We Can’t Expect Strategy from the National Defense Panel

September 3, 2014

Critics of the National Defense Panel’s (NDP) recent assessment of the U.S. defense budget and policy are missing the point. Among them is my colleague Frank Hoffman, who lamented that the report “did not make any hard choices or offer priorities.” He continued:

The NDP’s blueprint reads very much like a wish list that would eliminate all risk and ignore pressing matters such as acquisition reform, streamline headquarters, and better business practices.

My reaction to Hoffman’s critique: So what’s new?

When, since the novelty of the first NDP of 1997 wore off, has there ever been a truly insightful and meaningful NDP to catalyze “a real strategic debate”?

The awful truth is that the NDP was never designed to generate strategic discourse. Legislated into existence by a Newt Gingrich-led House of Representatives in 1996, the NDP was always a political construct. From the NDP’s inception, Congress desired a government-funded report that would challenge the administration-led, congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). In the 1990s, the NDP’s inspiration came from House Republicans chafing from what they perceived as a second-term Clinton administration hell bent on disarming the republic. Their Democrat colleagues — supportive of the president, but facing voter unrest in districts where post-Cold War basing cuts and weapons procurement holidays spelled campaign trouble — were willing to oblige in a good old fashioned taxpayer-funded, recurring report-on-an-administration, but with a predictable catch: baked-in bipartisanship.

Thus, the enabling language for the NDP specifies that the secretary of defense gets several picks for the NDP panel, but Congress gets the dominant number of appointments; and in a manner that assures balance between Democrat and Republican interests. The membership framework ensures that the NDP cannot and will not take a hard, strategic stand. Since its panel leadership comprises all points on the political spectrum and all elements of the military-industrial interest base, the NDP is biased toward producing precisely the kind of conclusions that Hoffman laments. As a 2000 Parameters review of the first NDP observed,

It is overridingly significant that the composition of the NDP ensured that it would be anything but “independent.” First, Chairman Phil Odeen was the President and Chief Executive Officer of BDM, a large defense contractor. Former Ambassador Richard Armitage had strong ties to the Navy, as did, quite obviously, retired Admiral David Jeremiah. Retired General Richard Hearney was a former Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps. Former Ambassador Robert Kimmitt was a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, while Andrew Krepinevich was a retired Army lieutenant colonel. Retired Army General Robert RisCassi was a former Commander-in-Chief of US Forces, Korea. General James McCarthy was retired from the Air Force. Only Janne Nolan, a senior fellow at Brookings, could be considered a neutral player. … The 1997 NDP’s recommendations must be viewed with the actual composition of the panel in mind.

Its politics-first framework ensures that the NDP will critique every QDR priority from vantage points represented in both Republican and Democrat political philosophies. As it did in both 2010 and this year, the NDP calls for more defense spending. It questions administration QDR resourcing priorities without providing clear and certain alternatives.   It calls for greater attention to weapons systems and pet defense projects constrained by the administration’s QDR without any hard fiscal offsets. The NDP also advances the causes of all those international and domestic groups suffering self-perceived reduced status in the QDR. A quote from Virginia Republican Congressman Randy Forbes, the House Seapower Subcommittee chairman, during the rollout of the July 2014 NDP clearly identifies the group that benefits most from its across-the-waterfront analyses. Forbes touted the NDP to news agencies declaring, “You don’t get more [bipartisan] than this panel, [and] I certainly think it gives us a lot of support for positions that we have been advocating.”

Precisely, Congressman Forbes. Precisely.

In short, the NDP was deliberately designed to be everything to every element represented in its bipartisan make-up. It provides individual congresswomen and congressmen ammunition to champion their parochial interests during committee and subcommittee debates with administration representatives.

The NDP, therefore, lives up to its de facto charter perfectly. Hard strategic choices and keen insights are both optional and rarely welcomed.

Hoffman is on my short list of those with the talent and ability to charter a comprehensive and credible review of an administration’s national defense strategy and defense procurement priorities: a strategically focused NDP. But, he doesn’t have such a remit. Nobody does, and nobody will get one anytime soon. Thus, his critique of the 2014 NDP write up is both intriguing and quixotic.

As intended by Congress, the NDP is what it is: a politically motivated and politically framed document. No amount of lipstick will make this pig any more strategic.

 

Thomas F. (Tom) Lynch III is a distinguished research fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. He had direct encounters with the realities and vagaries of the Quadrennial Defense Review and the NDP sausage-making processes from 1997–2010 while in successive positions as a special assistant to the director for strategic plans and policy (J5) on the Joint Staff, a legislative special assistant to the Army vice chief of staff, as a special assistant to the commander–U.S. Central Command, and as a special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The opinions expressed in this commentary represent his own views and are not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the United States government.

 

Photo credit: Phil Roeder