Executive Summary: Planning for the Future: How and Why to Salvage the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review

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Executive Summary: Planning for the Future: How and Why to Salvage the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review

January 4, 2010 3 min read Download Report

Authors: Mackenzie Eaglen and Jim Talent

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"If you want peace, prepare for war," Vegetius, a military scholar of the later Roman Empire, advised the rulers of Rome as they were thinking about how to prepare their military. Vegetius had lived through Alaric's sack of Rome, which had humiliated the once super-powerful Romans. This experience is a warning to current planners as well.

The Pentagon needs to heed this object lesson as it builds the next Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the major defense strategy that delineates how the U.S. will structure its armed forces. The QDR should outline the Pentagon's threat assessments, military strategy, force structure proposals, and budgetary plans, and it should establish a road map for defense programs that will prepare for the next 20 years. Because defense policy is subordinate to foreign policy, the strategy should take its cue from the President's National Security Strategy.

Merely preparing for war is not enough; the United States must prepare well. Many policy analysts agree that the QDR has historically provided an inadequate and often tendentious blueprint for how to organize for tomorrow. Previous QDRs have been criticized for being too budget-driven, shortsighted, and politically motivated. They have repeatedly failed to identify priorities, consider the full spectrum of possible security threats, and outline programs and budgets consistent with the broader foreign policy objectives of America's leaders.

There are signs that the forthcoming QDR, due in February 2010, could be similarly shortsighted. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has indicated that he intends to reduce force structure to levels that are inconsistent with the nation's security commitments, focus investment on a limited number of threats, and mortgage future military capabilities to pay for today's battles under the flawed assumption that America will likely never again face a conventional enemy. Vegetius, with his charge to skillfully prepare for the unexpected, would never have condoned such excessive optimism, especially not in the face of the rise of sophisticated military powers potentially hostile to U.S. allies and interests.

A flawed QDR could be used for years to justify policies that lead to a weakened and underprepared military. A misguided strategy could, for example, lead to a repeat of the procurement holiday and defense cuts of the 1990s and harm America's ability to deter war or, if necessary, to fight and win.

However, Congress can still salvage the overall process. With some revisions, the QDR could become the trusted defense strategy that Congress originally intended. Congress has expanded QDR oversight by adding political appointees to the independent panel that reviews the strategy, but Congress should appoint the entire panel in the future--as opposed to the Secretary of Defense appointing a majority-- to ensure that the group provides a truly unconstrained assessment. Furthermore, by correlating the QDR more closely with the White House's official foreign policy guidance, increasing buy-in from Congress, ensuring that the process is not purely budget-driven, and addressing both short-term and long-term national security risks, Congress can avoid past mistakes and ensure that America not only prepares for war, but prepares well.

Salvaging the QDR Process.Historically, the QDR process has had many shortcomings. If the 2010 QDR turns out as critics fear, it will be yet another departure from Congress's original intent in procedure, substance, and effect. However, Congress can still salvage the process for determining America's defense strategy.

Congress should go back to the basics and consider changing next year's defense authorization bill process so that the QDR:

  • Follows from the National Security Strategy;
  • Is informed by the budget process, but not driven by it;
  • Evaluates both short-term and long-term risks;
  • Considers the implications for the defense industrial base and its ability to carry out the strategy;
  • Includes significant input from acquisition personnel on the feasibility of executing the strategy;
  • Promotes the maintenance of a substantial margin of technological superiority;
  • Expands, not reduces, the two-war construct; and
  • Improves congressional buy-in, and Congress should establish a permanent national defense panel.

Conclusion. By most accounts, past QDRs have been flawed, unrealistic, and of little practical value, leading many to conclude the process is broken. Congress can salvage the QDR process through thoughtful revisions and by reinforcing these guiding principles. Ultimately, the QDR should encourage the President, Congress, and the Department of Defense to think strategically about the nation's military and to prepare the military to fulfill its role as a deterrent of aggression, protector of liberty, and instrument of global security.

As Vegetius argued and history corroborates, if a nation's leaders wish for peace, they should scrupulously and painstakingly prepare for war, taking nothing for granted. Congress needs to ensure that the QDR does the same.

The Honorable James Talent is Distinguished Fellow in Military Affairs at The Heritage Foundation and served as a U.S. Senator from 2002 to 2007. Mackenzie Eaglen is Research Fellow for National Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.


Mackenzie Eaglen
Mackenzie Eaglen

Senior Research Fellow

Jim Talent
Jim Talent

F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy