An elaborate plan recently unveiled by the Defense Department aims to prepare the military services to cope with a wide range of threats to national security during the next 20 years.
The document lays out a comprehensive strategy that, for the first time, attempts to move the military away from Cold War-style war planning and acknowledges the daunting challenges of “irregular” conflicts, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Most notably, the architects of the strategy—known as the quadrennial defense review—recognize that they have no clear foresight into what exactly they expect U.S. military forces to be doing in the next decade or two. Further, the review specifically calls for the military to expand its mission portfolio, but is glaringly lacking in details on what type or size the force should be to accomplish those larger goals.
A close examination of the QDR and comments by defense officials can only lead one to conclude that the Pentagon’s crystal ball is much foggier than anyone had predicted before the review was unveiled.
In the QDR, “we put major emphasis on unpredictability and uncertainty in the future world,” says Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.
A selected cadre of senior military and civilian defense officials who began drafting the QDR a year ago assumed that U.S. forces would be engaged somewhere in the world in the next 10 years, Henry tells reporters. But they were, for the most part, “clueless” as to where or when exactly those conflicts will occur, or in what manner the force will be engaged.
Like the quadrennial reviews of 1997 and 2001, this one retains a requirement for the military services to prepare to fight in two major regional conflicts. But the caveat is that one of those conflicts could be a prolonged Iraq-type campaign.
In addition, the services will need to be capable of defeating terrorist networks, defend the homeland, prevent the acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction, and exert influence over countries that own WMDs and find themselves at “strategic crossroads,” such as Russia or Pakistan.
The QDR does articulate plans to substantially increase the ranks of special operations forces. But it intentionally shies away from specifying how many soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are needed to achieve the goals set in the review, Henry says. “To be able to give you a set of numbers and tell you they are sufficient is a fallacy.”
This is not surprising, given the current Pentagon leadership’s aversion to tying military capabilities to numbers of airplanes, ships, armored vehicles, or service members.
Ryan dismisses those who ask for specific numbers as conventional “bean-counters” who are uncomfortable with fuzzy notions of military capabilities that cannot be quantified.
Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan administration official and defense analyst says that thinking is misguided.
“The secretary talks about capabilities, not numbers … That’s OK. But when you are talking about fighting an insurgency, doing peacekeeping, and other missions, numbers count,” Korb says. “It’s great to increase special operations forces, but it’s not nearly enough.”
Korb, like critics on Capitol Hill, accuses the Defense Department of articulating a strategy that requires not only more special operations forces, but also a substantial conventional force.
The 2007 budget request the administration sent to Congress last month, however, points to a future drawdown of the military.
The Navy expects to shrink from 362,941 active-duty members in 2005 to 340,700 by 2007. The Air Force plans to cut 40,000 people during the next five years. The active-duty Army is temporarily expected to grow from 487,000 to 512,000, but is projected to drop to 482,400 soldiers by 2011. Proposed funding for the National Guard in 2007 covers 533,000 troops, even though Congress authorized 550,000. The Marine Corps provisionally is boosting its ranks by 4,000, but in a few years will return to its pre-war level of 175,000.
The 2007 budget “rebalances” the force, says Vice Adm. Evan Chanik, director of force structure, resources and assessment for the Joint Staff. What that means is that the cost of adding 14,000 special operations forces is being offset by cutbacks in the conventional branches of the services.
Ryan says that any reductions in the conventional forces reflect the services’ effort to “do things smarter” and not any QDR-directed downsizing.
But further obscuring the logic behind the review are plans to continue to study the “force mix” during the next two years, although the Pentagon already has decided it will not grow the force. The most likely outcome, Ryan says, is that the services will not increase in size but rather rearrange their “skill sets,” which currently are “disproportionately skewed to the conventional end … The analysis we did in the QDR says that if you get the mix right, they are not going to have to increase numbers.”
In a nutshell, it appears as though Pentagon planners are certain that a bigger military will not be needed for at least 20 years, although they have no sure predictions on what, where and when exactly the military will be doing.
One fairly certain assumption is that, no matter what fearsome circumstances crop up in the future, there’s always another QDR in four years to revise the forecast.