The Pentagon’s Defense Review: Not Ready for Prime Time

The quadrennial review fails to realign the military to defend against new threats or reorder funding priorities to meet those threats.

The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be. This witty observation by 19th century French poet Paul Valery captures precisely the ever-changing nature of today’s global security environment. Consider the events and changes since 2001: the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. commitment to a long-term campaign against radical Islamism, the threat of increased nuclear proliferation, and the continued growth of Chinese military capabilities along disturbing lines. This was the environment confronted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and defense planners in preparing the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), which is required by law every fours years and which was recently submitted to Congress.

The QDR has four key tasks. The first is to determine what major challenges the United States may have to confront during the next 20 years. The second is to present a strategy for meeting these challenges. Then the QDR must assess whether the force structure and defense program proposed by the Department of Defense (DOD) are consistent with the diagnosis of the threats and the strategy proposed for addressing them. Finally, the QDR has to estimate the level of resources necessary to implement the strategy. In brief, the QDR assesses not only what needs to be done to ensure the security of the United States today but what also must be done to prepare for threats that lie along the misty horizon of America’s future.

The verdict on how well the Pentagon succeeded in these tasks is unfortunately mixed. Although the new QDR provides an accurate diagnosis of the military challenges facing the United States and attempts to find strategies to address them, it fails to follow through on two essential actions: realigning the military to defend the United States from new, nontraditional threats and reordering funding priorities to meet those threats. These shortcomings must be remedied soon, for as Francis Bacon observed, “He who will not adopt new remedies must expect new evils.”

Three enduring challenges

The report is successful in fulfilling the first objective. It pinpoints three major enduring security challenges to the United States: radical Islamist insurgencies, nuclear proliferation, and China’s growing global stature and ambitions. Radical Islamists are attempting to advance their aims through terrorism, insurgency, economic and political disruption, and propaganda. Unstable governments with anti-American sentiments are investing heavily in nuclear arsenals to improve their international standing and give them leverage against the conventional military capabilities of the United States and its allies. China is diligently developing its conventional military capabilities, including ballistic missiles, information warfare, antisatellite weaponry, submarines, and high-speed cruise missiles, which could allow it to counter U.S. military strengths in the air, at sea, and in outer space as well as intimidate U.S. allies and friends in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

As diverse as these challenges may seem, they share an important characteristic: Rather than confronting the United States in a conventional military manner, they pose nontraditional asymmetric threats. This response is hardly surprising. Given the undisputed military superiority of the United States, no current or prospective enemy would be so foolhardy as to take on the U.S. military directly.

Radical Islamists are exploiting the asymmetric advantage of terrorism primarily because it is the only form of warfare currently available to them. The mission of their transnational theologically based movement is to overthrow what they consider to be illegitimate and often pro-U.S. regimes and to eliminate U.S. influence in the Muslim world. The leaders of this insurgency are exploiting advanced technologies and modern trends, including globalization, expanded financial networks, the Internet, and increasingly porous borders, to extend their global reach and influence.

Radical Islamists feel no obligation to abide by the rules of traditional warfare and the dictates of international conventions or to spare the lives of innocents. Their willingness to employ weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and disruption makes them especially threatening. Their decentralized organizational structures and theologically based messages provide unique strengths and obscure centers of gravity, leading to Rumsfeld’s conclusion that the war against radical Islam will be “a long, hard slog.”

Nuclear proliferation in Asia is a second major enduring challenge to U.S. security. Since 1998, India and Pakistan have tested nuclear weapons and created nuclear arsenals. North Korea apparently has nuclear weapons and is producing the fissile material necessary to fabricate more of them. Iran, undoubtedly aware of the very different treatment accorded to a nuclear North Korea relative to Saddam Hussein’s nonnuclear Iraq, is vigorously pressing forward with its nuclear weapons program. It is conceivable that before the decade is out, a solid front of nuclear states may stretch from the Persian Gulf to the Sea of Japan, through a part of the world that is increasingly important to U.S. security and economic well-being.

The consequences of the rise of this atomic arc of instability will be profound. The most important implication of the proliferation of nuclear-armed states is the increase in the likelihood that these weapons will be used. It is unclear whether Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, whose cultures and political systems are profoundly different from our own, will share the U.S. view that nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort.

Another major challenge that nuclear proliferation poses is the dramatic change in the global balance of power that will undoubtedly follow in its wake. The United States will not be able to influence nuclear-armed adversaries in the same way as it engages nonnuclear states. The array of political and diplomatic instruments of power, as well as military options available to the United States vis-à-vis rogue states armed with nuclear weapons, will be starkly reduced. This seems to be a principal motive for North Korea and Iran in their quests for nuclear weapons.

