Quadrennial Defense Review Resonance

Since its publication Feb. 3, the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review has been severely criticized by commentators ranging from The Washington Post’s editorial board to former Bush administration officials and neocons to moderates and progressives.

The most frequent complaints are that the review fails to make tough decisions on canceling weapons or increasing U.S. ground forces facing the most severe strain since the all-volunteer military was created in the 1970s.

I tend to share these sentiments. Despite worthy initiatives to increase support for unmanned aerial vehicles, special operations forces, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) response teams, the review fell short.

But the nearly uniform and severe criticism of this QDR goes too far. In fact, it is a solid if somewhat uninspired document—not Mr. Rumsfeld’s finest work, but still a reasonable basis for future defense planning.

To assess a QDR fairly, one first needs to remember that in government, unlike in think tank work or punditry, it is often better to promote boring but sound policies rather than flashy but poorly conceived proposals. In the writing world, we are scored for our creativity and our boldness, and being wrong once or twice is OK if every so often a really good idea comes along. In making official government policy, the tables are turned—especially on national defense.

Indeed, for this reason I believe Mr. Rumsfeld’s legacy on Iraq will be more bad than good—the boldness and creativity of his invasion plan was vindicated, but the poor preparation for the post-invasion operation has cost the country dearly. In the Olympics, one brilliant success followed by a bad run may get you a gold medal. In military affairs, it does not.

But in fairness, if Mr. Rumsfeld is to be evaluated thus for his war plans, a similar logic would suggest he not be judged too harshly for an over-cautious QDR. It is also only fair to remember the good flashy ideas he helped promote in the past—a new style of warfare in Afghanistan, a new global basing posture, major changes in how the Navy and Air Force deploy their forces, support for the Shinseki/Schoomaker modernization of the Army, a successful base closure process in 2005. They were already old news by the time this review came around, and thus earned the defense secretary few compliments, but they should not be forgotten.

On insufficient ground forces, several points need to be made. I believe we have badly overstrained the Army and Marine Corps, and should have increased their ranks substantially. But this decision was needed in 2003 or 2004 at the latest.

It is getting very late to introduce such a policy, at least on a major scale, for two reasons:

  1. There is good reason to hope the Iraq deployment will begin to wind down soon.
  2. Even if we started a crash effort now to expand the size of the ground forces, little could be accomplished before 2008, when the U.S. presence in Iraq will almost certainly have been dramatically scaled back.

Scoring Mr. Rumsfeld historically, the decision not to increase the ground forces back then may be judged a major mistake. But for this QDR, it is a less serious oversight. And in fairness, it must be said that due to the incredible patriotism and commitment of our men and women under arms, the ground forces—while enormously strained—are holding up better than most would have predicted. I still favor an increase in the Army and Marines, but the notion it will fundamentally relieve an overstretched force is harder and harder to sustain.

As for weapons systems, it is true virtually everything survived the review — the F22 and F35 jets, DDX destroyer, V22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, Virginia Class submarine, and so on. This is regrettable; there is not enough money to fund them all. Again, two counterbalancing points need to be made:

  1. There is a serious military argument, even in today’s world, for every weapon listed above. For example, while the F22 is often described as a fighter designed to combat Soviet combat aircraft and air defenses that no longer exist, it is insurance against a rapidly improving Chinese military that may someday wind up in conflict with Taiwan (and thus, quite likely, America). And the F35 provides stealthy attack options for carrier-based operations, as well as operability from land-based runways that may be damaged by accurate enemy missiles in future war.

In my view, the latter program could still have been cut in half — but then something else, costing at least half as much (like new F16s) would have had to be bought to replace aging fighter inventory, reducing theoretical savings more than half.

While it is no excuse, Mr. Rumsfeld’s unwillingness to cancel more procurement programs fits within a long, proud tradition of U.S. defense planners. This QDR was the fifth major defense review since the Soviet Union collapsed (the first four were Dick Cheney’s base force concept of 1992, Les Aspin’s bottom-up review of 1993, William Cohen’s QDR of 1997, and Mr. Rumsfeld’s QDR of 2001). None of these canceled any of the above weapons either, with the exception of Mr. Cheney’s cancellation of the V22, which was later restored.

Indeed, Mr. Rumsfeld’s overall legacy of canceling the Army’s Crusader artillery system, Comanche helicopter, and Navy lower-tier missile defense program would probably rank him about average in cuts among modern Defense secretaries.

There is a probable tendency to protect too many weapons, but it is bipartisan, time-tested and very hard to change.

Indeed, this last point is most striking of all. For all the talk of revolution and radical change, for all the specific new initiatives under Mr. Rumsfeld and his predecessors, we have reached a certain degree of consensus and stability in post-Cold War defense policy reviews. The military that emerges from this QDR will be nearly identical in size and quite similar in structure to what Les Aspin conceived a dozen years ago. The two-war scenario underpinning it has been modified and described in terms of “capabilities based planning” rather than threat-based planning, but is not far from Mr. Cheney’s 1992 proposal.

For Mr. Rumsfeld, a self-styled revolutionary, this may be damning with faint praise. But for a nation that could benefit from a degree of continuity, and bipartisan consensus, in at least one aspect of its public policies, this may not be so bad.