If the annual budget is where the U.S. Defense Department lays out its needs for the coming year, the Quadrennial Defense Review is where the Pentagon lays out its vision of the years ahead. It's an important guide to how military and civilian leaders see the world, and since the U.S. military plays such an enormous role in setting America's foreign policy, it's a document that demands careful study. And it's also vital to examine the gap between the soaring ambitions of the QDR and the hard realities of the budget.
This year's QDR, the Obama administration's first, portrays the security challenges of the future as fundamentally different from those of the past. In the 21st century, conventional U.S. military superiority will increasingly drive potential adversaries toward asymmetric responses to American power. Recognizing this new state of affairs, the./ QDR emphasizes the nontraditional threats posed by WMD terrorist attacks, hybrid warfare combining high- and low-tech tactics, and the loss of shared access to the global commons in air, sea, space, and cyberspace. Even potential competitors like China are more likely to attack the United States using asymmetric means, such as by countering American power in cyberspace rather than in a blue-water naval battle in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Together, these asymmetric security challenges could erode America's freedom of action and ability to influence the course of world events in the years ahead -- if the United States does not begin to prepare for them now.
While the new defense budget released alongside the QDR continues to reallocate resources in response to nontraditional threats, it is difficult to compel dollars and plans to follow words. The quip about past QDRs -- "Civilians propose and services dispose" -- still holds true today. In its innovative "Quad Chart," the 2006 QDR masterfully sketched out the four main challenges facing the United States in the future. However, the Government Accountability Office judged that the 2006 report did not comprehensively consider "different options for organizing and sizing its forces to provide needed capabilities." Similarly, the 2010 QDR concedes that further narrowing of the gap between vision and reality may be required. In its own words, the new QDR "describes some of the tradeoffs that Defense Department leaders have identified to enable the rebalancing of U.S. military capabilities," but admits, "More such tradeoffs could be necessary in the future."
The new QDR and defense budget illustrate the challenge of matching vision to reality, even with more than $700 billion in annual funding for the Department of Defense. Closing the distance between strategic priorities listed in the QDR and realistic budgetary plans to implement them will prove a major challenge in 2010 due to persistent structural constraints on reallocating defense spending. Moreover, last year's overall success in reshaping the defense budget does not mean that members of Congress will unflinchingly accept and implement the vision illuminated by the new QDR. Some lawmakers may favor the status quo during 2010, thanks to the lingering economic recession and upcoming congressional midterm elections.
The Budget Squeeze
The strategic rebalancing called for by the 2010 QDR will confront structural constraints that will make change difficult to implement. These impediments, which are deeply rooted and long running, include:
- Rising personnel costs for the Department of Defense's military forces and civilian employees, which are being compounded by 1) increases in the end-strength size of the Army and Marine Corps; and 2) the addition of 19,200 new governmental acquisition workforce employees.
- Growing DOD operations and maintenance costs.
- Higher price tags for advanced weapons systems, including the additional acquisition costs associated with design problems and schedule slippages.
- The cost of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which 1) may not immediately decrease when troops are withdrawn if historical precedent is any guide; and 2) will require future investments to bring depleted equipment stocks back to pre-war standards.
- Steady growth in federal spending on mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which will increasingly squeeze discretionary spending in other areas, including national defense.
Taken together, these trends leave alarmingly little room to maneuver. They present formidable obstacles to strategic flexibility, as well as budgetary realignment when needed, in the pursuit of national security needs.