The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review

Today’s U.S. military, now nearly through its post-cold war drawdown, has enough funds to meet its year-to-year needs for the rest of the 1990s. But most of the defense equipment purchased in large quantities in the 1970s and 1980s will soon need to be replaced or refurbished. The administration’s weapons procurement spending, slated to rise to $50 billion in 2002 from its current level of $45 billion (in constant 1997 dollars), will probably be about $15 billion short of what the joint chiefs, secretary of defense, Congressional Budget Office, and several independent analysts believe is needed. There are ways to redress this looming budget shortfall without abandoning U.S. friends or interests. Most notably, the Pentagon is too pessimistic about the likely requirements for waging wars in Korea and the Persian Gulf region. Given improved U.S. airpower, the enhanced pre-stationing of U.S. military equipment in both those regions, and the continued deterioration of the North Korean and Iraqi threats, somewhat smaller U.S. ground force capabilities would be adequate. The Air Force and Navy can get by with fewer of the new systems they are now purchasing-notably, the F-22 fighter, F/A-18 E/F fighter, and DDG-51 destroyer. Economies are also possible in nuclear forces, though the possibility of deploying a light nationwide missile defense in the next decade needs to be factored into budget plans. It may be possible to realize several billion dollars a year in further savings from privatizing defense support functions like equipment and base maintenance. But these savings will probably be canceled out by added costs from contingency operations and other unforeseeable events.


For the third time in this decade, the Pentagon is undertaking a major strategic reassessment. In light of the frequency with which they have been occurring, one might be forgiven for a ho-hum reaction to this one, known as the quadrennial defense review (QDR). After all, it was precipitated neither by a major geopolitical event nor by a changing of the guard at the White House. And deficit pressures, while real, do not appear severe enough to force policymakers to raid the same discretionary spending accounts that have borne the brunt of budget cutting to date.

But to give up on the QDR would be to relinquish an important opportunity. Looked at another way, the 1993 bottom-up review (BUR) occurred too soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union and Desert Storm to give those who devised it a balanced perspective on what policymakers would really ask out of the post-cold war Pentagon.

We are now more than six years into the new era. The Clinton BUR strategy was a reasonable first approximation to guide what the U.S. military should look like as we enter the twenty-first century. But policymakers should not be afraid to acknowledge that it has some shortcomings. Still, the needed repairs are of modest scale. Critics sometimes argue that the BUR’s basic principles and today’s military should be largely scrapped, to be replaced by new technologies and new types of military forces or by a number of dedicated peacekeeping units or some other major alteration. But geopolitical, technical, and organizational realities raise warning flags about any such approach.

The much-touted revolution in military affairs is not unprecedented; such revolutions have been going on throughout this century. It is not clear what is now different about the pace or significance of this one. Even since the advent of blitzkrieg warfare and carrier-based airpower, the following technologies or capabilities have arrived and already been incorporated into modern military forces: radar, helicopters, infrared sensors for guidance and for targeting, laser-guided bombs, laser rangefinders, high-performance jet engines, stealth technology, autonomous and accurate missiles, reconnaissance satellites, and the modern high-speed computer (not to mention thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles). Are the munitions, sensors, and integrated communications systems now being developed or produced of even greater significance? That seems doubtful. Gradual adaptation rather than wholesale rebuilding of defense may be a wiser way to carry out this particular ‘revolution.’

Likewise, although today’s military has experienced strains and revealed shortcomings in its efforts to carry out various peacekeeping or low-intensity combat operations, it has displayed professionalism, sound tactics, and appropriate discipline and discretion in Bosnia, Haiti, and even Somalia. (There, the mission’s major shortcomings were due to a flawed policy for which some national military leaders shared responsibility, not to the tactics and operations of troops on the ground.)

What is more, no single dominating mission seems likely to confront tomorrow’s U.S. armed forces. A number will be important. Ongoing hot spots in Korea and the Persian Gulf, as well as the Western Pacific and South China Sea, cannot be ignored. Nor can potential geostrategic competition with a future ‘peer rival.’ China is perhaps the most likely candidate to fill such a role but is at least two decades from being able to do so. Peace operations, disaster relief, and forcible humanitarian interventions also remain important. By playing its part in such missions, the United States helps save lives, makes the world a more stable and generally safer place, and adds to its moral authority.

The Budget Crunch

In addition to pursuing lofty goals, the Pentagon also needs to save money. Its real outlays will be some $20 billion less in 2002 than the 1997 level of $268 billion. The cut would be even sharper under Congress’s 1996 budget resolution. Although savings from ongoing personnel cuts and base closures should be enough to allow a reduction of that amount in DOD’s annual spending, they will not be adequate to boost weapons acquisition spending.

Given current force structure and modernization plans, acquisition spending will need to go up by about $15 billion relative to the level projected for 2002. However, the administration projects procurement spending of only $50 billion that year, as expressed in constant 1997 dollars-just a $5 billion increase.1 Adding in funding for contingency operations such as peacekeeping, as well as money to address specific strains and gaps in today’s military such as shortages of AWACS and Patriot missile crews and active-duty military police, the annual shortfall would reach about $15 billion. Possible deployment of a light nationwide missile defense system would push the shortfall higher still.

Many officials seem to hope that savings from ‘doing business better’ will provide enough money to modernize the force. Specifically, they would like to privatize various defense support functions now carried out by uniformed personnel and DOD’s own civilian employees. Those functions include base and equipment maintenance, military housing, commissaries, health care, internal accounting, and logistics and supply services. Numbers as high as $30 billion in potential annual savings have been bandied about, even from sources as reputable as the Defense Science Board.2 But they are almost surely too optimistic. Indeed, the Defense Science Board issued an earlier report on outsourcing and privatization that held out the goal of just $7 billion to $12 billion in annual savings-and showed how to achieve only a fraction of that amount. Even adding in savings from at least one more major round of base closures, which the QDR should recommend and Congress should authorize, the Pentagon may be able to save only $5 billion a year from ‘doing business better’ (see table on page 4).

It is unrealistic to think that the remaining annual gap of at least $10 billion will be closed by increased defense spending. So real cuts in defense programs or forces will be needed. And they should be found in this year’s QDR process. The reason to get started finding those savings now is that a number of them-such as reducing the size of certain military units or buying fewer of the next-generation aircraft-take time to plan and implement properly. Even though the calendar may still read early 1997, for all practical purposes the Pentagon is already worrying about 1999. And any cuts it decides to make that year will not really kick in until 2000 or 2002. The future, in short, is now.

Today’s Military and the Bottom-Up Review

Current U.S. military force posture has five central characteristics. They follow from both the Pentagon’s 1993 bottom-up review and the nuclear posture review in 1994. The five pillars of the Clinton defense plan are:

  • the ‘two-Desert Storm’ capability; P selective participation in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions;
  • continuous global naval presence; P modernizing weaponry to maintain technological supremacy; and
  • a nuclear force posture with 3,500 strategic warheads (but twice that number until START II is ratified, and perhaps less someday under a START III accord), as well as near-term modernization of theater missile defense.

This policy brief focuses on conventional forces, but it is nevertheless worth mentioning that nuclear force accounts could yield some budgetary savings. The United States could maintain a START II level of 3,500 warheads with only 10 Trident subs, 300 Minuteman III missiles, and the existing B-2 and B-52 bomber fleets. (If it is deemed essential to keep U.S. forces near START I levels until the Russian Duma accedes to START II, the B-1 fleet could again be given a nuclear mission at low additional cost.) About $1.5 billion a year in U.S. nuclear spending could be saved.


    Source of spending or savings

    Average annual outlays
    (billions of constant 1997 dollars)

    Projected defense requirements, 2002 and beyond


    Projected defense spending, 2002 and beyond




        Recommended changes

        Additional base closures, privatizations


        Cheaper nuclear posture


        Reducing active-duty Army and Marines from 13 divisions to 11.5


        Reducing Army National Guard


        Reducing procurement of Aegis-class DDG-51 destroyers by 10 ships


        Scaling back carrier capability to 10 battle groups and 9 air wings


        Restructuring Air Force F-22 fighter program from 438 planes to 150


        Restructuring Navy F/A-18 E/F fighter program from 1,000 planes to 300


        Canceling Marine V-22 tilt-rotor program and buying CH-53 helicopters


        Enhancing pre-positioning and mobility


        Possible contingency operations, missile defenses


        Total savings


          a. Assuming the current BUR force posture.

          b. Current defense spending of $268 billion will decline by 2002 as a result of further personnel cuts and base closures. Also, roughly $5 billion will be shifted from research, development, and testing to procurement by then.

