The Pentagon is Not Adapting

October 9, 2013

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.