition to, or restoration of, civil society.
The 2005 Review continues the 2001 report’s emphasis on a capabilities-based approach toward forces rather than a threat-based model  and also embraces the transformation of the Department’s operations across the board-i.e., from improving military technology and systems to changing organizational structures to improving business practices and so on. But many changes have been made since 2001 to improve the expeditionary capabilities and ethos of the services and also to align the global force posture to the evolving international environment and the realities of the Global War on Terrorism.  A small but significant change from the 2001 to the 2005 report deals with the concept of the Total Force. In the 2001 document the Total Force referred to active and reserve component forces, in 2005 the Total Force refers to the active and reserve components, DoD civilians, and contractors. As with this more holistic conception of the force, as alluded to earlier, QDR 2005 also takes a more broad-based approach toward operations.
QDR 2005 Strengths
As a wartime document, QDR 2005 highlights some valuable operational lessons learned from the past several years. Thus, the Department is charged to:
Have the authority and resources to build partnership capacity. DoD will work domestically and internationally to enable other actors to perform key tasks, roles, and missions.
Take early preventive measures. DoD must consider acting earlier in order to prevent problems from becoming crises and crises from becoming conflicts.
Increase U.S. freedom of action. “The QDR proposes measures to increase both strategic and operational freedom of action by combining a more indirect approach, stealth, persistence, flexible basing and strategic reach.” (p.18).
Shift the “cost balances” to our adversaries. In other words, DoD must minimize it own costs in lives and treasure while imposing unsustainable losses on adversaries.
These lessons and areas feed into the notion that the U.S. military must break away from past practices-particularly from a Cold War mentality.  In this vein, perhaps the most important contribution of this QDR is that it cements into place the elevation of stability operations (“Military and civilian activities conducted across the spectrum from peace to conflict to establish or maintain order in States and regions” ) to the same level of importance as warfighting. (p. 86) This probably reflects the lessons learned from the sorry experience of “Phase IV” planning in Iraq.
The Review rightly points out that our current capability portfolio is too focused on “traditional challenges.” Therefore, all forces both “conventional” (referred to as general purpose forces in the document) and special operations forces would be used for such missions as well as be trained and prepared for irregular warfare contingencies such as counterinsurgency. This is comforting because it seems to say that the Department will not create a bifurcated force of warfighters and political-military oriented constabulary forces.  Such a force would be very expensive to maintain and would diminish the overall number of troops available and options for the President and the regional combatant commanders. An increased emphasis must be made in the areas of language and cultural training in order to better operate in against irregular threats-but also against traditional and disruptive threats.
The report’s mention of an increased emphasis on distributed operations (using dispersed but networked forces across geographic spaces) is promising. Also the recognition that indirect approaches must be more widely used is important. As Michael Vickers of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment has pointed out, if al Qaeda and aligned jihadi groups are a global insurgency operating in 60 some countries, then we need to confront it globally.  Economy of force as enabled by concepts such as distributed operations and indirect approaches will facilitate such engagement, particularly when teamed with other interagency partners and allies. Last, the report should receive high marks for calling on the military to seek a model of continuous change and adaptation. As the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places has shown us, we are dealing with a highly adaptive enemy and therefore we must keep pace and adjust in order to keep our adversaries off balance.
The 2005 QDR strives to keep a balance between the near-term (winning the Global War on Terrorism) and long-term (China). On the one hand this approach seems to be appropriate, but on the other its focus on the long-term may not provide the right capabilities for our current or future adversaries. In particular, three potentially troubling questions surround the Review.
First, are there sufficient forces to carry out the surge portions of the force planning guidance? The report explains that
Based on the Operational Availability analysis, other related assessments, and extensive senior leader discussions, the Department concluded that the size of today’s forces-both the Active and Reserve Components across the Military Departments-is appropriate to meet current and projected operational demands. At the same time, these analyses highlighted the need to continue re-balancing the mix of joint capabilities and forces. (p. 41)
But is that the case? Currently, for instance, the Army is undergoing a modularity conversion process to transform itself from a division-based force to one built around brigade combat teams. It does this all the while heavily engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, by 2011 the QDR calls for the elimination of the 30,000 temporary personnel increase in active duty Army end strength that has been in place the last few years as part of the reaction to 9/11 and Iraq. On top of this its reserve component forces of the National Guard and Army Reserve have also been used in numbers not seen since the Second World War. An increasing number of those forces are rapidly reaching their limit on cumulative mobilization time (24 months) under the current Presidential call-up authorization. The Marine Corps is similarly stretched. In addition, recent events in Iraq suggest that deep cuts in U.S. troop presence perhaps might not be as feasible as once thought. Another crisis contingency might further place drastic strains on our ground forces.
Surprisingly, the 2005 QDR called for 70 Army brigade combat teams (42 active, 28 in the National Guard), roughly 7 less than previous plans. The President and Congress, however, almost immediately said that that kind of reduction would not happen. Still there is much debate over whether the new modular force design will provide enough infantry forces-“boots on the ground”-to cope with an international strategic environment rife with irregular threats.  While improved technology (although much of it is still in development-such as the Future Combat System) and other efficiencies may prove to show this as an adequate number, it is not difficult to imagine scenarios that would severely stress our ability to defend the homeland, fight terrorism, conduct a large-scale irregular war or traditional war, take down a foreign regime, and help with a transition to civil society. Of course the Marine Corps (175,000 active and roughly 40,000 reserve) would be crucial both in land campaigns and also for other contingencies, as would our sailors and airmen of the Navy and Air Force, and, last but not least, force and capability contributions from friends and allies. Adversaries, real or potential, however, might see such stretched forces as an invitation for mischief.
