The QDR Has Landed, Sort Of

March 1, 2006

Washington, D.C., Feb. 16, 2006

In times past, the Pentagon’s big “quadrennial” reviews of US forces, weapons, and strategy provided specificity. Service force structure was projected in some detail. After the 1993, 1997, and 2001 reviews, the Air Force was authorized the equivalent of 20 fighter wings, a certain number of bombers, and so on. The same was true for the other services.

Things are different now. The Bush Administration’s new Quadrennial Defense Review, unveiled on Feb. 6, put forth what it called a “refined” force-planning standard, but left hazy the actual size of the future force itself. Unlike the three previous QDRs, this one contained some puzzling gaps.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has kept in place a major provision of the previous planning standard—the requirement for forces able to win two near-simultaneous conventional campaigns (formerly known as “Major Theater Wars”)—even as he puts more emphasis on homeland defense and combat with terrorist networks. The question is: What forces will be available to support this broad national defense strategy

The lack of detailed information has raised questions about the sufficiency of the force. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) asserts the QDR was “a budget-driven exercise.” Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is leading an effort to sort out what he sees as “actual” force requirements, as opposed to what the White House is willing to finance.

The QDR reports that the Air Force will organize itself around “86 combat wings.” That number, however, covers all operational categories—fighter, bomber, transport, tanker, ISR, battle management, command and control, air operations center, space, and missile. Nowhere did the QDR break out what has always been the key category—wing equivalents of fighter-attack aircraft.

DOD now thinks in terms of broad “capabilities,” rather than specific forces. The 92-page QDR document mentions 10 categories. USAF is particularly deeply engaged in Joint Air Capabilities, Joint Mobility Capabilities, Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance, and Tailored Deterrence.

  • Joint Air Capabilities. Within this grouping, the QDR elevates long-range strike aircraft over fighters. The relevant section of the final report says US airpower “must be reoriented” to emphasize “systems that have far greater range and persistence; larger and more flexible payloads; … and the ability to penetrate and sustain operations in denied areas.”

The QDR calls for a new land-based, long-range strike system by 2018. The goals are ambitious. The report says that, by 2025, the Air Force will increase LRS capabilities by 50 percent and the “penetrating component” of LRS by “a factor of five.” Yet no one seems able to state publicly the basis of the latter figure. When queried, top Pentagon official Ryan Henry said, “Specifically, how one’s going to do it, we don’t have the answers right now.”

The QDR says nothing at all about fighter force structure. What we do know is that the Pentagon has cut the F-22 program in half, dropping it from the 381 fighters the Air Force said it needed to only 183, and suggests reductions in the F-35 program.

  • Joint Mobility Capabilities. The Pentagon said it plans to acquire 180 C-17s (fewer than anticipated by many observers) and 112 upgraded C-5s. DOD is also said to be “considering” the acquisition of a future KC-X aerial tanker to replace its old fleets of KC-135s. Even so, the QDR noted it would “continue to pursue enabling technologies” for innovative logistics ideas such as sea-basing of forces, which would leave open the question of the future size of the fleet. The Pentagon maintains that a combination of sea-basing, overseas presence, enhanced long-range strike, “reachback” capabilities, and pre-positioning of combat gear all will influence the size of the mobility force.
  • ISR Capabilities. The Pentagon is putting lots of chips on unmanned aerial systems. It wants the Air Force to buy 13 Global Hawks over the next two years, phasing out its manned U-2 fleet as unmanned systems grow in strength. USAF will be increasing the size of its Predator UAS fleet but to an unspecified level. The QDR is equally vague about USAF’s other ISR assets.
  • Tailored Deterrence. In the field of long-range nuclear forces, the QDR report announces that USAF’s Minuteman III force will take a 10 percent cut, dropping from 500 to 450 ICBMs. Air Force officials said the 50 were “excess to our strategic needs.” Still, Pentagon officials do not specify the future size of the ICBM force, or the Navy’s strategic submarine force, for that matter.

Undoubtedly, the Pentagon knows the specifics of current and future service forces. However, Rumsfeld evidently wishes to play down these specifics as he moves to reshape the US military and the part played by each service.

The QDR, in fact, recommends that spending be structured by joint capability area rather than by specific service. Undersecretary of Defense Kenneth J. Krieg, DOD’s top acquisition official, wishes to find a way to buy systems on a joint basis, rather than by service. Defense officials soon will experiment along these lines in the area of ISR, logistics, and command and control.

It could be that the Pentagon is following an internal timetable and may yet provide complete force structure data. That certainly would be a good thing, because, without such information, it is not possible to assess the Pentagon’s power to carry out the national defense strategy.

Congress should insist that Rumsfeld provide the kind of force structure data it has required in the past. Until he does so, his comprehensive defense assessment can’t really be assessed. The only grade we can give it is “incomplete.”