A QDR “Hot Wash”

March 5, 2014

Editor’s Note: At the end of a naval exercise, participants often gather in person or across radio circuits to conduct a quick review of the high and low points of the exercise, with detailed lessons learned created later. This quick review is known as a “Hot Wash.”

The Department of Defense released the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review for 2014 today, a document that is always much anticipated and only occasionally meaningful. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, the recently conducted Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR), and Secretary of Defense Hagel’s budget preview speech last week have all conspired to render this version of the document as something akin to “old news”, but there were a few items in it I found interesting.

  • The absence of great power politics. In life, timing is everything, and Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression in Ukraine this week reminds us once again of the relevance of great power politics and its continuation by other means—great power conflict. This is a bit of a stolen base on my part, but the plain truth is that even had Putin not done his best 1938 Sudentenland bit, China’s conduct as a great power is absent in this document. There are references to its “modernization” and its lack of “transparency”, but there is no mention of its increasingly aggressive posture toward proximate nations with competing geographic claims and the potential that has to lead to conflict with the United States.
  • Political marker-laying. The President’s “Opportunity, Growth, and Security” initiative offers the prospect of $26 billion additional funds to defense in fiscal year (FY) 2015. What is not mentioned here is what Congress would need to do to free this money up, though Mr. Hagel alluded to it in his speech on the 24th, saying, “these additional funds would be paid for with a balanced package of spending and tax reforms, and would allow us to increase training, upgrade aircraft and weapons systems, and make needed repairs to our facilities.” In the highly charged political world of Washington, this translates to “give a little on higher taxes and we’ll spend a little more on Defense.” Provisions such as this may have appeared in previous QDR’s, and perhaps I am just more sensitive to them these days, but I was surprised to see this in the document.
  • The Joint Force is out of balance. This is an important statement.  I think I know what it means, but after reading the QDR, I do not know if what I think it means is what Secretary Hagel thinks it means. There is very little attempt made to describe the attributes of a balanced force and how this one differs. In which direction is the force unbalanced?
  • Ends/Means mismatch. As I read the QDR, I found myself with very few quibbles as to the ends it pursues. Its view of the world is relatively clear-headed (though weak on great power dynamics), and its vision of what is important to U.S. national security is straightforward and unobjectionable. What is objectionable are the means provided to do so, and as a navalist, I’ll restrict my thoughts to that domain. If there had not been a Hagel speech last week and you picked up this document and read it, a rational person would reach the conclusion that the Navy is going to grow. But it is not, irrespective of the claims the QDR makes, which I fear are based on both dubious accounting and wishful thinking. It is inconceivable to me that a shipbuilding plan (aimed at getting us from 286 ships to 306 ships within 30 years), which existed prior to this QDR, underfunded to the tune of about $4 billion per year, is now going to produce an even larger Navy with less money in acquisition, 20 fewer Littoral Combat Ships to be built, and 11 Cruisers being inducted into a long term caretaker status. Presumably the 11 Cruisers will continue to be counted against the total (dubious accounting), and in a feat of nifty and nimble acquisition (or wishful thinking), we will be able to specify, divine requirements, validate requirements, design, compete, and build whatever ship comes after the LCS in time to replace the ships that would have been lost through its truncation. This strains credulity. Additionally, the tealeaves suggest that after the 2014 Virginia Senate race is over, the eleventh carrier will find itself on the 2016 budget chopping block (to be submitted one year from now and several months after the election).
  • The Marines won the QDR. They fight hard and they do not cost that much. We get a lot for a little, and their value is reflected in their vitality in this document.
  • Tilting at windmills. The QDR pleases for another round of base closures (BRAC). Though I wish it were not so, another round of BRAC is not going to happen in this Congress. And while there is a whole passel of very interesting and worthwhile pay and compensation reforms here, I am not hopeful that much will be done.

All of that said, the most interesting thing in the entire document comes on its very last page of text  in a section that begins on the previous page in which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs renders his views of the QDR:

Our forces will also have considerable responsibilities. They must protect allies, be globally present to deter conflict, protect the global commons, and keep war far from our shores and our citizens. These obligations are unique to the United States military, and they are inherently expensive. The smaller and less capable military outlined in the QDR makes meeting these obligations more difficult.

Several times in the QDR, reference is made to our moving toward a “smaller” force, but only in the Chairman’s Assessment is the phrase “smaller and less capable” used. Elsewhere one can read “smaller and leaner” and “smaller…gradually become(ing) more modern as well”. But, there is no suggestion elsewhere in the document that the force resulting from this QDR will be “less capable”. General Dempsey is not even referring to the Bogey-man of a 2016 “return of sequester” force. He is talking about the force described in the President’s budget.

Earlier in his assessment, the Chairman writes, “I consider the QDR’s force structure recommendations appropriate to the resources available.” This is a masterful obfuscation, faint praise at its best. The question is, Chairman Dempsey, are the resources available appropriate? And if not, when will we hear you and the other Joint Chiefs say that?


Bryan McGrath is the founding Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group. A retired Naval Officer, Bryan spent 21 years on active duty including a tour in command of USS BULKELEY (DDG 84).  His final duties ashore included serving as Team Lead and Primary Author of the US Navy’s 2007 Maritime Strategy “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.” McGrath is an Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute and Assistant Director of the Hudson Center for American Seapower.

Image: DoD