Pentagon stuck on outdated concepts of warfare, February’s Quadrennial Defense Review likely to prove

Peter Buxbaum Contributor
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Washington defense types are awaiting the February release of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, in a speech in New York last month, promised the report would be driven by Afghanistan and Iraq war needs, placing an emphasis on ground troops and counterinsurgency operations and less on the modernization of weapons systems.

But if history is any guide, the QDR won’t make much of a difference to defense policies and programs nor to the troops on the ground. That’s because the giant defense bureaucracy is wedded to older concepts of warfare.

The QDR was instituted in the 1990s with the admirable purpose of institutionalizing strategic thinking among Department of Defense echelons. Results have been mixed, at best.

“Past QDRs have done a better job of articulating strategic approaches than aligning the military posture — investments, force structure, basing — with the strategy,” Jim Thomas, the vice president for strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a non-partisan Washington think tank, told The Daily Caller. “There are powerful institutional forces in the military, Congress and industry supporting status quo investment programs and force structures, but there are rarely strong countervailing forces for new program starts or developing new types of forces.”

A report recently released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan Washington think tank, examined the less-than-stellar history of the QDR and expressed pessimism about the next edition could outshine its predecessors.

The Department of Defense has failed “to develop effective plans, programs and budgets; carry out effective systems analysis; develop credible cost estimates and create timely and meaningful future year defense plans,” the report said. Of particular concern are DoD’s broken procurement processes, which are characterized by “undercosting and overestimating capabilities until production delays and cost escalations force” program delays and terminations.

The Bottom Up Review, a QDR forerunner initiated by Clinton Defense Secretary Les Aspin in 1993, acknowledged significant changes in the global security environment with the end of the Cold War.

“However, it drew largely on the prior planning of the Bush administration in the late 1980s,” the CSIS report noted. “It advanced the notion that the United States should maintain at minimum a force capable of fighting two major regional conflicts almost simultaneously.”

This doctrine has captured the imagination of U.S. military planners and explains the continued emphasis on old-school theater warfare by the U.S. military. The concept was included in the 2006 PDR even though the idea proved to be undoable since its inception, thanks to troop cutbacks and the proliferation of smaller engagements in the 1990s.

The 1997 QDR introduced the idea of a Revolution in Military Affairs which sought to supplement a shrinking fighting force with high technology. But the emphasis was still on “conventional warfighting,” the CSIS report said, “at a time when the department had already become engaged smaller, irregular engagements in places like Haiti and Somalia, and was soon to face complicated exercises in counterinsurgency and armed nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The next Quadrennial Defense Review, issued on September 30, 2001, was hastily rewritten by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld after the 9/11 attacks. “Even though the strategic environment in which the United States was operating had completely shifted,” the CSIS report said, “the review still largely represented the pre-9/11 world.”

The 2006 QDR, besides persisting with the two-theater theory, proposed spending on a laundry list of military modernization programs, many of which were to be scaled back after the Defense Department decided a year later to increase ground troop strength and emphasize counterinsurgency operations.

For the 2010 QDR Secretary Gates has been promoting the concept of “hybrid warfare,” which would require a broad range of force capabilities and flexibilities across a spectrum of operations. For Thomas, “hybrid warfare is unassailable as an intellectual proposition.” “It helps to avoid artificial distinctions between extreme caricatures of warfare types,” he explained, such as conventional warfare and irregular conflict.

But it won’t help the defense establishment make critical choices. “So far hybrid warfare is so loosely defined, that it does not provide clear criteria for decision-making,” said the CSIS report. Efforts to define hybrid warfare have yielded “little more that shopping lists for every possible contingency.”

In other words, if CSIS’s expectations hold true, the upcoming QDR will likely follow in its predecessors’ footsteps with a lack clarity and decisiveness.