The Pentagon is Not Adapting

October 9, 2013

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Although the partial shutdown of the U.S. government continues, for Pentagon workers, it is time to get back to work. Over the weekend, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered his civilian workforce back to their desks. That means staffers working on the latest Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) can now get back to formulating the military’s long-term strategy. But if the upcoming QDR is as meaningful as its predecessors, its drafters might just as well have stayed home.

The QDR is supposed to “set a long-term course for DoD as it assesses the threats and challenges that the nation faces and re-balance DoD’s strategies, capabilities, and forces to address today’s conflicts and tomorrow’s threats.” This would imply a Defense Department that adapts But an examination of the Pentagon’s behavior over the past three QDRs, and its program of record over the past two decades, shows no significant adaptation despite dramatic changes in the global security situation and America’s rapidly evolving view of its security interests.

Perhaps the new QDR, to be released in early 2014, will break this pattern. But it is more likely that institutional interests which, thus far, have so successfully resisted much-needed adaptation will once again prevail.

The table below compares major elements of the U.S. force structure at two points: the year 2000 and the “objective force” implied for 2019 (the end of the latest Future Years Defense Plan, or FYDP) as described in the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request (data for 2019 were also supplemented by other force structure documents such as latest 30-year shipbuilding and aircraft funding plans). Thus, the two force structures depicted encompass the changes made since the 2001, 2006, and 2010 QDRs, as well as nearly four non-overlapping five-year FYDPs.


U.S. Active Duty Forces


“Objective Force” (2019)

   Brigade combat teams/equivalents



   End strength (‘000)



Marine Corps    
   Marine Expeditionary Forces



   End strength (‘000)



   Aircraft carriers



   Attack submarines



   Cruisers and destroyers



   Amphibious ships



   End strength (‘000)



Air Force    
   Tactical fighter squadrons



   Bombers, total



   End strength (‘000)



 Sources: 2001 QDROverview, FY2014 DoD Budget RequestDefense Manpower Requirements Report FY 2001FY2014 Shipbuilding PlanFY2014 Aviation Inventory and Funding PlanUSAF Aircraft Inventory 1950-2009U.S. Navy Active Ship Force Levels 1886-Present

What’s changed in the design of U.S. forces over these two decades? Very little. The contemplated “objective force” shows no meaningful departures from the post-Cold War, pre-9/11 force structure. Squinting at the numbers reveals slightly larger ground forces and somewhat smaller naval and air power. But keep in mind that this is the policy guidance for 2019, which will be nearly a decade after America’s exit from Iraq and a half-decade after the projected end of America’s combat role in Afghanistan.

Defenders of the QDR process and of the Defense Department’s force structure strategy might assert that there is no issue here. They might argue that the largely unchanged force structure is a good “all weather” balanced force, ready for the wide range of contingencies the U.S. might face.

Perhaps. But before accepting that conclusion, let’s ponder what has changed over these two decades.

1. The U.S. government’s fiscal position. Back in 2000, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) predicted large budget surpluses for the first decade of the new millennium, forecasting that the U.S. government would virtually pay off its debt (for the first time since the 1830s) and accumulate an excess cash balance of nearly $1.9 trillion by 2010. As we now know, reality was much crueler; instead of the U.S. government running a Singapore-style sovereign wealth fund, it instead must find buyers for its $16.7 trillion (and growing) debt.

The CBO and many others assumed wrongly that the revenue windfall the government was collecting at the time was a permanent new feature, rather than a temporary and deceptive blip tied to capital gains tax receipts from the dot-com stock market bubble. The flush feelings of the times, even when tempered a bit by the subsequent stock market crash and a mild recession, seemed to bolster the case for expansive geopolitical goals, particularly in response to the 9/11 attacks. Fast forward a decade past the  crippling plunge in revenues following the Great Recession in 2008-2009: the U.S. military is grounding its aircraft and cancelling its soldiers’ training.

A few strategy purists argue that statesmen must identify the country’s vital national interests and then mobilize the necessary resources to protect those interests regardless of the circumstances. After all, “vital is vital,” right? By this view, the 2019 “objective force” might simply be the military force the country requires. Figuring out how to pay for it should be a second-order concern.

