The long-awaited quadrennial defense review, the Pentagon’s view of the nation’s strategic direction, has been released along with the president’s fiscal 2015 budget submission. The QDR has three focus areas: protecting the homeland, building security globally, and projecting power and winning decisively.
The US armed forces, it says, will be capable of simultaneously defending the homeland; conducting sustained, distributed counterterrorist operations; and in multiple regions, deterring aggression and assuring allies through forward presence and engagement. It is a worthy document that builds on the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. It resonates with conviction.
But embedded again and again in the QDR, the warnings are clear. Our military should be able to defeat or deny any aggressor. But reductions looming on the near-horizon with the return to sequester-level cuts in fiscal 2016 will inevitably reduce the military’s margin of error. A smaller force will strain the nation’s ability to respond to more than one major contingency at a time.
As the 64-page report cautions, “These risks grow significantly if sequester-level cuts return in FY 2016, if proposed reforms are not accepted, or if uncertainty over budget levels continues.”
Recent statements by congressional leaders question two key assumptions in the QDR: First, they suggest that the sequester, with its annual $50 billion reductions in military spending, will not be withdrawn; second, in this election year, a 2017 Base Realignment and Closing Act is a non-starter.
Throughout the QDR, there are references to modernizing the forces, investing in readiness, reducing unnecessary overhead and streamlining activities. But the document lacks a strategic plan for improving our military capabilities by investments in science and technology, research and development. As Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, states in his postscript, “strategy is about balancing ends, ways, and means, that is, our national objectives, our operational concepts and the resources available to us.”
As he notes, with our “ends” fixed, and our “means” declining, it is imperative that we innovate within the “ways” we defend our nation.
What will this mean? The American people must be prepared to accept a higher level of risk in military operations. Our nation’s military may be too small and unbalanced to meet the needs of our defense strategy, leading to greater risk of longer wars with potentially higher casualties for the US and our allies.
Continued resourcing at sequestration level may embolden our adversaries and undermine the confidence of our allies. Ultimately, by 2021, the Joint Force, according to the QDR, “would be too small and too outdated to fully implement our defense strategy.”
As we reset from 13 years of land wars, the nation faces an array of risks. Recent developments and emerging trends are empowering smaller countries and non-state actors on the international stage. In a globalized world, economic growth in Asia, aging populations in the United States, Europe, China and Japan, continued instability in the Middle East and Africa, and many other trends interact dynamically. The operating environment is increasingly enabled by technology, which provides capabilities once largely limited to major powers to a far wider range of actors.
The US economy remains the foundation of US power. But our strength is closely tied to a stable international order, ultimately supported by the US military’s role and that of our allies and partners in ensuring freedom of access and the free flow of commerce globally.
The question becomes, what can the United States do about it? Clearly, our service leaders are concerned, though the QDR offers no path forward. The budget cuts fostered by the Budget Control Act of 2011 have taken a toll, as have the reductions compelled by the budget caps and the ensuing sequester. The Ryan-Murray compromise budget offers momentary relief, but nothing more.
Meanwhile, the nation’s entitlement spending, now 61.8 percent of the total budget and growing, will continue to crowd out discretionary spending. The inevitable result is that we shall likely endure greater risks due to a diminishing military posture.
The 2014 QDR’s theme is one of “rebalancing,” predicated on several questionable assumptions about Congress’ intentions. Missing from this equation is a plan for how the military can do more with less during a period of declining budgets, and a definition for the role of improved technology. ■
M.E. Rhett Flater, a consultant on aerospace and defense industrial base issues and former executive director of the American Helicopter Society International.