This QDR Is a Budget Document, Not a Strategy Document


Secretary Hagel claims that the fiscal year (FY) 2015 defense budget “matches our strategy to our resources…Our updated defense strategy,” that is. Updated because the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff memorably said the defense strategy could not be executed if a single dollar was cut from the budget, right before Congress cut about $50 billion of them.

The only update in this Quadrennial Defense Review from earlier strategic guidance looks to consist of narrowing the force-sizing demand to defeat a regional adversary while “imposing unacceptable costs” on another. Otherwise it’s all the usual about the world becoming more volatile, global connectedness, building partner capacity, rebalancing to Asia without diminishing effort anywhere else, the need for “exceptional agility” in our forces and efficiencies in the defense effort. There’s lots of talk about innovation, but little evidence of it—the QDR details forces that would be cut if sequestration goes into effect, but does not explore different ways of achieving our defense objectives.

Even this updated strategy is, by Hagel’s own admission, unexecutable without $115 billion more than the top line legislated in 2010 (separate from the $26 billion “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative” submitted as a wish list along with the budget itself). That completely negates the $113 billion in cuts that the President’s budget “imposes.” So, they’re actually cutting nothing. The Defense Department has had three budget cycles to bring its spending into line with the law, and—even with an $80 billion annual slush fund of war operations—it has not complied. Hagel says “it would have been irresponsible not to request these additional resources.” That twists the argument: it was irresponsible not to develop a strategy consistent with available resources. This QDR has failed in its fundamental purpose.

Perhaps the central issue this QDR should have addressed in detail is where to accept risk as resources become less plentiful: in what areas can we afford to reduce our margin of error, and where would unacceptable dangers be incurred?  What missions ought we to stop doing and stop preparing for in order to ensure we are able to meet our highest priorities?  Where do redundancies exist that can be eliminated to free up resources?  The Department of Defense claimed that the QDR would initiate a serious debate about risk. While the press statements emphasize greater risk in carrying out the strategy, there’s no actual discussion in the QDR about how risk is assessed. The QDR does say we “continue to experience gaps in training and maintenance over the near term and will have a reduced margin of error in dealing with risks of uncertainty,” but does not explain how different choices might aggravate or mitigate those risks. If DOD actually wants a debate about where to accept risk—instead of simply brandishing it as a threat to budget hawks—it will need to establish a metric for evaluating risk.

Secretary Hagel claims that

the QDR prioritizes America’s highest security interests by focusing on three strategic pillars: defending the homeland against all threats; building security globally by projecting U.S. influence and deterring aggression; and remaining prepared to win decisively against any adversary should deterrence fail.

It is difficult to discern how these three fundamental purposes of defense activity constitute priorities—they comprise the entirety of the defense effort. What program or activity could not be justified on their bases? The purpose of priorities is to allow apportionment of resources.

And where is the politicking with Congress to gain adoption of this approach? The Hagel budget has zero probability of being adopted by either authorizers or appropriators on the Hill. By neglecting his own fundamental responsibility, which is to be the Department of Defense’s interface with the political processes of governance, Secretary Hagel has set the DOD up for another year of ineffectual bleating by the service chiefs that the end is nigh. It didn’t change a single vote in the past two years of sequestration and absent a serious effort, it won’t change a single vote this year. Where is the private horse-trading and, if need be, public shaming, to get Senator Kelly Ayotte off her hobby horse about the A-10s? Where is the flinty insistence that continuing the galloping pace of military entitlements is creating a hollow force? Where is the orchestration of presidential involvement to raise the political stakes? That ought not be the uniformed military’s job; and in any event, the Obama White House has selected service chiefs who demonstrably cannot deliver that kind of political heft. If Congress is to be cajoled into doing the right things, it needs to be confronted politician-to-politician. That Secretary Hagel sent the third echelon and a press statement to announce this tells us that the administration is going to mail it in, which will result in attaining neither the top line it seeks nor the latitude to implement its priorities.

Hagel has failed in the essential work of gaining support for his strategy and his budget among the people with the constitutional responsibility for making it into law. This is not only bad politics, it is bad for civil-military relations because DOD’s civilian leadership is already busy blaming Congress rather than getting on with the business of effectively programming the world’s largest defense budget. The Obama administration is encouraging the uniformed military to attack the legislative branch for any shortfalls of funding they have no right to expect receiving.

Secretary Hagel’s press release sternly intones that “it would be dishonest and irresponsible to present a QDR articulating a strategy disconnected from the reality of resource constraints.  A strategy must have the resources for its implementation.” This is a welcome acceptance of responsibility, overdue from a department submitting its first budget consistent with the law that has been in force for nearly three years. It would be a lot more persuasive if Hagel had submitted a budget consistent with the top line or had done the hard political work of ensuring legislative support for his priorities. The QDR itself gives the right refutation to DOD’s strategy:

…the longer critical decisions are delayed in the hope that budget caps will be raised, the more difficult and painful those decisions will be to implement, and the more damaging they will be to our ability to execute the strategy.



Kori Schake, Ph.D. is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  She formerly worked in the Departments of Defense and State, was the director of defense strategy and requirements on the NSC, and held the distinguished chair in international security studies at West Point.


Photo credit: Secretary of Defense