Yet it is also true that debt increases risk, whether the borrower is a household, a corporation, or a government. And the greater the debt, the greater the risk. Making room for debt service will likely mean laying off a few of the country’s guards around the world and accepting the risk that results. The 2019 “objective force” doesn’t recognize this reality – at least not yet.

2. The public’s disillusionment with stability operations. The Pentagon’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request implements the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and specifically restates a core finding of the Guidance: “DoD will no longer size U.S. forces for large-scale, protracted counterinsurgency (COIN) and stability operations.” This was hardly a surprising development. President Obama’s decision to completely exit Iraq is now without controversy across the political spectrum. Should he decide the same for Afghanistan, lamentation is likely to be equally scarce. And the prospect of an “unbelievably small” missile strike on Syria, involving nary a boot-on-the-ground, stirred up a bipartisan backlash sufficient to scupper the idea.

So the concept of using conventional ground forces for proactive intervention and stabilization is dead. If the aftermath of Vietnam is a guide, it may stay dead for a generation.

But if the force is not sized for COIN and stability operations, what are the active duty ground forces in the objective force sized for? If not for proactive stabilization and nation-building, the answer must be reactive crisis response. But what crisis scenario this decade will require more ground forces than those on hand in 2000? Is the South Korea military less capable compared to North Korea than it was in 2000? Is the Iranian army a substantially greater threat than in 2000? Military modernization in China and Russia since 2000 has focused on naval, aerospace, and strategic forces, not so much their ground forces. By contrast, the table above shows U.S. ground forces growing and naval and air power shrinking. Perhaps there is a crisis response scenario that necessitates this level of ground combat power. If so, someone in the Pentagon should say so. More likely, however, this is more evidence a non-adaptive defense establishment.

3. The emergence of China’s access-denial military capability in the Western Pacific. By the next decade, China’s missile, aerospace, and naval forces will have the capacity to make it too risky for adversary surface military forces to persist for long within 2,000 kilometers of China’s coast. China has been pursuing this well-designed strategy since the mid-1990s and it is a trend well-known to U.S. military planners. The strategic disruption caused by China’s rising military power has been compared by senior academics and statesmen to Athens versus Sparta and to Europe on the brink of World War I. The rapid expansion of China’s military power, and the implications for the balance of power in Asia, is likely to be the most consequential strategic event for the United States during this period.

The 2006 and 2010 QDRs made specific mention of this looming challenge to the United States and its allies in the region, calling for appropriate strategic and procurement responses. In spite of these pleas, is there any evidence of policymakers making the necessary adaptations to U.S. programs and forces? By next decade, China’s land-attack and anti-ship missile forces will menace U.S. and allied short-range tactical aviation and surface naval forces operating in East Asia. Yet the F-35 remains the Pentagon’s top priority and the Navy’s Ford-class aircraft carrier program proceeds. Meanwhile, expanding the production rate of the Virginia attack submarine, a highly useful and well-managed program, remains controversial on Capitol Hill. Development of the Air Force’s new bomber, an essential capability for the challenge in Asia, has been repeatedly delayed since 2000 and remains a mysterious special access program instead of the valuable deterrent it should be. Another glance at the table above shows the Pentagon’s concerning lack of adaptation over nearly two decades of substantial geopolitical change.


So will the U.S. military’s force structure remain stable because it is the balanced “all weather” force the country needs? Or is this the force structure that results from institutional stalemate and a strategy process that is unresponsive to a changing world?

It is difficult to seriously argue that the proposed 2019 objective force is the military design that thoughtful planners would draw up if they began with a blank sheet of paper. Advancing military technology, the missile and sensor revolution, the diffusion of weapons and tactics to new players, and, not least, adverse budget trends should logically compel policymakers and planners toward substantial adaptation as they ponder next decade’s security environment.

