America needs a permanent independent panel to stress test the Pentagon's QDR strategy

Article Highlights

  • More for less: It’s the new Pentagon mantra on everything from budgets to warfighting to planning.

    Tweet This

  • The time has come to again “stress test” the Pentagon’s strategy and provide a fresh look at DoD plans and policies.

    Tweet This

  • Above all else, it’s time for defense planners to be forthright about what our military can and cannot do.

    Tweet This

More for less: It’s the new Pentagon mantra on everything from budgets to warfighting. And now this oxymoronic mantra is being applied to planning: Each successive Pentagon strategic plan, better known as the Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, keeps promising to do more and more with less and less. And members of Congress have noticed.

Originally envisioned as a long term planning document intended to outline threat assessments, military strategy, force structure, and budgetary plans and establish a blueprint for defense programs, there were always suspicions that the QDR process would be corrupted to justify the here and now rather than plan for the future. Unfortunately, those suspicions were confirmed with the last iteration of the QDR, which lacked any long-term vision and served mostly as justification for current defense plans and programs -- including the scaling back of modernization for next-generation systems.

But Congress has not forgotten its original intent, even if the Pentagon has, and it’s make-or-break time for the Quadrennial Defense Review process. QDR 2014 will be the Pentagon’s last chance to get it right, with buy-in from Capitol Hill, before Congress throws out the process altogether.

For Pentagon planners, it’s time for an intellectually honest approach. It is no longer enough to assert that the forces and budgets will shrink while restoring the world-class edge and long-standing military capabilities that made our military a global power.

QDR Independent Panel

In 1996, Congress directed the Secretary of Defense to undertake the first QDR. The Act called for the QDR to include “a comprehensive examination of defense strategy, the force structure of the active, guard, and reserve components, force modernization plans, infrastructure, and other elements of the defense program and policies in order to determine and express the defense strategy of the United States and establish a revised defense program through the year 2005.” The legislation specified that the report should discuss a number of areas, including:

•Defense strategy and the optimum force structure to implement it;
• National security threats and scenarios;
• The effects of preparations for and participation in peace operations and non-war military operations on force structure;
• Technological development impact on force structure;
• Manpower and sustainment policies under the defense strategy to support engagement in conflicts lasting more than 120 days;
• Airlift and sealift capabilities required;
• Forward presence, pre-positioning, and other anticipatory deployments necessary under the defense strategy for conflict deterrence and adequate military response to anticipated conflicts; and
• The extent to which resources must be shifted among two or more theaters under the defense strategy.

The 1996 legislation also created an outside National Defense Panel (NDP) to perform an independent review and critique of the Pentagon’s findings, and it called for an additional assessment by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

And in 2010, the Congress stood up the QDR Independent Panel. Its remit was to review the Secretary of Defense’s terms of reference; conduct an assessment of the assumptions, strategy, findings and risks in the QDR; provide an analysis of a variety of possible force structures for the U.S. Armed Forces; and compare the cost of alternative forces with the cost of the defense program recommended by the QDR. The independent panel was told to include “analyses of the trends, asymmetries, and concepts of operations that characterize the military balance with potential adversaries, focusing on the strategic approaches of possible opposing forces.”

The bipartisan report was successful in meeting its charge. The group of experts essentially called for a genuine “pivot” to Asia before it became the en vogue answer to budget cuts. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, led by William J. Perry, Bill Clinton’s secretary of defense, and Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser, found:

The force structure in the Asia-Pacific area needs to be increased. In order to preserve U.S. interests, the United States will need to retain the ability to transit freely the areas of the Western Pacific for security and economic reasons. The United States must be fully present in the Asia-Pacific region to protect American lives and territory, ensure the free flow of commerce, maintain stability, and defend our allies in the region.

However, the credible projection of effective and sustainable power requires more than rhetoric. It also requires investments in capabilities and capacity to protect America’s interests in the region. The panel stated unequivocally that “the force structure in the Asia-Pacific area needs to be increased,” including a larger Navy and more robust, technologically-advanced Air Force than today’s.

Since the Panel Report was released, the government has moved in the opposite direction, cutting defense budgets by more than 500 billion dollars and passing the “sequester,” which will mandate almost another 500 billion dollars in spending reductions. The Panel recommended that the size of the Navy be increased. Instead, the rate of naval shipbuilding has been reduced, and the number of ships in the Navy continues to go down. The Panel recommended reforming the acquisition system by establishing clear lines of accountability for new programs. No progress has been made in that area.

Some pointers for the team about to undertake the next strategy review follow:

Provide a 20-Year Defense Road Map. Congress intended the QDR to be a comprehensive, farsighted, and strategy-based assessment of future military requirements. Current law outlines the 15 primary tasks the QDR is supposed to achieve. Chief among these guidelines is for Pentagon leaders to examine the “effect on force structure of the use by the armed forces of technologies anticipated to be available for the ensuing 20 years.” By proposing to only study various future challenges and focusing largely on present operations, the last QDR fell short of its mandate.

