As the US Department of Defense prepares for the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the 20-year-old process is again under fire from across the political spectrum, including members of Congress who say it should be severely curtailed or abandoned.
Even Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., a supporter of the process, recently said that previous QDRs were a “rubber stamp to justify and approve existing strategies” rather than a “fresh look at our national defense to make sure we had the right strategy,” but that “the QDR is a valuable tool for us to have … if we just get back to the basics.”
As with military operational plans, the QDR process itself is more important than the product.
This is because upon implementing a plan, enemy decisions and other unexpected factors change the situation, requiring adjustments. Having insights gained through a rigorous and disciplined planning process allows such adjustments to be made much more quickly and easily.
But two basic elements of congressional guidance disregarded in previous QDRs must be followed to ensure the 2014 QDR process delivers what Congress intended and needs.
First, the time horizons of previous QDRs were too short. By law, the QDR is supposed to be a comprehensive effort to prepare a national defense strategy looking forward 20 years. Like its predecessors, however, the 2010 QDR focused on the next five years, justifying the focus by citing immediate wartime operational needs.
To meet Congress’ intent, the time horizon considered should be much further out. While this might seem impossible or highly impractical, most major military programs (for ships, aircraft, armored vehicles, etc.) can take 50 or more years to fully implement from research and development to the end of the program. It is a common joke among service members that much of their equipment is older than they are.
Similarly, decisions regarding personnel — the largest portion of the military budget — can take decades to implement completely. For example, although service academies have been teaching students about cyber warfare for over a decade, very few graduate with cyber degrees and enter the cyber warfare military field, and it will be at least another decade before these graduates are leading cyber operations at senior levels.
The QDR also should consider potential demographic shifts. For example, regardless of any changes in combat exclusion policies for women, current trends suggest that in four or five decades women could make up half of the military.
The panel that Congress tasked to assess the 2010 QDR recommended programs to improve retention and make 40-year-long careers in service a standard goal. This kind of long-term outlook should be the starting point for the 2014 QDR.
Second, previous QDRs disregarded explicit congressional guidance that recommendations be based on realistic threat scenarios without attempting to limit the total cost of programs to defeat those threats. Congress did this in part to prevent DoD components from pursuing parochial interests.
During past QDRs, DoD components were required to offer up “trade-offs” with their recommendations. Specifically, if they wanted to start a new program or expand an existing one, the component had to propose canceling all or part of another program. The pressure to continue this practice in light of sequestration and the financial situation will be enormous, but it undermines adequate consideration of all potential threats to national security.
Although projecting program costs out 50 years can be daunting, DoD financial analysts have plenty of experience and historical data to reference. Thinking 50 years ahead does not prohibit DoD from acquiring emerging technologies as soon as they are available. But not having a long-term horizon does make it extremely difficult to ensure that program costs are considered through their expected conclusion, not just the next budget cycle.
Because the QDR is repeated every four years, unexpected changes in technology or other relevant factors can be incorporated in the next QDR.
There are plenty of entities within DoD that already look out five, 10 and even 20 years. Each QDR is an opportunity to go much deeper, giving that work perspective and enabling a useful comparison with other national budget items, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the national debt.
If the 2014 QDR resembles past QDRs, those who wish to end it will have good justification since the normal budget cycle can provide for tradeoffs within a constrained budget.
This is not to downplay the gravity of current national financial realities. But a concerted effort by DoD to look 20 to 50 years ahead and make recommendations that are not financially driven will provide Congress with the clear-eyed perspective and advice it needs to address US budgeting needs and to understand risks inherent in anything it decides to leave unfunded.
Sunil Desai, a retired US Marine who served as a strategist for the Marine Corps during the 2010 QDR and US Strategic Command during the 2006 QDR. These views are his own.