Fresh Thinking Needed in Quadrennial Defense Review

By Nathaniel H. Sledge Jr.
If history is any guide, the current Quadrennial Defense Review process will prove to be perfunctory.

The end of two wars and dawn of an austere fiscal era demand that the next QDR depart from business as usual and deliver effective and affordable national security. The nation has gotten neither in the last 30 years. The 2014 QDR will only succeed if the participants possess the creativity and courage to challenge convention and shed cultural inertia, have enough discipline to adhere to a rational process, are dedicated to coalescing diverse perspectives and exhibit extraordinary persuasion.

According to Title 10 of the United States Code, the QDR is supposed to be a “review of U.S. defense strategy, force structure, budget plans and associated policies.” More practically, the process must also align and structure forces with approved strategy.

Unfortunately, approved strategy is the point of departure. Honest debate and objective analysis in national security strategy development are like casting a movie: They constitute 80 percent of a successful performance. But we are not benefitting from honest debate and objective analysis. In addition to misguided wars, politics and unsustainably high growth in recent defense budgets have poisoned strategy development. Neither can be ignored, but both should only be considered in proper sequence, after defense planners have determined what must be done at what risk level.

Politics and money are ubiquitous, but the 2014 QDR is not even supposed to consider budgetary constraints. As they say on the streets of America, “Good luck with that.”

No longer can we maintain large standing armies for threats that are immune to mass force. No longer can we afford several air forces, when a couple will do. No longer can we sustain gilded and unchecked growth in defense agencies with little to show for it. No longer can we let the acquisition and sustainment of a few sexy but cost-ineffective weapons systems dominate service budgets at the expense of people, training and readiness.

The American people should be disappointed if the next QDR does not curtail defense profligacy and waste, and severely reduce and effectively redistribute defense resources.

There is no shortage of QDR-related advice. If only the government heeded it.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for a New American Security, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the Peterson-Stimson Defense Advisory Council, the National Defense Research Institute and the Project on Defense Alternatives, among others, have conducted studies or assembled panels to consider the issues facing defense planners for the 2014 QDR. These are insightful, and in some cases, groundbreaking efforts. Not surprisingly, a consensus has developed that the current process needs improvement and that the nation’s defense enterprises need to take drastically different directions.

Institutional perspectives are valuable because of their knowledge bases, but they are embodied in individuals who have stakes in the institutions they evaluate. Therefore, truly new ideas are permitted only to advance one retirement — or one funeral — at a time. It makes sense to include the ideas of concerned individuals who are unfettered by institutional niceties and allegiances.

In order to produce a credible QDR, defense planners must do several things.

First, the QDR team must be diverse in people, perspectives, professions, and levels of influence and experience. It needs research analysts and accountants in addition to heavy hitters, operators, operational supporters and budget experts. These technical and quantitative contributions will enable defense planners to develop a “dial-a-strategy” approach that makes strategies agile and flexible — something much needed in uncertain security and austere fiscal environments.

Second, the QDR team should push back on the National Security Strategy and the 2012 Defense Strategy Guidance. Both documents are larded with Cold War thinking, overly martial national security perspectives and imperial aspirations. Saluting and moving out is a core military principle, but so is garbage-in garbage-out. There’s little reason to perform a QDR if the driving assumptions and imperatives are flawed, militarily and morally.

According to the Human Security Center, George Mason University and the University of Maryland, violent conflict is at historically low ebb, with only terrorism on the rise. What forces and technologies are required to contain terrorism? Cyberwarfare threats are relatively new, and they mostly threaten utility, transportation, financial and communications networks. Shouldn’t defense guidance explain whether military responses are appropriate for this threat?

The security environment may be complex and uncertain, but short of a nuclear or significant biological or chemical exchange, it does not pose an existential threat to the United States. The National Security Strategy and the Defense Strategic Guidance should reflect this positive reality.

Imperial aspirations do not keep the nation safe. If the United States limited its national security concerns to those bad actors which can and would like to attack the homeland, the Defense Department would be a shadow of its current size and complexity. On the other hand, if the nation’s leaders dedicate themselves to spreading democracy and liberty around the world, that creates an open-ended demand for military presence and engagement, and a concomitant military industrial complex to feed.

