Rethinking the Quadrennial Defense Review
Have outside experts prepare strategy


Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, delivers a statement to the press, January 16, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • It's time to toss out the QDR and rethink the entire effort

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  • The 2014 QDR was designed to comply with falling defense budget instead of requirements to make unconstrained recommendations

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  • To solve QDR failure, another entity should be tasked to more strongly inform or write report

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Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Buck McKeon recently rejected the Pentagon’s latest defense strategy within hours of its release, saying the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) failed to meet statutory requirements. While McKeon intends to introduce legislation requiring another report, the secretary of defense is unlikely to comply.

Now is the time to toss out the QDR and rethink the entire effort. The quick dismissal of the report may have appeared intemperate, but rejection was a long time coming.

For years, many in Congress have lamented the gap between what the defense strategy is supposed to do and what is produced. McKeon’s missive highlighted some of the most common complaints about the QDR, including that the document was crafted to align with the administration’s budget and failed to look out 20 years. Instead of establishing a road map for defense programs for the next two decades, this and previous versions have been overly budget-driven, purposefully shortsighted and politically motivated.

The statute was explicitly designed to expose gaps between the administration’s budget and strategy and make unconstrained recommendations.

But the latest QDR’s failure to comply is hardly new. In fact, the same argument could be levied against every one delivered to Congress since the requirement became law.

Worse, the problem has deepened. While some QDRs attempted more fidelity to the mandate than others, none has overcome the structural problem inherent in the requirement: disclose to Congress the holes in the administration’s budget by exposing the risks the Pentagon has assumed as a result of resource shortfalls.

Thus, most defense secretaries have concluded that adherence to the letter of law would come at a political cost. Instead of picking fights with the White House and the Office of Management and Budget, and triggering rivalries within the Pentagon, most secretaries leverage the QDR to advance their existing plans and strategy. Congress’ interest in risk and gaps, therefore, inevitably remains unanswered.

This unstated goal by those in charge of the QDR causes others at the top to get the bureaucracy to “buy in” to the QDR’s results while the legislative branch is left in limbo. In order to penetrate the many supporting entities within the Pentagon, the QDR — that is the review process, not the report — has taken on a life on its own.

The result is widespread institutional pressure and a bureaucratic coordination process that chokes serious attempts to push ahead significant departures in strategy, missions or priorities. Even as defense cuts translate into consequences, including significant cuts in force size, one is hard pressed to find a single role or mission the Pentagon has decided it will not undertake or even curtail in this QDR.

The question, then, is what to do about it? Another entity should be tasked to more strongly inform — if not write — the QDR, or Congress should rewrite the statute. Asking the Pentagon for a redo without mandating a stronger requirement informed by why past strategies have fallen short will only yield the same result with a different glossy cover.

One approach would be to reconfigure the next National Defense Panel to look more like the original by providing input before, during and after the strategy is developed and released.

The 1997 panel is widely credited as one of the most effective independent assessments. The group was active throughout the process and politically unrestrained. These factors helped inform the threat assessment and terms of reference up front and “red team” the document after its release. This increased the QDR’s transparency, spurred fresh thinking and provided a needed sanity check.

Before deciding on how to overhaul the QDR, Congress should follow the recommendation of five former deputy secretaries of defense to Secretary Chuck Hagel last March and direct another “Bottom-Up Review” (BUR) like that of 1993. The BUR evaluated the “nation’s defense strategy, force structure, modernization program, infrastructure, and the formulation of affordable strategy that addressed the geopolitical threats of the post-Cold War,” as they wrote. Unique to the effort was the examination of “a range of postures of differing capability and cost” that were explored “in order to inform the president” about choices. This effort incorporating stakeholders beyond the Pentagon “led to common understanding of the evolving threat and needed capability, resulting in a widely accepted plan.”

The lack of a national security policy consensus means America is today “less united, and less prepared to meet the challenges of the future, than at any other point since the end of the Cold War,” as stated by former Sens. Jon Kyl and Jim Talent. A modern day BUR would help advance a needed consensus.

After more than 20 years of marginally effective QDRs, it’s time to try a new approach.

Roger Zakheim is an attorney at Covington and Burling and former deputy staff director/general counsel for the House Armed Services Committee. Mackenzie Eaglen is resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington.

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