Fortunately, the 2019 objective force described above is not a force structure cast in stone. Indeed, the whole point of the 2014 QDR should be to “re-balance DoD’s strategies, capabilities, and forces to address today’s conflicts and tomorrow’s threats.” Preceding QDRs have not lived up to this promise. It remains to be seen whether this QDR will do better.


Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In 2014, Naval Institute Press will publish Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.




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6 thoughts on “The Pentagon is Not Adapting

  1. Robert is eloquently saying what I have expressed elsewhere with respect to budget ratios. Since the fall of The Wall, there have been a half dozen or so strategic reviews with force structure consequences. Yet the ratios of budget share allocated to the Services and DoD remain fairly constant irrespective of the “strategy” or approach. We are either 1) fantastically fortunate in our ability to magically resource a force flexible enough to carry out whatever strategy we devise or 2) not thinking and resourcing strategically, but bureaucratically. I submit it is the latter.

    1. It reminds me of Lebanon….wait, hear me out:
      For decades, there has been an agreement in Lebanon, based on a 1932 census, that divides political power between Christians, Sunnis, and Shias. Obviously the demographics of the country have changed in the last 80-90 years, but people are afraid that upsetting the balance could spark civil war. I understand why Lebanon feels the need to do this, but why the U.S. military?

  2. An interesting exercise would be to pick some other 20 year periods in US history and compare force structures. I think you’d find most periods showed much faster levels of change, not only in total size but in balance between services and especially between major components within services.

    Blame Goldwater-Nichols, blame our high level of security and low threat environment, blame Olsonian entrenched interests and “iron triangles”, or whatever, but I think the post-Gulf War stability is pretty unprecedented.

  3. You have a group of leaders in the Pentagon, most of whom have over 30 years in service, that have been promoted within the DOPMA system. They are conformists. Do you really expect meaningful change from within their own ranks?

  4. “The Pentagon is Not Adapting” is as self defeating as the non-adaptive strategic culture that its title soaringly claims. It invites great hope but unfortunately what follows is a descent into deeply flawed analysis, shallow thinking, and safe cynicism (“But it is more likely that institutional interests which, thus far, have so successfully resisted much-needed adaptation will once again prevail”).

    This piece fails to first articulate the problem (forgivable due to the magnitude of defense reform challenges) but again fails to move us toward a meaningful vision of solution.

    As the first Jedi Aristotle might say: a few feints to congressional intractability, a programmatic gripe and end an strength chart does not a meaningful commentary make.

    While most who come to this thoughtful outlet already have already seen light, that there is deeply flawed strategic thinking, parochial interest and institutional inertia driving a lot of the force structure and operational utilization decisions in the Pentagon and on the Hill. But if the cause is true, we can’t give one another a pass just because we’re rooting for the same team. Despite wishing otherwise, this is a poor excuse for a critique of the status quo and an example I would point to if I were interested in avoiding reform.

    Fostering the culture of adaption is too important an issue to settle for gauzy thinking like this. Addressing misalignment between force structure and evolving environmental realities is an essential and continuous part of a healthy organization, or at least one that seeks continued relevance and utility.

    Just as the last paragraph says of preceding QDRs, this article has not lived up to its promise. “Adaption” requires better than this or you relegate the notion to buzzword status. Sincerity of purpose is not sufficient. Institutional inertia remains indifferent to the good intentions of caring, long suffering public servants like the good Mr. Haddick. But we need a more meaningful articulation of where and how the Pentagon has been nonadaptive at operational and strategic levels, not just fizzling rebukes of congressional handling of a bomber program or wildly removed statements like “…the concept of using conventional ground forces for proactive intervention and stabilization is dead. If the aftermath of Vietnam is a guide, it may stay dead for a generation.” If the aftermath of Vietnam is a guide we’ll have a dozen interventions and stabilization operations in the next decade
    Mr. Haddick just never quite gets around to articulating what his end strength figures actually say about defense adaption or where it remains absent.

    Paraphrasing the opening sentence, “for advocates of institutional reform, it is time to get back to work.”

    Mr. Haddick, just like any good Marine AAR worth its salt, I have to ignore your previous contributions. You get no bonus points for previous efforts. This is not good work. We need better from our best.