The U.S. benefits indirectly from global democracy and liberty, but declaring these to be imperatives is wrongheaded, disingenuous and costly.

The world is too complicated and diverse for one-size-fits-all political and socio-economic models and ideals. So-called U.S. interests — domestic and international — must be scrutinized, too. Few are vital or critical enough to warrant military responses and the loss of life or treasure.

The 34 treaties and numerous oral declarations that bind us to allied security are mostly one-way deals in which the American people give but do not receive. Nor have the American people benefited from the selective and sentimental offers of military assistance that frequently morph into protracted conflict.

Third, national security leaders must review duplicate capabilities among the military services for the purpose of retaining only those redundancies essential to strategic effectiveness and risk reduction.

Believe it or not, we have six militaries — if you include defense agencies and the Coast Guard. Service rivalry can produce healthy competition, but it has become a wasteful yoke that drains resources. The QDR should settle any lingering issues of executive agency in areas such as logistics, electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, space operations and others. Reducing duplicate and unnecessary capabilities will help improve defense purchasing power.

Fourth, planners must recognize that politics is the main impediment to effective and efficient national security strategy. To get around this obstacle, QDR planners must conduct at least a two-phase process, in which the first phase involves objective analysis and strategy development, devoid of concerns about constituencies, budgets and domestic politics. In the second phase, planners can superimpose prioritized competencies, capabilities and strategic risks over the program objective memorandum, budget ceilings and the political art of the possible.

The goal should be to expose the gaps between what a diverse group of expert practitioners believes must be done and what the budget and the political climate will bear. Then politicians can see the menu and make the budgetary and strategic choices that the military and nation must live with.

Fifth, the government must be transparent and persuasive throughout the QDR rollout. The review cannot be just another inside game of self-dealing, where pork barrel politics, rent seeking and the maintenance of military mafias reign. In order to convince the American people that the national military strategy is effective and affordable — and not just another party for pork barrels, corporations and military constituencies — defense planners must be persuasive and speak in language that is meaningful to average Americans. Planners should use metrics to relate their recommendations to the economy writ large.

There are many questions that the QDR must answer about the comparability of non-recurring and long-term costs of not just weapons systems, but whole competency and capability suites.

A great example is presented by Navy Capt. Henry Hendrix in his CNAS paper, “At What Cost a Carrier?” The stark cost comparisons between carrier strike groups and alternative means of maritime presence and projection reveal how outdated thinking is costing the nation hundreds of billions of dollars for diminishing marginal effectiveness. The unbalanced loss exchange ratios between weapons and targets and the high costs of delivery platforms compel whole new ways of thinking.

The public should be informed about the procurement and near- and long-term operating costs of an infantry brigade, amphibious landing ship, long-range strike bomber and the like. But first, the Defense Department must accurately and honestly estimate these costs. The QDR team must go further and employ novel evaluation measures and tools that shine bright lights on the cost implications of strategies, competencies, capabilities and base spending levels. An example is the operations and maintenance costs per active duty service member as a percentage of the defense budget, which CSIS says has grown at an annual rate of 4.2 percent, doubling in the last 30 years. Considered with other data, this information is critical to determining cost trends, end-strength affordability and the feasibility of force structures.

To understand better how much national security the nation is getting relative to its prosperity, the cost of capabilities and weapon systems should be presented in terms that people can relate to, such as median household income or median health care costs per capita.

For example, if the median household income is about $50,000, the F-35 Fighter (base version), priced at $160 million per unit, will cost 3,200 MHI. If annual healthcare cost per capita is $7,500, then the F-35 costs over 21,000 HCPC. These high socio-economic prices — opportunity costs — do not even include the many years of high sustainment costs, which, all told, will exceed the procurement costs.

The QDR team should ask whether the F-35 is warranted. Hint: It is unlikely that the F-35 will ever be employed to protect the continental United States. In the court of public opinion, is each Joint Strike Fighter worth annual health care for 21,000 citizens?

Sixth, the 2014 QDR must include strategies to improve military acquisition management. This includes personnel assignments and training, contracting, regulations, rapid acquisition and prototyping.

