In 2013, senior officials at the Pentagon will broadly examine U.S. national defense strategy, force posture, and weapons modernization in a congressionally mandated process called the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The QDR establishes a defense planning program that will direct the Department of Defense’s budget and determine how many vehicles, tanks, ships, aircraft, and other essential equipment the services will procure in the next two decades.
It is essential that Congress establish an independent QDR review panel that would allow a transparent discussion about the size and scope of future U.S. military forces.
Challenges Like No Other
The QDR became law in 1996, and the Pentagon has conducted QDRs in 1997, 2001, 2006, and 2010. Unless Congress changes the law, the fifth QDR will face a uniquely constrained fiscal environment.
The Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) establishes budget caps that will result in a reduction of about $407 billion over the nine-year period covering fiscal year 2013 through FY 2021. Even worse for defense, under the sequestration process set to occur on January 2, 2013, defense accounts would be cut by another $492 billion in the same time period.
These cuts come on the top of those that the Obama Administration has announced since 2009, including cancellation of weapons programs with a total lifetime value of more than $300 billion and reductions in the defense budget of about $200 billion between FY 2012 and FY 2016. The President has also made it clear that he will veto any bill that would eliminate or alter the sequestration process unless it includes major tax hikes.
This means that the QDR process will inevitably be driven by budget considerations rather than by a sound analysis of what America needs to secure its interests worldwide in the next two decades. Just as with previous QDRs, it is likely that the next one will fail to address the increasing gap between U.S. commitments and U.S. capabilities.
The President’s latest strategic guidance and the subsequent FY 2013 budget request make defense the lowest priority among the major responsibilities of the federal government. They propose funding levels that would make the President’s own strategic guidance impossible to execute and render the U.S. incapable of protecting vital national interests, including:
- Safeguarding U.S. national security;
- Preventing a major power threat to Europe, East Asia, or the Persian Gulf;
- Maintaining access to foreign trade;
- Protecting Americans against threats to their lives and well-being; and
- Maintaining U.S. access to resources.
As the next QDR will surely be motivated by the budget cuts instituted in the BCA, it is more important than ever to establish an independent QDR review panel that would scrutinize the assumptions behind the QDR itself and stimulate a transparent public discussion about the future of the U.S. military posture.
Past QDR panels have been criticized repeatedly for being inadequate for U.S. foreign policy objectives, shortsighted, and politically motivated. Such criticism should inform the Pentagon’s next QDR process and underscores the need to establish a panel that examines the assumptions behind the Pentagon’s own review.
Twice in the past, Congress mandated independent panels to review the QDR: in 1997, chaired by Phillip A. Odeen, and in 2010, co-chaired by Stephen J. Hadley and William J. Perry. Both panels provided for a more informed public discussion regarding U.S. military capabilities. To ensure the success of the review panel, The Heritage Foundation previously made specific recommendations on how such a panel should be structured:
- The panel should include defense analysts with a range of opposing views. It should be bipartisan and ideally should include the same number of Democratic and Republican appointees.
- The Secretary of Defense should not play a major role in the panel’s member appointment process. This would ensure that the panel is truly independent from the ongoing QDR process, which is directly under the authority of the Secretary of Defense.
- The panel should produce one consensus document, which would ensure a more cohesive assessment. The document should be unclassified. A consensus document would be more compelling and more valuable to Congress.
- The panel should be convened during the QDR process, and its report should be released after the QDR so that members are able to address the major findings proposed in the QDR.
Providing for the Common Defense
The QDR will have a profound impact on the way the Department of Defense goes about defining and protecting vital national interests. Unless Congress changes the law, the next QDR will face an unprecedented challenge: a dramatically declining defense budget under the BCA.
It is essential that Members of Congress have the opportunity to independently examine the assumptions behind the Secretary of Defense’s proposals and come to their own conclusions regarding the best way to secure vital national interests. An independent QDR review panel would help achieve an informed consensus regarding the force posture that is essential to protect the U.S.
—Michaela Bendikova is Research Associate for Strategic Issues 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.