Au Revoir QDR


Whatever version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) emerges from the House-Senate conference process later this year, it seems likely that the 20-year old Quadrennial Defense Review process will be replaced by something else. Rather than confront a strategic planning process that is already partially baked when he or she walks in the door, the next secretary of defense may have to design one from the ground up.

The final House version of the NDAA largely preserves the current portfolio of Pentagon strategy documents: the quadrennial requirement for a national defense strategy; the annual program guidance on the secretary’s investment priorities, which defense components use to develop their yearly budget proposals; biannual guidance to the chairman of the joint chiefs regarding planning required for major contingencies; and transmittal of these policy and guidance documents to congressional defense committees in February (aligned with the submission of the president’s annual budget). All of these strategy documents are currently produced by the Pentagon. The key difference is the formal requirement to submit the latter two elements for Congressional scrutiny, which the administration’s Statement of Administration Policy notes serious reservations about. We agree with these reservations. Congress ought to hold the secretary of defense accountable for the results of his or her guidance to the military services and to the chairman, rather than review these internal documents in real-time. That latter course would not only undermine the secretary, but also surely cause unproductive bureaucratic chicanery stemming both from the anticipation of leaks and attempts to game Congressional reactions. The House also changes the approach of the typical independent review of the QDR by requiring a new Commission on the National Defense Strategy to launch in parallel to the internal Pentagon process and submit its final report two months before the Department of Defense presents its new strategy.

The Senate Armed Services Committee version of the NDAA proposes much more significant changes. It would:

  1. Replace a quadrennial requirement with an annual national defense strategy;
  2. Direct that the annual strategy report be classified (with an unclassified summary);
  3. Require that an outside National Defense Panel be conducted every four years to review the completed defense strategy (starting in 2017).

The Senate bill’s requirements for the defense strategy (articulation of highest priority missions, description of enduring threats and the strategies the Department of Defense will employ to counter them, a strategic framework for how the Pentagon will prioritize among competing threats and missions, and the primary investment vectors for capabilities, readiness, posture, and innovation) are generally consistent, if more streamlined, than the current provisions. What is crucially different other than classification is the timeline, mandating that the new secretary submit a defense strategy as soon as possible after his or her appointment and then annually thereafter.

Between both of us, we have participated in all the most recent Pentagon strategy reviews, and are rather pleased by the strong prospect of reform in how the Pentagon conducts strategic reviews. As discussed in our first column, one of the major drawbacks with the QDR process has been the tendency for the Pentagon to develop it as an unclassified expression of the national defense strategy — this is, we believe, the root of its perceived failure as a core driver of actual Pentagon strategy. While most of the meetings, analysis, and war-gaming that undergirds any QDR are classified, the time and attention taken to produce a public document targeted to the American people, allies, partners, and even potential adversaries, virtually ensures that the QDR as a document is unable to be employed inside the Pentagon as a key lever for the secretary of defense. Moreover, while other classified strategy documents are developed (annual program guidance, biannual contingency planning guidance, etc.) that draw from the classified analysis used to produce QDRs, the unclassified nature of the final document virtually ensures that a tremendous amount of manpower and senior-leader bandwidth was employed in waging semantic battles to translate classified analysis to unclassified rhetoric, and then often to translate the final unclassified report back into useful classified guidance. We don’t think this was the most useful way for senior Pentagon leaders or their expert staff to spend their time, nor was it apparently all that useful for the secretary of defense (we’ve asked around).

But QDRs have not been useless exercises. At their best, QDRs have been effective public expressions of Pentagon strategy and priorities. When one reviews all the QDRs together (including the 1993 Bottom-Up Review), they are quite remarkable historical snapshots of how Pentagon leaders saw the strategic environment, the major operational challenges facing the U.S. military, and the necessary programmatic investments needed to address them. Amidst what is likely some bureaucratic filler – yes, people count the number of times certain key words appear – you can see the fingerprints of prior secretaries insisting that their priorities receive top-billing. This is no small contribution. QDRs and their underlying processes have helped spur several notable shifts in defense strategy, including:

  • Increasing special operations forces throughout the post-9/11 period;
  • The importance of stability operations and counterinsurgency;
  • Expanding the prominence of security assistance and advising missions;
  • Formalizing the understanding of the anti-access and area-denial threat;
  • Expanding the number and role of unmanned systems;
  • Describing the need to invest in greater overseas defense posture in the Asia-Pacific; and
  • Adding momentum to the need for comprehensive defense reform.

Moreover, most of these strategic shifts can be detected across different QDRs and across Democratic and Republican administrations, reflecting a modicum of a bipartisan consensus on key defense strategy issues.

But in a time of tight resources, ongoing wars, and a rapidly changing security environment, we think the Senate is on the right track by explicitly requiring a classified national defense strategy with the key elements described above. Both of these elements should help the Pentagon’s strategy review process shift toward a top-down exercise akin to the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, rather than a least-common-denominator product of the bureaucracy.

