The Heritage Foundation

Backgrounder #1151

January 20, 1998

January 20, 1998 | Backgrounder on

Postponing the Day of Reckoning:  Independent Panel Fails toGive Congress a Defense Policy Road Map

The lack of presidential leadership in defense policy has raised grave doubts about the ability of the United States to honor its growing number of overseas security commitments. Few independent observers believe the Administration's claim that the U.S. military has the requisite capabilities to win two "nearly simultaneous" major regional conflicts (MRCs). Distressingly, this growing mismatch between U.S. military capabilities and security commitments increases the likelihood that rogue states will be tempted to challenge U.S. security interests directly. In the meantime, this mismatch will continue to frustrate efforts to restructure today's U.S. military forces to face tomorrow's security threats.

Since the end of the Cold War, Congress has mandated several independent reviews of U.S. defense policy. On December 1, 1997, the National Defense Panel-the most recent of these independent reviews-issued its long-awaited assessment.1 Congress charged this nine-member civilian panel with assessing the findings of the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) report released by the Pentagon in May 1997.2

The National Defense Panel failed in its role as an independent check on the QDR process. Despite its urgent tone, the NDP's "transformation strategy" does not specify a recommended force structure or even a list of alternative force structure options. By resorting to generalities in its assessment, the NDP ignored its congressional mandate to provide a detailed review of the QDR report. It also failed to address the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them. Although the report states that U.S. defense policy must pay much closer attention to homeland defense, it merely endorses the Administration's policy gamble of promising national missile defense at some undefined date in the future.

By failing to provide more useful recommendations, the National Defense Panel has virtually assured that urgently needed U.S. military force structure decisions will be postponed well into the future. In the meantime, defense policy will continue to be plagued by troubling inconsistencies.

Questions Surrounding the NDP Report

Members of the National Defense Panel are scheduled to testify before Congress on January 28, 1998. To fulfill their legislative responsibilities, and as the first step in restoring coherence to U.S. defense policy, members of the House National Security Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee should be prepared to ask them some hard questions. Specifically:

1. Why did the NDP fail to provide specific funding recommendations, as required by law?
The NDP report omits specific funding recommendations for defense programs. This omission is clearly inconsistent with Congress's legislative mandate directing the NDP to "estimate the funding required by fiscal year, in constant fiscal year 1997 dollars, to organize, equip, and support the forces contemplated under the force structures assessed in the assessment."3

2. Why did the NDP fail to provide a recommended force structure to address U.S. military needs, as required by law?
The NDP report omits specific recommendations for alternative force structures. This omission is also inconsistent with the NDP's legislative mandate. The legislation establishing the NDP clearly states: "The Panel shall submit to the Secretary [of Defense] an independent assessment of a variety of possible force structures of the Armed Forces…and to provide the Secretary and Congress recommendations regarding the optimal force structure to meet anticipated threats to the national security of the United States through the time covered by the assessment." Apparently, the NDP decided against recommending a specific force structure because doing so would concede that the current force structure is inadequate to execute the Administration's national security strategy. In fact, retired Army General Robert W. RisCassi, a member of the panel, previously co-authored a report detailing deficiencies in military capabilities and readiness.4 The NDP's conspicuous failure to admit the mismatch between today's force structure and U.S. overseas commitments has undermined its credibility in commenting on tomorrow's force structure requirements.

3. Why did the NDP fail to specify a specific level of U.S. overseas security commitments?
The nature and scope of U.S. overseas security commitments should drive force structure and budgetary requirements. If the United States intends to honor its myriad security obligations around the world, it must field forces large enough to back those obligations. While musing about the nature of future U.S. alliance relationships, the NDP avoided identifying a specific level of overseas commitments. This omission is particularly glaring since the Clinton Administration has championed NATO enlargement. By sidestepping the issue of overseas commitments, the NDP essentially disqualified itself from addressing budget, strategy, and force structure questions. 

4. Why did the NDP propose examining changes in how U.S. military forces are organized without defining the combat capabilities of the new organizations?
The NDP suggests that the military must examine options for organizing forces in different ways.5 For example, the U.S. Army is currently organized around divisions. As the NDP recommends, the Army may decide it would be better organized for combat by replacing the division with some other kind of unit. The NDP did not suggest what kind of unit this could be and, more important, did not define common terms of reference for comparing the combat capabilities of units of differing sizes. By failing to define common terms of reference for comparing alternative structures for the Army's forces, the NDP report invites further reduction in combat capabilities. This approach will allow the Clinton Administration to argue that smaller Army units can fulfill the same combat roles as larger units. Similar problems likely will arise in the other services, where tactical fighter wings, aircraft carrier battle groups, and Marine expeditionary forces are the basic units of measurement. Breaking the measuring rods is not an honest way to make defense policy. Without a coherent methodology to compare combat capabilities, the NDP's approach will give the Clinton Administration political cover it can use to make even deeper cuts in the defense budget.

