Wars of the QDR

March 1, 2010

One year ago this month, Robert M. Gates took a public shot at the Pentagon’s venerable two-war strategy. The Defense Secretary told National Public Radio he wondered whether it “makes any sense in the 21st century.” The Gates remark looked like a death sentence, but maybe it wasn’t.

Take, for example, the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, issued on Feb. 1. It reports, “Past defense reviews have called for the nation’s armed forces to be able to fight and win two major regional conflicts in overlapping time frames. … This QDR likewise assumes the need for a robust force capable of protecting US interests against a multiplicity of threats, including two capable nation-state aggressors” [emphasis added].

The QDR’s main author, Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, flatly declared, “Our forces, to be sure, will still be able to fight and win two large-scale regional conflicts.”

These remarks are surprising, given Gates’ stated antipathy for the concept. Moreover, the QDR claims elsewhere, “It is no longer appropriate to speak of ‘major regional conflicts’ as the sole or even the primary template for sizing, shaping, and evaluating US forces.” Come again

Clearly, the Pentagon’s new 105-page blueprint of the capabilities and requirements for the military stirs considerable confusion. It is easy to see why. The old “strategy” focused primarily on major conventional-force wars. The new one is a lot mushier—and hard to assess.

The first thing to say is the old two-war “strategy” was not a strategy at all. It was a force-sizing standard, theoretically obligating Washington to keep forces sufficiently large and well-equipped to fight and win two big conventional wars at more or less the same time. It was put in place in the early 1990s and has survived numerous reviews since then.

For nearly two decades, the standard justified the number and types of aircraft, ships, tanks, and other weapons the services acquired. It also helped keep budget-cutters at bay.

With this QDR, the Pentagon does not so much abandon the concept as it de-emphasizes it and swaddles it in complexity. It concedes the need but says defense planning should encompass a wide range of other scenarios, such as irregular warfare with insurgents, high-end wars in cyber and space domains, and terrorist attacks with weapons of mass destruction.

“You may have to do not just two major conflicts,” Gates explained, “but a broad range of other things, as well, or perhaps in the future one of those conflicts and then a number of other contingencies.” He called the old way “too confining.” To quote Ms. Flournoy, DOD is “break[ing] from the post-Cold War focus on canonical conventional wars.”

Fair enough. The argument, however, is not so much with this basic concept—on which there is fairly wide agreement—but about the force levels and budgets proposed to go with it.

The QDR forecasts an Army of 73 brigade combat teams; a Navy of 10 or 11 carriers and wings and 53 to 55 attack subs; a Marine Corps of four divisions and air wings; and special operations forces comprising 660 teams, three Ranger battalions, and 165 mobility and fire support aircraft. That is roughly today’s force.

As for the Air Force, the QDR projects, among other things, a force structure of 16 to 17 fighter wing equivalents, of which six are air superiority FWEs and the others theater strike types. That’s a reduction of three to four wings from the last published force list, which some years ago approved 20 FWE.

In short, the Pentagon seems to have substantially expanded the mission set, even as it trims a military force already considered to be too small for the two-war strategy.

Defense officials seem to recognize the problem. The solution, in Gates’ words, is a military force of “maximum versatility across the widest possible spectrum of conflict.”

To gain all of this new versatility, the QDR directs emphasis on “enablers” such as a new air-sea battle concept, long-range strike, space and cyberspace improvements, and targeted “investments” to “rebalance” the armed forces in ways that expand their capabilities to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as other places.

The plan has gotten a lukewarm reception in Congress, where Democrats and Republicans alike complained it lacks priorities and calls for too few forces to meet the future threats and missions envisioned. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, opined that Gates was seeking a force “capable of being all things in all contingencies.”

Others contend the Pentagon, in its determination to win irregular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, neglects US conventional forces—a charge with which Gates takes what he calls “the strongest possible issue.”

Unfortunately, the protean nature of the new force-planning construct resists detailed analysis—at least by the public. The QDR does not quantify the number and types of contingencies for which US forces must prepare, and thus there is no yardstick against which to measure the fielded force.

According to a Jan. 28 dispatch from InsideDefense.com, an online news service, DOD has written “a classified QDR annex,” with which “the Office of the Secretary of Defense” might be able to “exercise a stronger hand” in service equipment plans. The article quotes an unnamed service official as saying, “I think it [the new QDR] denies the military departments an algebraic formula for explaining their needs.”

We hope the matter of force structure does not end here. We note that Congress has mandated an assessment of the new QDR by an independent 20-member panel of military and foreign policy heavyweights. According to a Pentagon release, the group will be “assessing the QDR, its recommendations, stated and implied assumptions, and any vulnerabilities of the strategy and force structure underlying the report.”

In our view, that classified annex would make an excellent place to start.