President Barack Obama held a briefing at the Pentagon last year to outline military strategy.
President Barack Obama held a briefing at the Pentagon last year to outline military strategy. // White House Photo

Ditch the QDR

The Secretary of Defense and senior Pentagon leaders are looking everywhere for ways to save money. They are bound and determined to eliminate waste and duplication and ensure that, at a time of sequestration and furlough, both money and man-hours are spent wisely and efficiently. If Congress will agree, here’s a modest proposal that will lop off thousands of man-hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars for the next seven months, for work on a project that’s already been done: ditch the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review.

Known by its acronym, QDR is the congressionally-mandated review that’s supposed to provide a four-year framework and roadmap to tie spending to strategy. According to the Pentagon’s “QDR 101: What You Should Know” fact sheet, the review has four objectives: assess the current security environment, establish strategic priorities to guide the Pentagon’s acquisition, personnel and policy decisions, synch identified challenges with new ways of addressing them, lay the foundation for planning and decision-making over the course of the ensuing four years.

Didn’t the Pentagon just do all that with the strategic guidance it produced last year?

The 2012 report on “Sustaining Global Leadership:  Priorities for 21st Century Defense” represents one of the most successful collaborative efforts ever undertaken to tie spending to strategy and provide direction for the future of the department. It’s the result of a process started by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates but brought to fruition under the leadership of his successor, Leon Panetta. The report even prompted the first-ever appearance at the Pentagon press podium by the commander-in-chief, surrounded by military and civilian leadership who had unanimously endorsed its recommendations. 

We need to remember the circumstances that that gave rise to this report. In the final months of his tenure, Gates had begun the spending reduction process with his “Efficiency Initiatives,” a multi-track approach that included shifting overhead costs to force structure and modernization accounts, reducing funding for service support contractors and looking for ways to reduce “excess and duplication” within the Pentagon. But the process was kicked into high gear with the passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011 – a product of economic turmoil and political gridlock over how to balance the budget which mandated $489 billion in Pentagon cuts over ten years. President Barack Obama told Panetta not to leave national security at the mercy of the new spending cuts. He ordered Panetta to work with the service chiefs and secretaries to tie the mandated cuts to a long-term strategic framework. And that’s exactly what they did.

Panetta’s great strength was his inclusiveness. Panetta’s philosophy: all those who would have to live with the results should have input into the plan that produced them. Pentagon stakeholders were invested in the process from the beginning. The daily discussion tables he led to hammer out the strategy that would frame the cuts included the service chiefs and service secretaries; the civilian and military leaders responsible for meeting the human, equipment and financial resource needs of American warfighters around the globe; those who had to work with Congress, which would need to approve the final plan; and those who had to explain the outcome to the public.

Working together, they came up with a report that de facto addresses all four of the QDR requirements.  

Establish strategic priorities? The Pentagon stakeholders agreed that actions taken under their strategic framework all needed to reflect three main goals over a fiscally-constrained coming decade: Preserve American global leadership, maintain US military superiority and keep faith with U.S. troops, veterans and military families. They understood that the sustaining the military at its current size was untenable financially but that national security threats were changing in nature and increasing in complexity and number. Their strategy therefore emphasizes that the force of the next decade needs to be “agile, flexible and ready for the full range of contingencies.”  

Assess the security environment? The stakeholders acknowledged that threats and challenges from a volatile arc stretching from North Africa through the Middle East to southwest Asia would continue – but they also recognized the need to raise the game over the coming years to address both economic opportunities and security challenges in Asia. They saw traditional partnerships with the nations of Europe expanding in scope as Europe becomes more a security provider than a security consumer. And they saw new partnerships emerging in the Middle East and Asia. Homeland defense would remain important. Cyber security would grow in importance. And the nation would need to provide the resources necessary to address the mental as well as the physical wounds suffered by troops returning from ten years of overseas combat.

Synch these challenges with new ways of addressing them? The stakeholders were faithful to their mandate:  strategy would determine the spending. Reduce spending or cut programs in places that didn’t fit the strategy but invest in areas that did. The Army and Marines would be smaller. The Navy and Air Force would have to live without certain cherished weapons systems. But there would be investments to enable the Army and Marines to adapt to new threats, and to equip the Navy and Air Force to implement new counterterrorism and anti-access/area denial strategies. The stakeholders took a deep breath and proposed a new round of base closures to eliminate unneeded infrastructure, as well as small cuts in health care costs to achieve savings without putting at risk the best medical care possible for returning troops and families. Both proposals are direct attacks on sacred cows. But both are consistent with achieving savings while keeping America’s military the best in the world. Despite the white noise to the contrary, neither puts our national security or the needs of our warfighters and their families at risk.

Lay the foundation for planning and decision-making over the course of the next four years? The report is the roadmap for just that. But it came with a caveat:  that additional cuts of the magnitude of the $500 billion defense sequestration threat — which was still looming at the time like a financial sword of Damocles over the Pentagon — would require additional decisions that would almost certainly cut into bone, not just meat.  Sequestration happened. Panetta’s successor, Chuck Hagel, created the Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) process to address it. His announcement this week of a 20 percent cut in the ranks of senior Pentagon leadership over the next several years is but the first result.

Many at the Pentagon are skeptical of the SCMR, derisively calling it “the Scammer” for reasons ranging from perceived lack of transparency to perceived limited inclusion in the decision-making process. A true weakness of the SCMR is the Pentagon’s failure to date clearly and publicly tie it to the 2012 strategic guidance. 

SCMR should be explained and defined for what it is really intended to be: the plan for addressing the caveat to the 2012 report, not a short-term reactive dash to slap together a quick fix or reinvent the wheel.

Pentagon leaders have enough on their plate without having to reinvent the wheel. But plans are already underway for exactly that —  the QDR is targeted for release next February, to be reviewed by an outside panel of experts which includes leaders who were instrumental in designing the 2012 strategic guidance. Can’t we stick with the product produced last year, endorsed by consensus, strongly supported by the president and incorporating all of the requirements of a QDR? I know that the savings achieved would be small in comparison to, say, a new round of base closures.   

But I think that, under current circumstances, ditching it would fit well under the category of “eliminating waste and duplication.” Pentagon leaders could turn their time and attention more productively to personnel, acquisition and budget issues that have yet to be fully addressed. Maybe we could even donate the man-hours saved to some of those caught in the worst Catch-22s of furlough. And I’d even be willing to forego the prize money for the idea.

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