Second, are there sufficient means to apply toward the QDR’s strategic ends? As was pointed out above, the QDR process is supposed to address this fundamental question but the current document seems to sidestep this issue. QDR 2005 states, that it “.is not a programmatic or budget document.” (p. vi) More than a few analysts are concerned with the QDR’s seeming failure to make tough choices: allocating resources to more troops and other capabilities needed for irregular warfare versus high-tech systems such as the F22 Raptor fighter aircraft that appear most suited to fight high-end traditional threats.  Surely arguments can be made about keeping the industrial base exercised, hedging against traditional or disruptive threats, and Congressional wants (they do after all wield the power of the purse). Still, QDR 2005 seems to sketch out a defense future that appears to placate everyone while minimizing any discussion of what the Department would like cut in order to finance other priorities. In short, these decisions are left for the so-called “out years.” Kicking the can down the road is a traditional DoD budgeting dodge. No transformation here.
Last, will the refocus on irregular, disruptive, and catastrophic threats survive Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure at DoD? Clearly much of this will depend on the geostrategic environment confronting the United States, but it is not hard to imagine some segments of the senior officer community transferring their disdain for the Secretary’s transformation agenda and other decisions onto what they feel should be the organizational focus of the Department. If a post-Vietnam-like “never again” mentality emerged in response to irregular wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan and any remaining such focus was restricted to the Special Operations Forces community then that could leave the Nation’s common defense woefully unprepared for future adversaries, even nation-state adversaries. This may seem unimaginable today. But then events since 9/11 should have stretched our imaginations.
QDR 2005 certainly says many of the right things in terms of moving the Department and its Total Force towards the current and emergent realities of the 21st century, particularly in the realms of irregular warfare, indirect approaches, cultural training, and interagency and coalition operations. However, it remains to be seen whether this orientation will be resourced and ingrained across the force in the face of other program priorities, especially in the aerospace and ship construction fields. As Brigadier General Charles Dunlap, USAF, pointed out at the December 2005 FPRI defense conference, certain elements within the military today question whether our involvement in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is the “last war” and if there are other more important challengers on the horizon.  Many observers agree that few adversaries appear willing to challenge traditional American military dominance. Therefore, at the low end, future threats will likely take place in more and more urban environments, blur lines between combatants and non-combatants, use extensive information operations, and rely on irregular means. At the high end, adversaries will likely rely upon hybrid or combination warfare approaches that exploit disruptive technologies, or at least use disruptive techniques to magnify the effects of existing technologies. We can at least expect them to blend all of the elements of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic power in ways that seek to keep the U.S. and it partners unbalanced or overmatched.  QDR 2005 seems to accept this logic, but it delays the decisions that might flow from it.
Thomas Donnelly, who was involved in drafting the original QDR legislation, has recently called for the end of future reviews.  Former Defense Department official Michele Flournoy has proposed that perhaps QDRs should take place only once per presidency.  They may be right. Another alternative, however, might be to conduct future reviews in ways similar to the approach FPRI took for its “Future of American Military Strategy” conference in 2005. Empower an independent panel drawn from current, former, and future DoD and other relevant governmental and allied actors to come up with various future defense strategies with differing assumptions on resources and threat- versus capability-based approaches and then make DoD choose from, in whole or part, the alternatives. Such an effort would “reverse engineer” the current “rock drill” process where individuals are dispatched with marching orders to protect institutional turfs and priorities. While this set-up might not be the 100 or even 90 percent solution, it would at least offer a better alternative than the current system.
The author thanks Harvey Sicherman and Frank Hoffman for their useful insights and suggestions.
 See, for instance, Ralph Peters, “Betraying Our Troops,” New York Post, February 2, 2006; Michael Vickers, “2005 QDR Puts Us on the Right Path,” Defense News, February 6, 2006; Thomas G. Mahnkhen, “Remaking U.S. Military Strategy,” Asian Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2006; Max Boot, “The Wrong Weapons for the Long War,” Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2006; Kori Schake, “Jurassic Pork,” New York Times, February 9, 2006; Frederick W. Kagan, “A Strategy for Heroes,” Weekly Standard, February 20, 2006; and, Michele A. Flournoy, “Did the Pentagon Get the Quadrennial Defense Review Right?,” The Washington Quarterly (Spring 2006): 67-84.
 The QDR is formally established in the U.S. Code, Title X, Subtitle A, Part I, Chapter 2, Section 118. Available at: https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode10/usc_sec_10_00000118—-000.html.
 Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington, DC: February 6, 2006), p. A-4. Hereafter QDR 2005.
 Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Washington, DC: September 30, 2001). Hereafter QDR 2001.
 “The essence of capabilities-based planning is to identify capabilities that adversaries could employ and capabilities that could be available to the United States, then evaluate their interaction, rather than over-optimize the joint force for a limited set of threat scenarios.” QDR 2005, p. 4.
 Early on the document states that, “Still encumbered with a Cold War organization and mentality in many aspects of Department operations, the Department will seek new and more flexible authorities in budget, finance, acquisition and personnel. Now is the time to institute still further changes necessary for the 21st century.” QDR 2005, p. ix.
 Gordon England, “Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction (SSTR) Operations,” Department of Defense Directive 3000.05, p. 2.
 Dr. Thomas P. M. Barnett called for the creation of such “praetorian” and “system administrator” forces in his influential book The Pentagon’s New Map (New York: Putnam, 2004).
 See, for instance, Frank G. Hoffman, “Complex Irregular Warfare: The Next Revolution in Military Affairs,” Orbis (Summer 2006): forthcoming.
 Tom Donnelly, “Kill the QDR,” Armed Forces Journal, February 2006.
 Flournoy, note 1.
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