Proliferation begets proliferation. It is conceivable that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of nonstate entities as a consequence of corruption or state failure. Nor can one discount the possibility that a state such as North Korea, which sells ballistic missile technology, or Pakistan, whose top nuclear scientist ran a nuclear-weapons production materials bazaar, would provide, for a price, nuclear weapons or fissile material to other states and nonstate groups.

The diffusion of nuclear materials marks the beginning of a second nuclear era. The first era, which began with the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and ended in the 1990s, was characterized by a few established powers possessing nuclear weapons and observing a tradition of nonuse of these weapons. Now the former characteristic no longer holds, and the latter is open to debate.

China’s rise to great regional power status and over time to global status is the third principal and enduring challenge to U.S. security. To date, many discussions of China’s disposition paint it in stark terms: as either a threat that must be addressed along the lines of the Soviet Union, or as a state that simply wants to be acknowledged as a great power and fully incorporated into the global economy and international community.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between these gloomy and rosy poles. China does not represent the type of threat posed by the Soviet Union. Unlike Soviet Russia, China is not wedded to an aggressive expansionist ideology. Whereas the United States had no significant commercial relationship with the Soviet Union, it has enormous economic ties with China. Moreover, both the United States and China may have important common security interests in limiting the proliferation of WMD and combating radical Islamists.

However, China could emerge as a major threat to U.S. security in the manner of Germany against Britain a century ago. Like Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China is a rapidly rising power. The regime in Beijing is confronted by challenges to its political legitimacy; growing ecological problems; an economy that has enjoyed remarkable growth but may be entering a more mature period characterized by slower growth; serious demographic problems that could induce societal instability; a rapidly growing dependence on foreign energy supplies; and outstanding security issues over Taiwan, the Spratley Islands, Tibet, and perhaps portions of the Russian Far East. These strains could lead to friction between Washington and Beijing.

There is some evidence that China seeks to displace the United States as the principal military power in East Asia and to establish itself as the region’s hegemonic power. If this were to occur naturally, stemming from the evolution of Chinese economic power and a corresponding increase in influence, the United States would probably accept such an outcome. However, if Chinese preeminence were achieved through coercion or aggression, this would serve neither U.S. interests in the region nor the stability of the international system and the rule of law.

The ways in which China may challenge U.S. forces will likely be quite different from those of other U.S. adversaries in the post–Cold War world. The scale of military effort that China can generate far exceeds that of any rogue state. China’s ability to deny military access to its territory is far more advanced than that of any existing or likely potential U.S. rival. China’s enormous landmass provides it with great strategic depth, a problem that U.S. defense planners have not had to address since the Cold War.

The challenge for the U.S. military today is to adapt its forces to confront the more novel forms of Chinese military power. The United States needs to create and maintain a military balance in East Asia that is favorable to itself and its allies and guards against contingencies that might tempt the Chinese to act coercively or aggressively. The United States should also encourage China to cooperate in areas where the two countries have common security interests and convince Beijing that outstanding geopolitical issues should be resolved according to accepted international legal norms.

Lack of vision

The QDR offers a reasonably clear vision of how DOD intends to prosecute the war in which it is now engaged: the war against radical Islamists. On China, which is euphemistically described as a country at a Òstrategic crossroads,Ó the QDRÕs strategy is much less clear.And the QDR is even less clear on how the United States will address the problem of nuclear rogue states or the failure of nuclear-armed states.

In the case of radical Islam, the approach is generally active and aggressive, reflecting a belief that the defense of the U.S. homeland is best assured by engaging the enemy as far from U.S. shores as possible and by keeping up the pressure on radical Islamist organizations, thus leaving them little time to organize and plan future attacks, let alone carry them out. The military strategy envisions U.S. forces, in combination with those of friends and allies, working to break down radical Islamist terrorist cells within friendly states. It also calls for surveillance of failed and ungovernable states and taking quick and decisive action once terrorist cells are identified.

Hence the QDR emphasizes highly distributed special operations forces, either working in tandem with similar indigenous or allied forces to defeat terrorist groups or preparing to act quickly on their own if such help is not available. It also emphasizes developing partnerships and leveraging that capacity as a means of expanding the capability needed to defeat radical Islamists, especially those waging insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The report acknowledges that China is developing a worrisome set of military capabilities and is likely to continue making large investments in high-end asymmetric military capabilities, or what some military writers refer to as the ÒassassinÕs maceÓ set of capabilities. These include electronic and cyber warfare; counter-space operations; ballistic and cruise missiles; advanced integrated air defense systems; next-generation torpedoes; advanced submarines; strategic nuclear strike capability from modern, sophisticated land- and seabased systems; and theater unmanned aerial vehicles.

