Making the QDR a Success

July 28, 2013

Does the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) matter?

Former Pentagon strategist and current CNAS Vice President Shawn Brimley recently commented, “With wars ending, budgets declining, technology proliferating, and other powers rising, a real window of opportunity to reshape U.S. defense strategy has opened for the first time since the end of the Cold War.” The Atlantic Council’s Dr. James Joyner, disagrees and bemoans the “hype” behind the QDR.  He has a valid point about the long odds against the QDR given their track record, but he underestimates its strategic importance this time around.*

The upcoming QDR is the most important one in two decades.    It’s not only a window of opportunity, but a desperate door to solvency.  We need to close the gap between our missions and forces, and our expansive aspirations and a shrinking budget.   Until that occurs the insolvency gap between our strategy and defense spending will only widen. The consequences are high and many allies and adversaries are watching.

As disappointed as I’ve been with our strategic thinking (or lack thereof) in the post-Cold War era, the stars are aligned for this QDR to deliver what we really need from it. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has the remaining tenure to take on and implement bold changes. Moreover, his office’s policy team is well-established, having produced a solid strategic defense guidance in early 2012.   Add sequestration – which is forcing everyone to make hard choices, albeit clumsily – and you finally have the right pressure for innovation.   A lot of interwar innovation in the 1920s and 1930s at the Naval War College and in annual Fleet Exercises came during periods of even greater austerity.

This year, Congress has once again required an external assessment of the QDR from an appointed panel.  The panel, to be co-chaired by the former Defense Secretary William Perry and retired Army General John Abizaid, is required to offer intermediate assessments of the QDR as well as its final report.  The benefits of these side-by-side panels is questionable.  Few such panels have full time attention or staff resources to offer real alternatives or any major influence.  The last National Defense Panel (NDP) in the late 1990s was an exception, driven by prior research efforts that the Office of the Secretary of Defense had sponsored about transformation and the Revolution in Military Affairs.  This new NDP must also leverage insights about Strategy under Austerity if it is to prove influential.  If it generates additive wish lists for larger forces, without a strategically sound rationale, it will doom this one to the dustbin.

What should this QDR accomplish? I offer a few recommendations:

  • The QDR should focus on the strategic challenges, not mundane management issues or even important enabling challenges like revamping the personnel system or stemming the costs of TRICARE.
  • The QDR should be limited to two FYDPs or 10 years.  Everything else is guesswork.  In an era of dynamic political, technological and security challenge it’s a fool’s errand to look 30 years out.  The first QDR produced by Secretary Rumsfeld’s policy shop was to be released on 9/11 and failed to anticipate the next decade of irregular war.
  • The QDR must be resource framed.  Retired Marine Sunil Desai argues in Defense News that the QDR should not be fiscally constrained. This defeats the entire purpose of a strategy exercise, which is about choices. Choices are always constrained.  The QDR should produce prioritized lists of missions and required capabilities in terms of a force list.  This list should be fiscally informed, and Congress should specifically evaluate and vote the resources it is willing to apply to that list and fulfill the role of the Legislative branch.
  • The NDP should be also be resource informed and offer offsets for all programmatic adjustments or capability investments.  It should not offer the Congress options that cannot be bought, such as a million man Army or a 400 ship Navy.  It should also focus on risks that the Pentagon fails to identify in their report so that Congress is warned about assumptions and consequences.
  • Congress should hold hearings and vote to accept or modify the QDR in explicit terms.  It should not mandate reports that it neither reads nor formally judges.  Congress should focus on specific sections of the QDR and be required to vote on key aspects of the review, specifically the missions list and the force construct.


F. G. Hoffman works at the National Defense University when not tilting at windmills.  These are his own views and do not represent the views and position of the Department of Defense or any other entity that was foolish enough to employ him.


*Joyner inaccurately tied the QDR to defense reform legislation of 1986.  The requirement for the QDR actually comes from the Roles and Missions Commission of 1994 (on which I served as a junior staffer), which in itself was set up to help the Department adapt to a new world.  That commission recommended a quadrennial strategy review as an exercise in strategic planning—a charge it has rarely approached.



Photo Credit: Phil Romans