Yes, many attempts have been made; but on this matter the Defense Department should never give up. Most past efforts failed because of priorities, incompetence, self-interest and lack of political will. Honest, courageous and persuasive people are needed to attack the problem. Of all the prospects for cost savings and increased efficiency, acquisition offers the greatest opportunities. Along with operations and maintenance spending, this is where improvements in internal controls are most needed.

The QDR should address the sources of strategic materials and the maintenance of manufacturing capabilities and facilities. In the past, too many industrial capabilities were deemed critical, mostly to support depots and the defense industry. This kind of politics ought to be kept out of defense strategy considerations. The U.S. industrial base has enormous excess capacity for capabilities we do not need. Brushfire conflicts do not require the maintenance of dedicated industrial facilities.

Cost drivers such as the F-22 Raptor, F-35 JSF, Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), V-22 Osprey, Littoral Combat Ships, DDG 51 destroyers and the CVN-78 Class Carrier must undergo intense scrutiny. In particular, the American people must be informed about Cold War-like systems such as the GCV, which is little more than an armed, armored and tracked mover of infantry and reconnaissance troops.

The only thing that has changed in this mission-threat area is the proliferation of improvised explosive devices. IEDs are resident mostly on roads, but tracked vehicles are designed primarily to operate across country. Maybe the rationale is urban warfare. Perhaps a change in tactics and recapitalization of existing platforms is a more affordable solution. At the estimated unit cost of $17 million per platform and weight of over 60 tons, there had better be good reasons for the procurement of the GCV.

Even if the services mostly get the choices of systems right, they must still procure and sustain them affordably. If major systems continue to be acquired by using current acquisition practices, we know the outcome — massive cost and schedule overruns. Americans expect their tax dollars to be spent much more wisely. Lack of meaningful acquisition reform in the 2014 QDR will discredit the entire effort.

Finally, defense planners must address the third rail of defense spending — pay and benefits. Military pay has skyrocketed since the turn of the century, and civilian pay has outpaced the private sector for decades. The QDR should seriously consider resetting military and civilian pay and benefits within all national security-related government agencies. Modest incentives for voluntary resignation and retirement should kick off this initiative, followed by a major reduction in force. All new hires and rehires should be subject to less generous pay and benefit schedules, including the health care provision. As Brian Wesbury and Robert Stein wrote in Forbes magazine, a reduction in government worker pay would “permanently shift future wages [and benefits] onto a lower path.”

With long-term solvency hostage to rising operations, maintenance and procurement costs, the resetting of wages and benefits should be considered seriously.

Additionally, defense planners must consider operational innovations and creative management. There should be no sacred cows. For ground troops, operational innovations might include rotations of soldiers and Marines to assigned theaters instead of permanently basing them there. For the Navy, this might include multiple crews for the same ship to reduce the frequency and cost of homeport refitting and repair. In acquisition, investments should be dominated by the systems most likely to be employed against the most likely threats.

In human capital management, creative management might require an overhaul of personnel management regulations and job classifications to give managers more flexibility. Regardless how they are managed, military and civilian personnel ranks must undergo severe reductions.

There was once a time for dreadnoughts, massed artillery, airborne and amphibious assaults, carrier strike groups, carpet bombing, massive nuclear arsenals, submarines and Army-Corps-Division battle front planning. Only the dreadnoughts have disappeared completely, and it took a long time to retire them. The U.S. government is slowly chipping away at the nuclear arsenal, but still too many weapons remain. The ever-versatile submarines are still needed. Other capabilities are expensive and less relevant in the current security environment. With terrorism and cyberwarfare as the most likely threats, the nation should invest more in unmanned aerial vehicles, electronic warfare, cybersecurity, intelligence and precision strike weapons.

Anti-access, area-denial is the latest pretext for research, development and procurement spending. Caution is advised because A2/AD systems support traditional approaches to power projection.

In order to maintain a robust national defense enterprise, we must make hard choices about systems, people, force structure, infrastructure, investments, operations and management. Otherwise we will keep nurturing old constituencies at the expense of what we must do now to ensure a secure future.

Nathaniel H. Sledge Jr., PhD, is a retired U.S. Army colonel.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, DOD Policy, Procurement, Defense Department

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