          Rethinking the Major Regional Contingency

          The Pentagon’s current military strategy requires the United States to be able to fight and quickly win two nearly simultaneous wars of a scale approaching that of Desert Storm. The BUR determined that each of these conflicts, termed ‘major regional contingencies,’ would involve a foe comparable in weaponry to Iraq in 1990 and that the foe would win initial battles and seize territory from which it would later need to be driven. It also estimated that winning such a war decisively would require four to five U.S. Army divisions, four to five Marine brigades, ten Air Force wings, and four to five Navy aircraft carrier battle groups-together with the forces of local allies in each theater, as well as unspecified numbers of U.S. special forces and reserve brigades and other smaller units.

          But those U.S. requirements appear inflated. In raw military terms, North Korea and Iraq now pose lesser threats than they did a few years ago. Other plausible foes are either even less capable or less likely to threaten key U.S. interests on short notice. And U.S. forces have improved; in particular, they now have a good deal of equipment stationed in the Persian Gulf region. In that light, what does it take to ensure adequate deterrence and to provide enough warfighting capability should it fail? In most scenarios, probably less than half as much U.S. force as a Desert Storm-like conflict would suffice. Although more than 500,000 American troops were ultimately used to dislodge Iraqi forces from Kuwait, U.S. commanders were confident about being able to defend Saudi Arabia against any attack once they had completed the 200,000-person Desert Shield deployment in October 1990. The main reason is that exposed armor is highly vulnerable to detection and attack by today’s U.S. military. For example, data from the Gulf War experience indicate that a land-based contingent of about 500 U.S. attack aircraft could probably destroy 1,000 moving enemy vehicles per twenty-four-hour period, stopping a ten-division thrust in just a few days if it was deployed in time.

          The chance that large U.S. forces would be needed in two places at once is remote. Rather than prepare for two overlapping major regional contingencies, therefore, the U.S. military could plan based on a ‘Desert Storm plus Desert Shield’ framework. Such an approach would allow the United States to undertake a major war in one theater, including a counterinvasion and occupation of enemy territory if necessary. In the unlikely event war erupted in a second theater at the same time, the United States and allies could hold the line while heavily damaging enemy forces from the air. This approach would not reduce demands on airpower appreciably and would increase demands on lift and pre-positioning (about $2 billion a year in added costs). But ground forces could be reduced. Roughly 11.5 active-duty division equivalents, in contrast to the 13 now in the Army and Marines combined, would appear adequate for these warfighting demands as well as the additional burden of peace operations.

          The services may wish to preserve their current organizational structure on the grounds that ten Army divisions and three Marine divisions provide a greater sense of institutional stability and allow for sounder rotation policies than fewer units would. In that case, they should make existing units smaller. Their long-term plans do propose that ‘the Army after next’ and future Marine Corps be much lighter, more maneuverable, and logistically self-contained. But these visions extend well out into the future. They are conveniently irrelevant to current budget debates. In the meantime, ground units are actually getting more bulky. Army mechanized units are nearly 50 percent heavier than just before Desert Storm. The Marines were prepared to field three divisions with a total of 159,000 active-duty troops under Colin Powell’s and Dick Cheney’s base force, but somehow convinced the Clinton administration that they need 174,000 to do the same job.

          One way or another, the Army and Marines should be able to effect manpower reductions of 10 percent. Corresponding annual savings could ultimately exceed $5 billion. The Army could save at least another billion dollars a year by reducing its National Guard combat units by a substantial margin; they rival active-duty forces in numbers, yet have no clear role in war plans and quite questionable capabilities (see table).

          Operations Other than War

          The authors of the BUR, recognizing that their strategy was quite conservative in light of prevailing geopolitical realities, subsumed peacekeeping and humanitarian missions into the portfolios of Army and Marine divisions, Air Force wings, and Navy ships that were dedicated first and foremost to the two-major war strategy.

          With a ‘Desert Shield plus Desert Storm’ force, however, the margin of insurance would clearly be less than with today’s posture. Fewer forces would be available for major combat operations, and those that were would be needed relatively quickly should serious crises develop simultaneously. Under such circumstances, it would not be prudent to count on units stuck in the mud of Bosnia or the rain forests of Zaire to dig themselves out and redeploy to a regional hot spot.

          Roughly one division of ground forces at a time has been deployed in peace operations and lower-intensity operations over the last four years in destinations that have included Somalia, Zaire, Haiti, and Bosnia. Maintaining such a rate in a comfortable fashion that gives troops adequate time to be at home base and to train requires at least three divisions as a rotation base.

          Fortunately, it is not necessary to cordon off a part of the Army and Marines as the ‘peace operation corps’ and buy roughly three additional divisions for such missions. Indeed, it is not desirable to do so. Peace operations do tax the armed forces differently than warfighting scenarios, often placing a greater premium on military police and special operations forces and certain other units. But they also require many combat skills for deterrence or actual battle. Moreover, although using regular forces for such missions may tend to weaken the skills of some combat maneuver units, it can help exercise many logistics, engineering, and other combat support skills-as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General George Joulwan has recently pointed out.

          By continuing to use the same basic units for peace operations that are also designated for combat missions, the rotation base for the former can come out of units also preparing for the latter. All told, determining ground force requirements through a ‘Desert Storm plus Desert Shield plus Bosnia/IFOR’ framework would lead to a total of some 11.5 divisions in the force. (If the need for additional peace operations arose, the United States could either lobby allies to conduct them, call on its reserves, or risk tapping part of its ‘Desert Storm’ warfighting capability.)

          Maintaining Forward Presence with Aircraft Carriers

          Today the U.S. Navy has eleven active-duty aircraft carriers, a reserve carrier, and ten associated wings of combat aircraft as the chief assets of its power-projection capability.

          The main reason for the Navy still having a carrier fleet that is roughly 85 percent as large as during the cold war is to provide nearly continuous presence in the Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf region, and Western Pacific. To maintain those three deployments takes all eleven carriers (actually, it would take fifteen to ensure complete and continuous coverage, but the Navy tolerates occasional gaps). That is because the Navy, in an attempt to maintain the morale of its crews, prefers not to deploy them for more than six months at a stretch and to ensure that they spend at least half of their time at home. As a result, a given crew and its ships spend six months on deployment (with four or five on station and the rest in transit), six on shore in training, and six conducting either exercises in nearby waters or short deployments. Finally, about once every two-year cycle, the ships are tied up in extensive maintenance or overhaul for several months. Thus five or six carrier battle groups are needed to sustain a single distant deployment.

          The real question is, can current forward presence demands be satisfied with a smaller carrier fleet? The answer is yes. Sending sailors and ships halfway around the world as the Navy does now is inefficient. If possible, it should find a way to homeport a carrier or two in countries like Egypt, Italy, or Australia. (The carrier group homeported in Japan is considered to be on near-constant deployment, even when in port.) If necessary, the Navy should begin to use airlift to shuttle crews to and from some carriers without rotating the ships themselves-a proposal given good reviews by not only the Congressional Budget Office but also the Navy’s own think tank, the Center for Naval Analyses.3 Every two years, ships could return home for major maintenance, while some repairs could be conducted in foreign ports more frequently. Any given crew would train on one ship and conduct its deployment on another (of the same type and class). The Navy already rotates crews on minesweepers; it should extend the practice.

          At a minimum, the Navy should be able to implement this crew-rotation concept right away for much of its destroyer fleet. That would also allow it to curtail procurement of the expensive DDG-51 destroyer within a couple years and get by with no more than forty-seven of these vessels rather than the fifty-seven now planned. That would save roughly $1 billion a year in procurement costs for almost a decade and another $500 million a year in operating costs.