The QDR asserts that the Pentagon will pursue investments that Òpreserve U.S. freedom of actionÓ and Òprovide future Presidents with an expanded set of optionsÓ for addressing the potential Chinese threat. It does not, however, explain how China might use its capabilities to threaten U.S. security interests and freedom of action.Nor does it present a plan for how U.S. investments would enable the military to dissuade, deter, or defend against such efforts.

It seems likely that DOD’s decision to accelerate the development of a new long-range strike aircraft is intended to convince the Chinese that they cannot use their country’s strategic depth as a sanctuary for key military capabilities such as ballistic missiles, land-based antisatellite systems, and command and control centers. But this is mere speculation. Understanding how the interaction of Chinese and U.S. capabilities will preserve stability in the Far East would help Congress immensely in its attempt to make informed decisions related to DOD’s force posture and investment priorities. Unfortunately, the QDR is all but silent on this matter.

In the area of nuclear proliferation, the QDR notes that “The United States must be prepared to deter attacks; locate, tag and track WMD materials; act in cases where a state that possesses WMD loses control of its weapons, especially nuclear devices; detect WMD across all domains . . . and eliminate WMD materials in peacetime, during combat, and after conflicts. The United States must be prepared to respond . . . [and] employ force if necessary,…[to include] WMD elimination operations that locate, characterize, secure, disable and/or destroy a state or non-state actor’s WMD capabilities and programs in a hostile or uncertain environment.” It is unclear, however, how the U.S. military will accomplish these missions, which are not hypothetical problems that may arise at some point in the distant future. They are today’s challenges.

Further on, the QDR candidly concedes that detecting fissile materials and neutralizing WMD devices are “particularly difficult operational and technical challenges.” Even collecting reliable intelligence on WMD programs and activities is judged “extremely difficult.” But the review offers little insight as to how the United States will address the WMD problem if these challenges cannot (as seems likely) be overcome. Nor does the QDR recommend investing much in the way of resources to address this problem.

Indeed, at present there appears to be little confidence that the United States can conduct preventive attacks to disarm North Korea or Iran of their nuclear materials production facilities or that it can quickly identify and secure Pakistan’s weapons in the event of a nuclear state failure there. Given the difficulties associated with taking preventive action against a country developing nuclear weapons, or of detecting, tracking, and intercepting those weapons in transit, the U.S. military may have to default to attempting to deter enemies from using WMD. However, this may be risky, because the United States has little understanding of the cost/benefit calculus of states such as Iran and North Korea, let alone nonstate entities such as al Qaeda, which seek to acquire such weapons. In the end, the QDR fails to provide a sense of how DOD will address this admittedly difficult challenge.

The QDR turns bipolar in its assessment of the resources necessary to implement the proposed strategy. It calls for a large-scale modernization effort in the coming years, the first in more than two decades. Yet it also proposes to reduce defense spending toward the end of this decade, in part by holding down personnel expenses. Given the current situation, in which even recent increases in benefits have failed to stem the decline in the quality of recruits entering the Army, such cuts are probably unrealistic. Although the QDR considers some nominal cuts in programs and personnel costs, the difficult budget choices that could mean real savings are passed on to future planners. Given the forecast by some experts that long-term funding for the defense program may be short by $50 billion a year and the Bush administration’s goal of cutting the federal budget deficit in half by 2009, it is highly unlikely that even the existing program could be executed, let alone the initiatives that address the new and emerging challenges to U.S. security.

The problem with legacy weapons

As suggested above, the proposed defense program does not address the existing and emerging threats to national security as well as it could or should. The saying “show me your budget priorities and I’ll show you your strategy” may be somewhat hyperbolic, but it contains a strong element of truth. Given the magnitude of the changes witnessed during the past four years, and with the prospect of more to come, it would make sense to expect major changes in U.S. military forces and equipment. Yet the list of projects identified as top priorities shows that the QDR leaves U.S. forces equipped primarily for traditional warfare.

Among the top-priority projects is the Army’s Future Combat System, estimated to cost nearly $150 billion. It was conceived to exploit information technologies to defeat enemy tank forces at a distance; however, none of our existing or prospective enemies are building a new version of Sad-dam Hussein’s Republican Guard armored force.

The Marine Corps’ V-22 aircraft, designed to hover like a helicopter and fly like a plane, has become so expensive that large-scale production is unlikely. Meanwhile, the Corps’ aging helicopter fleet that the V-22 is designed to replace is wearing out at an alarming rate, because of the high pace of operations in Iraq.

The Navy’s DD(X) destroyer, at roughly $4 billion a copy, is a firepower platform. Yet the naval challenge from China, if it comes, will be centered on its submarine force, a threat against which the DD(X) is irrelevant.

The Pentagon’s F-35 fighter program is by far the most expensive program in the defense budget, at more than $250 billion. The fighters are designed to sweep enemy aircraft from the skies and strike targets on the ground. But al Qaeda has no air force, and the most worrisome strike systems being fielded by China, North Korea, and Iran are ballistic missiles, not fighter aircraft.