If a version of the NDAA is passed that includes most of what the Senate has proposed, we would advise the next secretary of defense to do several things. First, plan to submit the first National Defense Strategy as a classified report in spring of 2017, which the congressional defense committees can use to evaluate the president’s FY2018 budget submission. If the incumbent Secretary has just taken office, this will be a tight timeline indeed, but we judge possible, particularly if the president-elect’s and Pentagon transition efforts are structured properly. There is no reason that the classified national defense strategy as required by Congress needs to be an epically long report like a QDR. To be useful as a core guidance document, the national defense strategy ought to be relatively concise and shaped by frank discussions at the senior-most level. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, which was developed with intensive involvement of the president and defense senior leaders, is a good model for length and style. There are plenty of opportunities to express a strong unclassified version of the strategy, not least of which are the annual budget hearings where the secretary testifies before Congressional defense committees.

Second, the next secretary ought to use the defense strategy as a management tool. This was not possible for the QDR given its unclassified nature, but it should be possible for the new national defense strategy. Its classified nature will allow it to do several things that would be useful for the Secretary, for instance:

  • Be clear about the most pressing strategic threats to the United States, including specific areas of concern regarding the rise of China, Russia’s revanchism, and the nature of the global terrorism threat.
  • Give specific guidance regarding priorities and risk allocation. For instance, the NDS could formally articulate that China is the military pacing threat, and require that major program investments be applicable to Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) challenges. A definitive articulation of where to place greater emphasis, where to sustain focus, and where to take risk is a must.
  • Describe in specific ways how the secretary intends to balance overseas posture and long-range power projection.
  • Identify specific operational challenges that require shifts in Pentagon planning. This could include guidance on defense planning scenarios; major vectors for force development; and clear expectations for the development of new concepts of operation.
  • Give specific guidance for ongoing conflicts, including both Afghanistan and the counter-ISIL campaign.
  • Convey specific decisions regarding how the Secretary intends to manage the defense enterprise. For instance, the Secretary could issue implementation guidance once the NDS is final that identifies which senior Pentagon leader (e.g. the under secretary for policy, the deputy secretary, the chairman) will have responsibility and accountability for key elements of the strategy.

Third, though we note the Pentagon’s strong objections, the annual requirement ought to be taken seriously by the Pentagon and not interpreted as a call for minor yearly updates. If the Secretary utilizes the NDS as a management tool, the annual requirement would be an excellent justification for pressing for oversight and accountability across the defense enterprise. It would offer a real-time opportunity for validation of priorities and expressions of the secretary’s strategic intent, end needless debate on whether the strategy is still relevant given changes in the security environment, and give an oft-needed imprimatur to the development of annual defense planning guidance. For instance, if the NDS articulates a pressing need to develop new opportunities for a forward defense posture in the Asia-Pacific, and there are no meaningful developments over the year, this would be a useful flag for the secretary and the chairman. Or if the NDS formally requires the Air Force and Navy to prioritize ways to push unmanned systems into long-range strike roles, and a year goes by with no change, the secretary would have an obvious rationale to press for reasons why.

Finally, because the Senate bill mandates transmittal of the classified NDS to Congress, this strikes us as potentially opening a new opportunity for Pentagon and Congressional leaders to develop a closer and more meaningful partnership. Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for open and public scrutiny of the Pentagon’s budget and activities via the regular process, but the annual requirement of a classified strategy would be an important opportunity for the secretary to have a regular, structured, and, by definition, frank engagement with Congressional leaders over specific and sensitive strategic choices and operational threats facing the United States. We aren’t so naïve as to believe that a requirement to submit a classified strategy would, by itself, constitute a sea change in Pentagon-Congressional relations, but we do believe that if the secretary of defense shapes the annual NDS process adroitly, he or she could use it as tool to gain buy-in from key Congressional leaders and staff to the Pentagon’s overall agenda.

As the House and Senate versions of the NDAA proceed into conference over the coming months, and as the defense community crosses its collective fingers that a bill will actually be passed this year, we are cautiously optimistic that the changes to the Pentagon’s strategy development process contained in the Senate version will be a part of the final legislation. If this comes to pass, it will be important that the Pentagon and the presidential transition teams take full stock of what the new National Defense Strategy requirement is, and the potential it holds to improve the important business of defense planning.


Shawn Brimley is the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security. Mr. Brimley served in the Pentagon as Special Advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and at the White House as Director for Strategic Planning on the National Security Council staff. He contributed to the 2010 QDR, the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, and the 2014 report of the National Defense Panel.

Loren DeJonge Schulman is the Deputy Director of Studies and Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Ms. Schulman left the White House in 2014 after serving as Senior Advisor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. She has also worked as Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Director for Defense Policy and Strategy on the National Security Council Staff, and as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. She contributed to the 2010 QDR, the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, and the 2014 QDR.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joshua J. Seybert