The 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review: Strategy and Threats

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The 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review: Strategy and Threats

April 20, 2005 6 min read
Jack Spencer
Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom
Jack Spencer oversees research as Vice President for the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity.

Every four years, the Department of Defense, as required by law, conducts a review of its forces, resources, and programs and presents the findings of this Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) to the President and Congress. The QDR provides a basic strategy for addressing critical issues like budget and acquisition priorities, emerging threats, and Pentagon capabilities for the next 20 years. To help guide its strategic thinking during this QDR, the Department of Defense is focusing on four different threats that future military forces must be able to address. This threat matrix reflects Secretary Rumsfeld's intent to shift from a "threats-based" force to a "capabilities-based" force that can meet a range of national security requirements. At a recent conference at The Heritage Foundation, national security and military experts analyzed how the threat matrix approach differs from previous QDRs and whether it is adequate this time around.



The 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review is unique in that it will be accomplished under four unusual conditions: It is the first wartime QDR; it is the first QDR done by a Secretary of Defense who has already led one before; this QDR is the first undertaken when budgets are consistently growing; and this is the first QDR in the post-9/11 environment.


This QDR is based on a new threat matrix. The threats are different kinds of "changing security environments," and the matrix is designed to drive capabilities-based planning. It reflects the reality that conventional warfare is on the decline while the likelihood of unconventional warfare is on the rise. The matrix, as defined by the March 2005 National Defense Strategy, contains these threat components[1]:

  • Irregular Threats: These are challenges arising from the adoption or employment of unconventional methods by non-state and state actors to counter stronger state opponents. Examples include terrorism, insurgency, civil war, etc.
  • Catastrophic Threats: These are challenges involving the surreptitious acquisition, possession, and possible terrorist or rogue-state employment of WMD or methods of producing WMD-like effects.
  • Traditional Threats: These are challenges posed largely by states employing legacy and advanced military capabilities and recognizable military forces, in long-established, well-known forms of military competition and conflict.
  • Disruptive Threats: These are future challenges from competitors developing, possessing, and employing breakthrough technological capabilities intended to supplant our advantages in particular domains of operation.

The Secretary of Defense has also identified four "core problems," closely related to the threat matrix, that the U.S. must be able to address:

  • Partnerships with failing states to defeat international terrorist threats: It is in the U.S. interest to see that world systems are well managed. This may necessarily involve the U.S. in a series of military interventions that will be in some sense elective and a matter of political debate.
  • Defense of the homeland, including offensive strikes against terrorist groups: The United States must be prepared to attack terrorists around the world to prevent attacks on the homeland.
  • Influencing the strategic choices of major countries: Trying to determine the number and kinds of military forces required for this kind of task is very difficult.
  • Preventing proliferation of WMD: This is the one likely war-fighting issue that could require regime-change operations.

One panelist explained that, as these problems are addressed, the U.S. military may evolve in three separate directions: the further development of a high-tech, experimental strike force; an increase in person-power intensive constabulary forces; and a small, residual expeditionary force able to effect regime change. If this happens, war fighting-the primary mission of the armed forces for the last 60 years-will end up only a small part of the overall defense posture. How the defense establishment would react to this fundamental change, as well as changes in the degree of U.S. military superiority and power transitions in the global system, will be important.


A Work in Progress: Some Recommendations

The interaction of all these factors as transformation progresses and the QDR is underway is extremely complex. As the QDR will determine the way the Pentagon thinks about strategy for the near future, some aspects of the threat matrix should still be considered a "work in progress," said the panelists, and subject to further consideration:

  • The "traditional" label is misleading. The traditional activities of the U.S. military over the last 200 years have actually been irregular. "Conventional," rather than "traditional," might be a better choice of terminology.
  • The assumption that all threats are designed to threaten the U.S. or counter U.S. strengths may be limiting. U.S. strategy will be more sophisticated if we can think outside this box. Conversely, the assumption that there will be so many "astrategic" threats may also be a limitation; some enemies will think more strategically than others.
  • The matrix doesn't capture the most complex multi-bloc threats. It is not hard to conceive of an enemy that might operate across categories.
  • It is unclear whether the Department of Defense will be willing or able to undergo the fundamental budgetary and force development shifts that the threat matrix implies.
  • The threat matrix doesn't address petroleum dependency or the potential loss of supremacy in advanced technology to Pacific competitors.
  • Solutions that involve non-Department actors are not fully explored.
  • The U.S. should avoid a premature lock-in of forces or capabilities. Resources should be directed to preparing for conflict in the future-perhaps less on acquisition and more on experimentation.

Though complex, the relationship between the threat matrix and the QDR, said the panelists, has some clear aspects:

  • The threat matrix will force the Department of Defense to diversify assets for the spectrum of war-fighting capabilities.
  • The four "core problems," as put forward by the Secretary of Defense, are worthy and valid problems to examine.
  • A response in some situations could require non-military capabilities that are not addressed in the matrix.
  • The matrix presents a cultural challenge for the Department of Defense.

For more information and analysis of the Quadrennial Defense Review, see Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 682, "The 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review: The View from the Pentagon;" Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 954, "Principles for the Next Quadrennial Defense Review;" and Heritage Foundation Lecture No. 864, "The Quadrennial Defense Review: Some Guiding Principles."


Jack Spencer is the Senior Policy Analyst in Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Kathy Gudgel, Research Assistant in Defense and National Security, contributed to this piece. This WebMemo is based on presentations given at "The 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review: Strategy and Threats, a public event held at The Heritage Foundation on Thursday, March 17, 2005.

[1] The graphical representation of this threat matrix, which is useful to understanding the panelists comments, can be found at several Department of Defense websites in powerpoint presentations. For example, see the presentation posted by the Air War College of Arthur K. Cebrowski, " Trends in Security Cooperation," Office of Force Transformation, Department of Defense, slide 6.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom