National Defense Panel: Budget Can’t Support 2014 QDR


When the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review was released in March, it was heavily scrutinized, not least because it comes at a time of incredible transformation within the defense community.  The looming withdrawal from Afghanistan and transition to a peacetime footing; the rise of a range of new challenges to stability and security; and growing budgetary constraints: all combined to earn it a great degree of attention (including on these pages).

Now we have scrutiny from official channels.  Yesterday, the National Defense Panel, a body charged with conducting an independent and non-partisan review of the QDR, released its report.  The panel is co-chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry and retired U.S. Army General John Abizaid.  Its 81-page review reaches a range of conclusions, but the report is heavily flavored by one particular theme: the QDR gets the particular capabilities it calls for right, but they cannot be supported by current and planned future budget levels.

The review starts from the premise that a U.S. commitment to global leadership remains critical, but is endangered by current debates over funding:

Since World War II, no matter which party has controlled the White House or Congress, America’s global military capability and commitment has been the strategic foundation undergirding our global leadership. Given that reality, the defense budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, coupled with the additional cuts and constraints on defense management under the law’s sequestration provision, constitute a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States.

Then it gets down to specifics, detailing the practical impact of budget cuts.  For example:

The Navy, which bears the largest burden of forward-presence missions, is on a budgetary path to 260 ships or less. We believe the fleet-size requirement to be somewhere between the 2012 Future Year Defense Program (FYDP) goal of 323 ships and the 346 ships enumerated in the BUR, depending on the desired “high-low mix,” and an even larger fleet may be necessary if the risk of conflict in the Western Pacific increases.

The panel also expresses concern about service end strength envisioned by the QDR:

We are convinced the 2014 QDR’s contemplated reduction in Army end strength goes too far. We believe the Army and the Marine Corps should not be reduced below their pre-9/11 end- strengths – 490,000 active-duty soldiers in the Army and 182,000 active Marines – bearing in mind that capability cannot always substitute for capacity.

With regard to the U.S. military’s global footprint, the panel warns against withdrawing from regions where our security commitments have been longstanding:

In any event, cutting more bases overseas is not the solution … The Army alone has already closed 100 installations in Europe since 2003 and plans on returning an additional 47 bases to host nations by 2015. Similarly, the Navy has been consolidating and shrinking its European bases over the last eight years … The Air Force has reduced aircraft and forces stationed in Europe by 75 percent since 1990. Further overseas reductions in infrastructure could hamper crisis response times and ultimately extend the duration of conflict should it occur.

At the same time, the panel’s report recommends a more robust presence to deal with potential threats in Asia:

Thus, we believe that strong U.S. maritime and air forces, including but not limited to Navy aircraft carriers, surface combatants, attack submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, unmanned systems both above and under the water, Marine amphibious groups, and Air Force units with a broad range of capabilities, should be operating across maritime Asia on a more regular basis, demonstrating credible U.S. combat capabilities, reinforcing international norms like freedom of navigation, and reassuring U.S. allies and partners of our capability and our resolve.

The panel’s recommendations, of course, and the required capabilities laid out in the QDR itself, will cost more money.  To make up the shortfall, the report suggests several steps, including repeal of the Budget Control Act.  It also acknowledges and credits Congress and the White House for working to mitigate the impact of budget cuts, but openly calls such efforts insufficient:

Congress and the President have taken limited steps to ameliorate the impact of these budget cuts, including reaching a deal that provided partial relief of $44 billion since sequestration took effect in 2013. In addition, the President has proposed additional funding above sequestration in his current budget of about $115 billion over five years (in addition to $26 billion in the Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative in 2015). The House of Representatives has also passed a budget that would increase DOD funding by $195 billion over five years compared to sequestration levels. We applaud these steps, but much more must be done.

Ultimately, the panel acknowledges that global events are unpredictable (“we cannot be confident in our ability to predict the cause, timing, location, and form of future conflict”), and that in fact the report’s recommendations might be more than will be called for by future challenges.  But, the report concludes,

In short, Americans know that it is better, in a crisis, to have what we may not need than to need what we do not have.

Budget hawks, of course, might take issue with this statement and its implicit assumptions.  The panel’s report is an important contribution to an important debate about what we need and what we can afford.  But that debate is far from over.

Read the panel’s full report here.


John Amble is Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery