Pushing the QDR Envelope

April 4, 2013—There’s an opportunity for the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review to be a real forum for debate and discussion about the roles, missions, and capabilities that the armed services provide to the defense of the nation, the Air Force’s representative to the study is saying.

The question is, will the Pentagon embrace the moment or allow the QDR—which is due to Congress next February—to devolve into just another budget drill driven by service interests.

In recent weeks, Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast, Air Force QDR representative, has made a series of public appearances arguing the need for both a full-throated articulation of “air-minded” solutions in the upcoming review and a rethink of some long-held assumptions about goals, roles, and missions for the US military.

“This is not about us protecting the Air Force. This is about us protecting the nation,” said Kwast during a March 20 address sponsored by AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies in Arlington, Va.

He added that the Pentagon’s leaders need to have the “flexibility” to have a conversation that is not bound by dogma or past assumptions about roles and missions.

The QDR has been a staple of Pentagon policy planning since the 1990s when Congress mandated its creation. The 2014 iteration comes along at a unique time for the country and the Pentagon, said Kwast.

Today, the United States is drawing down from Afghanistan, shifting many of its strategic assets to the Asia-Pacific region, and grappling with some very harsh fiscal realities. All of these shifts are combining to present an “opportunity to have a significant conversation” about the defense of the United States and its interests, said Kwast on March 15 to a gathering of reporters in Washington, D.C.

The 2014 QDR will be the first review to follow the January 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, said Kwast. As such, it serves as an “inflection point” for political leadership and military leaders to match up strategy with programmatic detail, he said.

For example, the QDR could define in more detail the way forward on ideas such as AirSea Battle and the Joint Staff’s Joint Operational Access Concept, as well as other initiatives for dealing with anti-access challenges, said Kwast.

These concepts represent the Defense Department’s “effort to codify the fact that we are still on this journey from a Cold War structure of military capability, and shaping it into a structure that has more agility, resilience, and flexibility,” he said.

The old Cold War force structure is on its way out, as the nation’s strategy has shifted and its fiscal resources become more constrained, said Kwast.

The force sizing construct for the QDR has also shifted in the last decade from one built around building a force capable of defeating adversaries in two simultaneous wars, to one where the military is expected to defeat one foe and “deny” the objectives of others,” he said.

“That statement is an acknowledgement of something we’ve always done . . . to try and influence other participants in this global community,” said Kwast on March 15.

“The fact that that conversation is in [the strategic guidance] is a reflection of budgets and changes in strategy,” he said. “The ability to be able to use different approaches to deny a potential adversary their objectives can give you more flexibility.”

While there has been some pushback against ideas such as AirSea Battle, Kwast said the QDR is an opportunity to show these are new approaches to old problems, and to take the idea of “joint” approaches to a new level of thinking.

AirSea Battle, and other ideas for overcoming anti-access challenges are attempts to arrive at cross-domain solutions that don’t break down between the land, sea, and air components neatly, he said.

“This is where we need to go,” said Kwast. “Our enemies operate in these spaces that are not linear. . . . Our ability to adjust to that reality is the essence to what you are seeing, and the QDR will put more programmatic steps into this process,” he added.

At AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., in late February, Kwast said the Air Force is not exempt from hard thinking about its missions and roles. There are some creative approaches to old problems the service “has not yet embraced,” which could come out of the QDR, he said.

The “tapestry of capability” currently fielded is “unsustainable” in the current long-term strategic and fiscal environment, he said.

Service officials, for example, should divorce the idea of global vigilance from the assumption that a new platform or aircraft solution is needed, said Kwast. New technology could enable better ways of prosecuting this mission, and there may be new concepts for global reach to get materiel and personnel where they need to go faster, he said.

Kwast said he is hopeful about the prospects of a fruitful QDR, but realizes that the review could become a budget fight.

“You hope it won’t come down to that,” he told the Daily Report after his March 20 Mitchell talk.

The idea is to address these issues “with an open mind,” but the reality is the national strategy is being reassessed in a tight budget environment—and the Air Force should be prepared to make its case, he said.

“I have a knife in my back pocket,” said Kwast. “But I hope I won’t have to use it. We’re not so naïve to think that’s not a possibility. But what’s the point of this exercise unless you’re willing to take an innovative approach?”

A budget battle won’t get us “where we need to go,” he said.