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Commentary: 21st Century Strategic Planning

US Needs Agile, Focused Process for Modern Challenges

Apr. 21, 2014 - 01:59PM   |  
By KATHLEEN HICKS   |   Comments
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In a city rife with political discord, it is encouraging to find an issue on which everyone seems to agree: The United States needs vibrant defense strategic processes now more than ever.

With the latest round of major national security and “quadrennial” reviews completed or nearing completion, the time is ripe for Congress and the administration to pursue concrete improvements in how the US, and particularly the Department of Defense, creates, communicates and infuses strategic thinking into its activities.

This is not a criticism of the latest Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). It is instead a recognition that any review process executed once every four years is insufficient to guide the defense of our nation over the fluid and uncertain geopolitical and fiscal environment we are likely to face in the coming 20 years.

With more than two years left in the current administration, Congress and DoD should build on the intent to improve the strategic planning that first led to the 1996 standing QDR requirement. Here are four concrete steps that would create richer strategic discourse and stronger departmental road maps for the future:

■ Congress should dramatically simplify the QDR statute. The current law is laden with a disparate range of requirements that cannot reasonably be met through a single process, let alone a process that at its heart should be about identifying and articulating priorities. Congress should use the annual National Defense Authorization Act process to provide more routine and timely oversight on the strategic planning priorities and reporting requirements.

■ To be most effective, Congress should recraft the National Defense Panel (NDP) statute in three ways. It should direct the panel to focus on the broad strategic issues its members believe the nation faces, to include the major trends and possible wild cards the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be watching. Accordingly, Congress should direct the NDP to report its findings one year prior to the due date of the QDR — not 90 days after the QDR is released, as the current statute requires.

Finally, Congress should require the NDP to commission or oversee multiple competitive analyses of the future security environment. These three changes would make best use of outside luminaries, and would jump-start the QDR process with ideas that are likely to be more out-of-the-box than the internal DoD process might allow.

■ Congress should match its hearing schedule and witness requirements to its stated interest in improving defense strategic direction. Every year, the defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chairman are called to testify on the defense budget. Yet not since the 2001 QDR have the two been called to testify at a hearing focused exclusively on defense strategy or the future security environment. It is hardly a wonder the strategy development process is often an afterthought in the routine machinations of the department. More routine attention from Congress on strategy (and the analysis that underlies it) would not only increase the incentive for DoD to improve its efforts, it would also improve member and staff knowledge of the key long-term challenges facing the US military.

■ The secretary of defense should commission an external review of the department’s strategy and planning processes and associated roles and responsibilities. For an organization of its size and importance, the department is significantly underinvested in the joint talent, analysis and tools necessary to support the secretary and chairman in their force development and other key decisions, and staffs are too often at loggerheads to serve the national interest well.

Ten years have elapsed since the last such review, ordered by Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Much about the world and the department’s operations and organization has changed since the so-called Aldridge Report of 2004. So, too, has the state of the art for strategic analysis.

The department needs to shift its culture from a linear, industrial age series of exhausting “pitched battle” strategy debates to an agile, 21st century approach of continual strategy development, assessment and execution. The release of three strategic documents in four years — the 2010 QDR, the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2014 QDR — suggests the department is becoming aware of this necessity, and of the inability of its current structure to easily adjust to it.

An outside review should focus particular energy on ensuring that resource and capability decisions are fully linked with the secretary’s strategic direction in the department’s multiple decision processes.

Senior-level interest in defense strategic planning tends to be fleeting; it typically comes around once every four years and fades quickly. In today’s environment, the United States literally cannot afford to make defense strategy a “once every four years” endeavor. Now is the time for Congress and the administration to improve our strategic planning approach and the 21st century analytic tools and processes that underpin it. ■

Kathleen Hicks is senior vice president, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and international security program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She was a US principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.

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