Earlier this week the Obama administration released its first Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, a congressionally mandated planning and strategy document that is supposed to provide a framework for the military’s force structure and thus shape its annual budgets. The document should recognize the nature of the current threat environment facing the United States and show how the Pentagon plans to develop the force needed to address it. While the 2010 QDR largely accomplished the former objective, it did not achieve the latter. The true measure of the effectiveness of any QDR is whether it ensures that the department’s budget supports its analysis—on this measure the 2010 QDR comes up short.
The QDR does support a number of progressive national security priorities. For example, it points out the necessity of rebalancing the military to address unconventional enemies, the benefits of enhanced relationships and cooperation with our international allies, and the need to be able to fight and win today’s wars while preparing to fight the wars of tomorrow. Significantly, the 2010 QDR abandons the Bush administration’s “Long War” construct that oversimplified the nature of the struggle against violent extremists.
Importantly, the QDR indicates that counterinsurgency and stabilization operations are, and will continue to be, a key part of the Defense Department’s mission. It also emphasizes “enhancing language, regional, and cultural abilities” as a part of DOD’s long-term planning. The QDR makes clear the Obama administration’s commitment to a whole-of-government approach to national security, including emphasizing the role of development and diplomacy in keeping our nation safe.
It is also encouraging that for the first time the Pentagon is factoring climate change and its effects into its long-term strategy. But reducing the military’s reliance on oil and pursuing greater energy efficiency is only one dimension that must be considered. Climate change is a threat multiplier and will contribute to instability in many regions. All estimates point out that climate change will affect agricultural capacity and output, access to food and water resources, and threaten the economic livelihood of millions. In extreme cases, experts estimate that 200 million people could become climate migrants by 2050. In addition, natural disasters may spur climate migration, suddenly forcing people to move. The Center for American Progress recently argued that Northwest Africa is one of the regions to watch in regard to climate and its impact on security and policy, both for the United States and the European Union.
These initiatives should broaden the mission of our armed forces while realistically acknowledging the demands they will face in the 21st century. The Center for American Progress acknowledges and fully supports these proposals, many of which we addressed in our 2008 report, “Building a Military for the 21st Century: New Realities, New Priorities” and our 2009 national security strategy report “Integrating Security.” In large part, these realities have also been recognized and disseminated throughout the military through its own field manuals, academic journals, and after-action reports over the last several years.
The QDR, however, does not prioritize the missions that the military must be prepared for. The document states that “successfully balancing [DOD’s priorities] requires that the Department make hard choices on the level of resources required as well as accepting and managing risk in a way that favors success in today’s wars,” yet it also notes that “U.S. forces must be prepared to conduct a wide variety of missions under a range of different circumstances.” In other words, the QDR promises to make tradeoffs but asserts that DOD must be capable of confronting every contingency.
Moreover, the QDR does not set specific investment and procurement priorities or make the difficult tradeoffs necessary to enable the Defense Department to more readily plan for what it views as the most likely threats within a constrained fiscal environment. Unlike Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s April 2009 announcement, which eliminated several poorly managed and unneeded weapons programs, the 2010 QDR and the fiscal year 2011 budget do not recommend any significant additional savings in procurement funding. In fact, the FY 2011 budget actually increases procurement funding by almost 8 percent.
The QDR places some emphasis on rebalancing defense resources toward the capabilities needed to fight and win today’s wars—but the FY 2011 budget does not fully reflect this emphasis. The QDR does call for greater investment in technology to defeat improvised explosive devices, more helicopters and special forces, and more unmanned aerial vehicles, all of which have direct relevance to the troops on the ground. But according to Secretary Gates’s own estimates after eight years of war in Afghanistan and nearly seven in Iraq, the FY 2011 defense budget represents a shift of only 7 percent to 10 percent of spending to today’s missions and needs, while 40 percent is allocated toward weapons that can fight all types of wars. That leaves half the budget still devoted to threats from a bygone era.
Furthermore, in FY 2011, the Army—which has borne the main burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—has seen its budget grow less between 2010 and 2011 than the Navy and the Air Force. And the Army’s overall budget is still smaller than that of the other two military services.
Finally, despite the rhetoric about the extreme imbalance between what is spent on military and nonmilitary engagement by Secretary Gates, the imbalance actually increased in the FY 2011 budget as spending on nonmilitary international engagement increased at a lower rate than did defense spending.
Indeed, there is no incentive for DOD to prioritize because the administration’s FY 2011 defense request, which was developed and released simultaneously with the QDR, increased the baseline budget by nearly $20 billion—or 1.8 percent above the rate of inflation. This is on top of a 25 percent real increase in the baseline defense budget during the Bush administration. In this situation there is no realistic downward pressure on the department to make difficult tradeoffs.
The QDR also avoids the hard choices needed to address some key military personnel issues. First, it makes no mention of how the Pentagon intends to control spending on military health care. The military health system, which provides care for more than 9 million active and retired service members and their dependents, will comprise more than 10 percent of DOD’s overall budget by FY 2015 if no changes are made.
While the QDR acknowledges this situation, it fails to set forth a clear plan to bring down these costs, instead noting that “DOD continues to identify efficiencies that can reduce cost growth while sustaining high-quality care.” What is needed is a roadmap to increase co-pays in a reasonable and modest way, particularly for retirees who have access to additional care through civilian employers or their families, as well as recognition that this process must be a priority for DOD this fiscal year.
The QDR also presents a bland assessment of the administration’s ability to reduce stress on the men and women of our armed forces. The review notes that the department will transition to a more sustainable rotation schedule for our troops. This should mean a return to the pre-September 11 criteria for dwell time—two years at home for each year active forces are deployed and five years at home for each year a guardsmen or reservist is mobilized. Yet the review also goes on to say that these conditions may be unsustainable “in times of significant crisis.”
This wartime scenario described by the QDR makes no mention of the fail-safe system established for the all-volunteer force in such times of crisis—a national draft. Rather than plan to overstretch our volunteer armed forces—an approach that over the past eight years led to high levels of suicide, spousal abuse, and combat-related physical and mental injuries—the review should have pointed out when the selective service system would be activated.
It’s ultimately difficult to evaluate the QDR without a better sense of its position within the government’s national security architecture. While the QDR is expected to provide guidance for defense planning and budgeting, the QDR itself should be guided by a broader planning document: the president’s National Security Strategy, or NSS.
In an early December 2009 draft of the QDR the Defense Department noted that the document was developed through a process that relied on the 2008 National Defense Strategy, drafted by the outgoing Bush administration, and “culminated in the President’s National Security Strategy, which was published in January 2010.” Yet the QDR has been published without the NSS and without a clear sense of how that document, and by extension the president and his national security team, understands and prioritizes our overall security objectives.
The White House should redress this imbalance, albeit after the fact, and release the NSS as soon as possible so that Congress and the nation can put the 2010 QDR and the FY 2011 defense budget into proper context.
Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Sean Duggan is a Research Associate for National Security at American Progress, and Laura Conley is a Special Assistant for National Security and International Policy.