5. Why did the NDP recommend dropping the requirement that the military be prepared to address two major regional conflicts (MRCs) without proposing an alternative requirement?
The NDP's report ridicules the two-MRC requirement as a "force-sizing function and not a strategy" and a "means of justifying the current force structure."6 On these terms, the NDP's criticism of the two-MRC requirement is appropriate. Heritage Foundation analysts have long advocated a requirement that the U.S. military be capable of winning one MRC and a smaller conflict similar to the 1989 operation in Panama simultaneously.7 The NDP's critique does not, however, provide a clear road map for getting beyond the two-MRC requirement. Instead, the report blithely implies that technological improvements will allow the United States to meet undefined force structure requirements in the future.

6. Why did the NDP urge better "human intelligence" (HUMINT) without specifying funding or organizational requirements?
The NDP stresses the importance of "revitalizing human intelligence (HUMINT) to include the need for military personnel with extensive regional knowledge and language skills."8 Although this recommendation is superficially attractive, it says nothing about the financial wherewithal or organizational enhancements necessary to strengthen the Defense Department's intelligence program. The NDP's pro forma recommendation for improving HUMINT capabilities-like a football coach who gives a pep talk to his team but does not provide a playbook-virtually guarantees its advice will be ignored by defense planners.

7. How will creation of a joint experimentation force promote military innovation at a reasonable cost? The NDP proposes the creation of a Joint Forces Command and Joint Battle Lab.9 This recommendation  accounts for a sizable chunk of the NDP's proposed "annual budget wedge of $5 to 10 billion…to support a true transformation [strategy]."10 Exactly where the money for joint experimentation will come from remains unclear. Aside from the cost issue, the NDP brushes aside the danger that joint experimentation may smother individual service innovation, the traditional wellspring for new ideas and operational concepts.11 To promote innovation, the U.S. military needs an adaptive culture in which new ideas compete for attention without excessive bureaucratic overhead. The centralized management required for joint experimentation, however, is likely to produce rigid templates that are ill-suited to innovation.

8. Why did the NDP urge that greater attention be paid to homeland defense while refusing to endorse the deployment of a national missile defense (NMD) system?
The NDP makes a strong recommendation for paying more attention to homeland defense in national security policy.12 Given the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, this recommendation could not be more appropriate. Yet today, as a matter of policy, there is only one type of weapon against which the United States chooses not to defend itself-the intercontinental ballistic missile. In fact, the U.S. continues to honor a Cold War relic, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which bars it from deploying a national missile defense system. Despite the NDP's generic recommendation for providing a better defense of U.S. territory against attacks from weapons of mass destruction, the NDP report stops well short of recommending that the United States reverse its current policy of purposeful vulnerability to missile attack. This omission is peculiar, given the NDP's recommendation to "deny enemies the use of space"13 and its acknowledgment that the United States needs a secure homeland to maintain its position of global leadership.


Congress tasked the National Defense Panel with developing specific recommendations for restoring coherence to U.S. defense policy. By resorting to platitudes, the NDP failed to accomplish its assigned mission, and this failure leaves Congress without a meaningful road map for defense policy. But postponing hard force structure and budgetary choices today will not make them any easier tomorrow.

The American people deserve better. So do the men and women who are charged with executing the Administration's national security strategy. Members of the House National Security Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee have an obligation to ask panelists tough questions when they testify before Congress. If the members of the National Defense Panel cannot provide more specifics during their oral testimony, their efforts in preparing the report will be remembered only as another meaningless paper drill conducted at taxpayer expense. Even worse, U.S. defense policy will remain easy prey to bureaucratic infighting, pork-barrel politics, and service parochialism.


1 Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century, Report of the National Defense Panel, December 1, 1997; cited hereafter as National Defense Panel Report.

2 U.S. Department of Defense, "Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review," May 19, 1997. For a review of the QDR's shortcomings, see Baker Spring, "Calling the Pentagon's Bluff on Defense Review," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1124, June 18, 1997.

3 Section 924 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997 (Public Law 104-201).

4 General Charles A. Gabriel (USAF Ret.), General Alfred M. Gray (USMC Ret.), Admiral Carlisle A. H. Trost (USN Ret.), and General Robert W. RisCassi (USA Ret.), "A Report on Military Capabilities and Readiness for United States Senator John S. McCain," February 7, 1995. 

5 National Defense Panel Report, p. 44.

6 Ibid., p. 23.

7 Kim R. Holmes, ed., A Safe and Prosperous America: A U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy Blueprint (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1993), p. 50.

8 National Defense Panel Report, p. 65.

9 Ibid., p. 68.

10 Ibid., p. vii.

11 Ibid., p. 69. Notable examples of service-specific innovation include carrier aviation, amphibious operations, close air support, and strategic bombing.

12 Ibid., pp. 25-28.

13 Ibid., p. 40. 

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