          By also making use of more homeporting overseas or crew-rotation policies, the Navy could scale back carrier capability to ten ships and nine carrier air wings, saving an additional $4 billion a year. And the fleet would remain adequate for responding to regional wars or even to a showdown between Taiwan and China.

          Replacing or Modernizing Equipment

          The U.S. military, still enjoying a ‘procurement holiday’ thanks to the Reagan buildup and the Bush-Clinton drawdown, will soon need to refurbish, replace, or upgrade equipment purchased during the 1970s and 1980s. But not all equipment need be replaced with newer, better stuff. Given the absence of a serious potential adversary, simple replacement can sometimes suffice, especially in areas like air-to-air combat where the U.S. lead is now overwhelming. And in many cases a refurbishment of an existing weapon platform, combined with a modest upgrade to its avionics, munitions, fire-control systems, and communications technology, would itself widen the U.S. lead over any other country. Should competition with China or Russia or another country someday be necessary, that day will probably be at least twenty years in the future-and the generation of weapons now being bought will itself need replacement.

          This philosophy would, if applied carefully, affect a large number of Pentagon procurement programs. The largest savings are those indicated below.

          • Reduce Air Force F-22 program from 438 to 150 planes and build more current-model F-15s. The Air Force’s F-22 air superiority fighter program, while technologically appealing, primarily addresses that facet of U.S. airpower in which further improvements are least needed. Ongoing improvements in air-to-air missiles are much less expensive and adequate to ensure U.S. control of the skies well into the future.

                 That said, it is politically unrealistic and perhaps also unwise to cancel a nearly completed research and development program in which nearly $20 billion has already been invested. The Air Force should instead aim for what former defense secretary Les Aspin called a ‘silver bullet’ force. Buying 150 planes would save about $1.5 billion a year and allow the Air Force to deploy roughly five squadrons of F-22s. That would be enough for continuous wartime aerial patrols as well as raids with several dozen aircraft, making it possible to spearhead an attack spread out across several hundred kilometers and provide fighter cover for attack planes. This approach would also allow full development of F-22 technology needed to complete the much more important joint strike fighter program of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. That program will directly focus on air-to-ground attack, a mission in which the United States was less overwhelmingly dominant in Desert Storm, given the capabilities of Iraqi antiaircraft systems.

          • Reduce Navy F/A-18 E/F program from 1,000 to 300 planes and buy more F/A-18 C/Ds instead. The Navy’s F/A-18 E/F is now entering production, and a huge purchase is planned. Although offering greater range, greater payload, and a somewhat smaller radar cross section than the earlier version of the F/A-18, it does so at great cost. The Navy should be willing to view this aircraft as its ‘silver bullet’ attack aircraft capability, especially since it is a full participant in the joint strike fighter program, which should provide it more affordable, high-performance, and stealthy aircraft in roughly another decade. Taking this approach would also save $1.5 billion a year. With 300 F/A-18 E/Fs, the Navy could deploy roughly one squadron of these fighters, or roughly 20 planes, on each aircraft carrier.
          • Cancel Marine Corps V-22 program and buy CH-53E helicopters instead. The Marine Corps, despite the best efforts of former secretary of defense Richard Cheney, has managed to keep support from Congress and now the Clinton administration for its tilt-rotor aircraft that would transport troops from ship to shore and on the battlefield.

                 The special forces and Navy could still purchase the 100 V-22 aircraft they desire, providing enough planes to handle the types of rapid and deep troop insertion missions in which the V-22’s advantages over the CH-53 would be most notable. But otherwise, this option would have the Marines continue to rely on helicopter troop transport-just as the Army, which also needs to move troops around by air under battlefield conditions, appears content to do. It would save $2 billion a year.


          These are important issues, and difficult decisions will need to be made about a number of them. One advantage to doing so in the course of an overall review is that parochial resistance can be overcome more easily if a climate of shared sacrifice is created. Even if the QDR does not wind up producing a major strategic realignment, it can help the Pentagon get its financial house in order, fine-tune its forces for the distinctive challenges of the post-cold war world, and ensure that defense funds will be available when the need for peace operations and humanitarian interventions arises. A QDR that did as much would more than justify itself.