The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review

  • A+, F, or Dead on Arrival?
    Sep 8, 2009

    In 2010, the Obama administration will release its first Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). A strategic framework for the Department of Defense as it confronts current and future challenges, the QDR is intended to serve as a means to develop new policies, capabilities and initiatives.  However, these intentions have so far been unrealized. Past reviews have been decoupled from meaningful budget figures, realistic force plans, and honest procurement decisions. As a result of this “strategy-reality gap” between concepts and resources, they have had limited practical value.

    The issues the QDR must address have been greatly complicated by the Department of Defense’s past failures to develop effective plans, programs, and budgets; carry out effective systems analysis; develop credible cost estimates; and create timely and meaningful future year defense plans (FYDPs). The combined cost of war, rising military manpower costs, the underfunding of operations and maintenance, and a procurement crisis in every service will force the Obama Administration to reshape almost every aspect of current defense plans, programs, and budgets in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, if the situation is to be improved in any way.

    Worst among the problems was the failure to properly manage the procurement process, which reached such a point of crisis that it forced the current Administration to take action. So many major weapons systems programs were stuck in a morass of rising costs, development problems,  and requirements debates that Defense Secretary Gates terminated several key programs in his FY2010 budget announcement in April 2009.

    However, critical problems remain. Secretary Gates made decisions that should have been made years ago, but he often provided no clear replacement procurement strategy. It also is unclear that the Department has made the kind of procurement reforms that will stop it from continuing to undercost and overestimate capabilities until cost escalations force another series of terminations. In spite of recent program cancellations and cutbacks, current estimates indicate there could still be a procurement shortfall of some $60 billion over the next five years.

    Nevertheless, the legacy of interrelated problems raises serious questions as to whether the next QDR will be more meaningful than its predecessors in creating a strategy that actually shapes US forces, procurements, and readiness. The 2010 QDR has the potential to be the next step in the reform process and to institutionalize the reforms Gates initiated with his budget cuts. A new briefing from the Burke Chair, available at:, examines this potential. It is unclear the extent to which it will realize its potential, given the scale needed to make meaningful decisions, create an affordable force posture, fund credible levels of manpower, fully restructure DOD’s failed procurement plans, and deal with the real world cost and impact of the two ongoing wars.

    Ultimately, the review seeks to answer the question of whether the US should posture its forces and focus its acquisitions on dealing with conventional threats from rising peer competitors or more asymmetric threats emanating from weak and failing states. Secretary Gates’ terms of reference emphasized “balance” between these two competing priorities, stressing the need to institutionalize capabilities such as counterinsurgency while maintaining the existing US conventional technological edge against other countries.

    The search for answers is being structured around the concept of “hybrid warfare,” which requires the broadest possible range of force capabilities and flexibilities across the spectrum of operations. Hybrid warfare may be an intellectual improvement over the emphasis on conventional warfighting in past reviews, but so far the concept is so loosely defined, that it does not provide clear criteria for decision-making. Service efforts to define it have so far been little more that shopping lists for every possible contingency mixed with buzzwords that appear to have meaning only as long as they are no examined in any detail.  In practice, any concept that effectively justifies anything ends in justifying absolutely nothing.

    As a result, the review is already running into serious resource problems. It will be difficult to use hybrid warfare to define and cost end strength goals or to develop a new force plan, given the mixed messages coming from DOD about force-sizing. The concept provides no basis for shaping programs, nor does it rationalize cutting them.

    The end result is that DOD is adopting a strategy that creates far more uncertainties regarding key decisions about forces, programs, and procurement.  If the United States is supposed to be able to defeat peer competitors in conventional war yet also deal with hybrid threats from non-state actors, how should forces be sized? What high-technology weapons systems will be necessary to defeat peer competitors?  Is there a stable, cost effective procurement path to achieve them? It is unclear the extent to which the 2010 QDR will answer these questions.

    One thing is certain, however – it is not enough to say that the United States should have all capabilities yet provide no clear plan to achieve them. Every time the 2010 QDR dodges around defining force structure, procurement, and readiness choices, it will be intellectually dishonest and operationally dysfunctional: Another “F” instead of the “A+” effort the US so badly needs.

    If Secretary Gates and his team are to produce a QDR that corrects the past disconnect between its concepts and the budget, they must tightly link their central concepts to meaningful budget figures, realistic force plans, honest procurement decisions, and metrics to measure its success. If there is any clear message to be drawn from both the failures of the past, and the vague rhetoric of the present, it is that concepts such as “hybrid warfare” are little more than empty buzzwords when they are decoupled from force plans and budget figures.

    The FY2010 QDR could be a powerful tool in putting the Department’s planning, programming, and budgeting efforts on a new course, and in filling the vacuum in US defense procurement strategy vacuum left by recent programs terminations. However, a QDR can only be useful to the extent it is tied to detailed force plans, procurement plans, program budgets, and measures of effectiveness, rather than the past mix of jargon and buzzwords. This requires a near revolution in a US defense policy that has become decoupled from the PPB process, tangible force and budget trade-offs, and basic operational realities. It may be overly optimistic to hope for dramatic improvements as a result of President Obama’s first QDR. Institutional inertia may be too powerful, and the tendency to issue another conceptual document that is not translated into operation realities may be too great.

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Anthony H. Cordesman