Postponing important decisions on big-ticket programs diminishes the chance that cuts in those programs will be made. With the passing of each appropriations cycle, the legacy programs that the Pentagon is unwilling to scale back, or in some cases prudently terminate, increase their momentum, as they develop special interests and constituencies in the military, Congress, and the defense industry.

At the same time, other promising QDR initiatives that are actually strategy-relevant and would help our military meet new threats are at risk of being starved of funding before they hatch. Examples include a proposal to increase the number of Special Forces battalions, our most heavily deployed units in the war against radical Islamists; a new long-range strike aircraft designed to loiter for protracted periods over the battlefield, searching, for example, for terrorist activity in remote areas or missile launchers deep inside Iran or China; programs and forces to cope with the problem of detecting, tracking, and disabling WMD, especially nuclear weapons that enemies might attempt to smuggle into the United States; medical bioterror-threat countermeasures; replacing the aging air-tanker refueling fleet with new aircraft able to refuel reconnaissance and strike aircraft in flight; and increasing submarine production to send a clear signal to China that it cannot expect to threaten

freedom of action in an area of vital interest or coerce
friends and allies in East Asia.

How are we planning to conduct persistent extended searches for North Korean nuclear-tipped missiles emerging from their caves to launch an attack, or to deflect the efforts of China’s submarines, 10 years hence, to threaten our Navy’s ability to defend Taiwan from coercion or aggression? Which set of capabilities best addresses the principal challenges facing the United States, as identified by the QDR? Which systems would be most useful in tracking terrorists in remote areas of Africa and Central Asia, dealing with a destabilized Pakistan or Saudi Arabia (al Qaeda’s two principal targets), or thwarting radical Islamist attempts to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States?

Without a question, priority should be given to the nascent QDR initiatives that are currently underfunded or that have no funding mandate at all. Notably, most of the mission-relevant programs cost just a fraction of the more established programs whose principal focus is on traditional forms of warfare and therefore, as the QDR rightly notes, of progressively less relevance to our security.

Reorienting the military services

By identifying security challenges that are very different from the planning metrics that shaped much of the U.S. defense program since the Cold War’s end, the QDR implies that first-order adjustments must be made to main elements of our defense posture. For example, military operations during the past 15 years have demonstrated that when enemies challenge the United States in traditional warfare, as in the two Gulf Wars and the 1999 Balkans conflict, air power can play an important and perhaps dominant role. Although all four military services should maintain a significant residual capability for traditional warfare, the Army and Marine Corps should be able to shift more of their capabilities away from traditional warfare and toward other challenge areas than either the Air Force or the Navy.

In particular, the Army and Marine Corps should be reoriented to face the irregular challenges to U.S. security, emphasizing capabilities associated with foreign military assistance, including building up the capacities of our partners, special operations, counterinsurgency, counterterror manhunting, and human intelligence. The Air Force and Navy must focus more on addressing traditional and prospective disruptive challenges, placing primary emphasis on countering emerging anti-access and area-denial capabilities and threats to the global commons.

It seems likely that each of the four services has an important role to play in addressing direct catastrophic threats to the U.S. homeland. These include defense against ballistic and cruise missile attack; border control; defense against delivery of WMD through nontraditional means (for example, capabilities for identifying, tagging, and tracking these weapons); and consequence management.

In addition to rebalancing service forces and the capabilities needed to address irregular, catastrophic, and disruptive challenges to U.S. security, the military should undertake key institutional changes. The professional military education system needs to be refocused to emphasize the study of Asia, the Third World in general, and radical Islam and China in particular. DOD must also transform the training infrastructure to focus more on irregular, catastrophic, and disruptive challenges to U.S. security.

The military’s foreign area officer program needs to be expanded and enhanced. Intelligence operations should place much greater emphasis on human intelligence than in the recent past. Finally, just as officers had to become “physicsliterate” after the advent of nuclear weapons, today they need to become “biosciences-literate.”

A new defense industrial base strategy should be developed to foster innovation and address the possibility of significant equipment attrition. The Pentagon should develop more effective interagency relationships and relevant capabilities for dealing with irregular and catastrophic challenges to U.S. security.

Finally, with the rise of national security threats that are greater in scale and broader in scope than those confronted in the first decade after the Cold War, the United States needs capable allies and partners but for different types of missions and in different parts of the world. The administration should review the U.S. alliance portfolio, enhance selected old partnerships, and forge new ones, especially with large democratic Muslim states such as Indonesia and Turkey.

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Cite this Article

Jr., Andrew F. Krepinevich. “The Pentagon’s Defense Review: Not Ready for Prime Time.” Issues in Science and Technology 22, no. 4 (Summer 2006).

Vol. XXII, No. 4, Summer 2006