Every four years, the Department of Defense issues its Quadrennial Defense Review, a comprehensive vision statement outlining the nation’s defense priorities and strategies for meeting them.
The document is always revealing. It provides a look at how the Pentagon sees the world and how it intends to move forward. The 1996 review, for instance, is remembered for its shift in strategy from preparing for one big war (an artifact of the Cold War) to two medium-sized conflicts. The 2006 review is widely viewed as the last gasp of the Donald H. Rumsfeld Pentagon to lock in its technology-focused agenda.
Now comes the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, released Monday. How will history remember this version? What will be the memorable take-away, the driving vision laid out for the military, for Americans and for the world?
I have read it multiple times, and I still don’t know. The closest to a summary I can come to is this: We plan to do what we do now, but we’ll try to do it a little bit better. That’s probably not what was intended.
Producing such a document is a huge logistical challenge. It is written over the course of a year by more than 700 contributors, coming from offices and agencies across the Defense Department. They don’t just contribute but also compete, with interest groups fighting to ensure that their visions (and slice of the budget) are highlighted in the final document.
The 2010 review is notable for its comprehensiveness. It captures the magnitude of the challenges that the U.S. military must plan and prepare for today, from fighting a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan to earthquake aid efforts in Haiti, all while keeping an eye on rising powers of uncertain intent. The document also does a good job of highlighting areas that typically get short shrift in defense policy discussions. It notes, for example, the need to better support service members and their families, with a special focus on wounded warriors — fulfilling commitments that the commander in chief made when running for office.
Yet, for such an important effort, the report disappoints in two key areas. The first is that of vision. Washington insiders may care about which widget got mentioned or that the concept of preparing to fight two medium-sized wars was smartly dropped in favor of more flexible options. But the quadrennial review offered a far more important opportunity that was missed. President Obama has made a forward-looking, positive vision of America’s role in the world a centerpiece of his policy goals, and the Pentagon could have used the review to expand on that vision as it pertains to national security.
Instead, the 2010 review offers more a series of agenda items than a comprehensive vision. Even more, most of these items are belated ones that should have been worked out since the 2006 version. There is no thread that links it all together, no broader framework that lays out the journey we are on, the challenges we face and, most important, what we must do to end up at our target destination.
Part of the problem is a lack of specificity. Only in some areas of the review (such as acquisitions reform or aid for wounded warriors) are clear goals set, with definable targets. Yet, having specific metrics is crucial for the document to have any sort of staying power. If a problem area is important enough to mention in America’s primary defense policy document, then we should identify and commit to actual targeted goals to face it.
Consider the energy issue. The report takes the bold step of identifying the security risks of energy dependence, as well as arguing that reducing nonrenewable energy use by the Department of Defense is essential to bolstering national security. But the document doesn’t set any goals or establish new policies to meet this need. Should military fossil-fuel use be reduced by 5%? By 10%? By when and how?
This happens in far too many sections of the review. The report identifies numerous key priorities for action, including long-range strike aircraft, personnel policy changes, cyber-warfare and the defense industrial base, but on far too many of them, it steps back from identifying how, when and where we are going to act on them.
Without an overall vision, and without hard targets to drive change internally, I fear that many critical issues laid out in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review will remain in need of action when we revisit them four years from now.
At the end of the day, as we all know thorny national security issues don’t just involve the military; political-military considerations invariably bleed into them. If the senior military’s leadership views are going to be just constrained to military advice … who is thinking about issues from that broader perspective?