Stop Increasing Demand While Shrinking Supply, and Stop Altering Strategy to Fit Budgets. While the 2010 QDR retained the crucial two-war construct on paper, it subsequently threw in the “kitchen sink” of every other conceivable mission without proposing a larger force. It also proposed retaining and institutionalizing critical counterinsurgency capabilities. Two years later, the Pentagon issued guidance that formally abandoned the two-war construct and deemphasized stability operations, counterinsurgency campaigns and forces. Wild swings in strategy and dishonesty about the impact of budgets on force structure weaken the services’ ability to build stable long-term plans. As the QDR Independent Panel noted: “The absence of a clear force-planning construct in the 2010 QDR represents a missed opportunity.”

No More Sugar Coating the Ever-Growing Assumptions of Risk. The last QDR tried to bridge the strategy-resource mismatch by assuming that U.S. military forces could manage additional risk. But current law describes the primary task of the QDR as recommending a force structure best suited to implement the national defense strategy at a “low-to-moderate level of risk.” The last QDR did not specify:

QDR Independent Panel Recommendation
HASC-Proposed National Defense Panel Recommendation
QDR IP Enabling Legislation
• Few nonseniors receive government benefits.

• Review strategic environment of next twenty years.
• Conduct an assessment of "assumptions, strategy, findings, and risks of the report on the QDR."

• Conduct an independent assessment of force structure, and compare the resource requirements of both theirs and the QDRs.
• Conduct an assessment of the review, including recommendations, stated and implied assumptions, and vulnerabilities of the strategy and force structure underlying the review.

• Conduct an analysis of "the trends, asymmetries, and concepts of operations that characterize the military balance with potential adversaries."

• Conduct an independent assessment of a variety of possible force structures for the Armed Forces, including the force structure identified in the report of the Secretary of Defense on the 2009 QDR.
• Every four years.

• Six months after new President enters office.

• After that, whenever President wants.
• Within 3 months of a QDR submission
• Six months in advance of QDR submission.

• Final report due within three months of QDR submission.
• Up to 18 members.

• 'Senior and experienced expert' panel.

• Ten members appointed by President, including co-chairs from different parties.

• Two selected by house majority.

• Two by house minority.

• Two by senate majority.

• Two by senate minority.
• 10 members from "private civilian life" who are "recognized experts" on national security.

• Two selected by HASC chairman.

• Two by SASC chairman.

• Two by HASC ranking member.

• Two by SASC ranking member.

• Two as co-chairs selected by Secretary of Defense.
• 8 members.

• Two selected by HASC chairman.

• Two selected by SASC chairman.

• Two selected by HASC ranking member.

• Two selected by SASC ranking member
• 10 staff members and $1 million budget.
• The Panel shall terminate 45 days after the date on which the Panel submits its final report


The time has come to again “stress test” the Pentagon’s strategy and provide a fresh look at DoD plans, assumptions, threats and policies. In keeping with the original intention of the National Defense Panel, no one individual or group should be able to direct major future defense planning decisions absent a separate mechanism to test their analytical assumptions. As in the past, this panel should consist of an array of defense analysts with a broad range of views. It should be convened during the QDR process and scheduled to be released after the Quadrennial Defense Review so that it may address the major findings of the strategy.


Above all else, it’s time for defense planners to be forthright about what our military can and cannot do, and about the increased risk that the Department, and America, is running as a result of our declining power. America is operating with a force structure that is substantially smaller than that established by the first QDR at the beginning of the Clinton Administration; before the global war on terror, before the rise of Chinese power, and before the resurgence of Russian ambitions. Twenty years ago the “platforms” of the military -- its ships, aircraft, tanks, and vehicles -- were relatively new and by and large contained the most modern technology. Today that equipment is aging, difficult to maintain, and increasingly unreliable. As an example, half of the Navy’s deployed aircraft is not ready for combat. The force is stressed, tired, and demoralized. The acquisition system is broken, and it cannot be fixed without a stable funding plan that is impossible if budgets swing wildly every time Washington has a fiscal crisis.

All of this is reality. In an unstable world, it is a reality that will have negative consequences sooner rather than later. The Department cannot fix its problems on its own; that will require determined guidance from the highest levels of civilian leadership. What military leaders can do is tell the President and Congress what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. The next QDR would be a good place to start. Otherwise, it may be the last.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Jim Talent is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author



What's new on AEI

We still don't know how many people Obamacare enrolled
image The war on invisible poverty
image Cutting fat from the budget
image Speaker of the House John Boehner on resetting America’s economic foundation
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
  • 26
Monday, September 22, 2014 | 2:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Policy implications of the new US labor market normal

We welcome you to join us as a panel of economists discuss US wage and price prospects in the coming months and the implications for the Federal Reserve’s current unorthodox monetary policy.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.