If Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea highlighted the administration’s foreign policy incoherence, the recently completed Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) should signal an equally troubling lack of coherence when it comes to defense spending and strategy. Every four years the QDR is supposed to set forth the strategic challenges and objectives of our national security apparatus so that we can, theoretically, make budgeting decisions based on threats not arbitrary bookkeeping. Alas, as Kori Schake of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and other conservatives warn, there is precious none of that, despite oblique warnings from current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel:
[I]t was irresponsible not to develop a strategy consistent with available resources. This QDR has failed in its fundamental purpose.
Perhaps the central issue this QDR should have addressed in detail is where to accept risk as resources become less plentiful: in what areas can we afford to reduce our margin of error, and where would unacceptable dangers be incurred? What missions ought we to stop doing and stop preparing for in order to ensure we are able to meet our highest priorities? Where do redundancies exist that can be eliminated to free up resources? The Department of Defense claimed that the QDR would initiate a serious debate about risk. While the press statements emphasize greater risk in carrying out the strategy, there’s no actual discussion in the QDR about how risk is assessed. The QDR does say we “continue to experience gaps in training and maintenance over the near term and will have a reduced margin of error in dealing with risks of uncertainty,” but does not explain how different choices might aggravate or mitigate those risks. If DOD actually wants a debate about where to accept risk—instead of simply brandishing it as a threat to budget hawks—it will need to establish a metric for evaluating risk.
But of course, if we did that, we’d find risks increasing and unacceptably high. That might necessitate increases or at the very least maintenance of defense spending, something the administration has no intention of doing.
Instead of a serious analysis of the nation’s threats and strategic response, this QDR reverts to bland, non-analytic rhetoric about defending the homeland, building security globally and being prepared to win. As one might expect with such amorphous language, the QDR lacks specificity as to how to achieve these, failing even to look out ahead 20 years, as the QDR is legally required to do. No wonder. There is a glaring mismatch between threat and capabilities, between objectives and resources. For example, conservative critics have pointed out that the QDR proposes to reduce the Army from 570,000 active duty soldiers to 440,000 to 450,000. The president’s budget, however, only funds 420,000; the QDR proposes that the Marine Corps shrink to 185,000. The president’s budget funds 172,000.
The report is damning in fact: “Left unaddressed, continuing sequestration-level cuts would greatly affect what the U.S. military can and cannot do over the next ten years. The American people would have to accept that the level of risk in conducting military operations would rise substantially. Our military would be unbalanced and eventually too small to meet the needs of our strategy fully, leading to greater risk of longer wars with potentially higher casualties for the United States and for our allies and partners in the event of a conflict. Ultimately, continued resourcing at sequestration level would likely embolden our adversaries and undermine the confidence of our allies and partners, which in turn could lead to an even more challenging security environment than we already face.” So where is the president’s budget to address this serious deficiency?
More important, you would never know from the QDR that we face challenges from China and Russia. As for China the QDR explains, “In particular, the rapid pace and comprehensive scope of China’s military modernization continues, combined with a relative lack of transparency and openness from China’s leaders regarding both military capabilities and intentions.” But what risk does this pose, and how are we meeting it? The QDR gives few clues.
Likewise, the evaluation of Russia is laughable: “The United States is willing to undertake security cooperation with Russia, both in the bilateral context and in seeking solutions to regional challenges, when our interests align, including Syria, Iran, and post-2014 Afghanistan. At the same time, Russia’s multi-dimensional defense modernization and actions that violate the sovereignty of its neighbors present risks. We will engage Russia to increase transparency and reduce the risk of military miscalculation.” So much for that idea. Even worse: “The United States will continue to maintain safe, secure, and effective nuclear forces while reducing our strategic nuclear forces in accordance with the New START Treaty. We will pursue further negotiated reductions with Russia. In a new round of negotiated reductions, the United States would be prepared to reduce ceilings on deployed strategic warheads by as much as one-third below New START levels. The United States will also work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe.” No mention is made of Russian violations of existing agreements or its indifference to international obligations.
If this were an undergraduate paper it would get an F or at least an incomplete. But the QDR is not the cause of the administration’s confusion; it is a manifestation of the total lack of seriousness about our national security. The president views the defense budget as a slush fund for expanding domestic spending, not as a priority or a reflection of a coherent strategy for defending U.S. interests. The chickens are coming home to roost as threats multiply in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, yet the commander in chief seems blissfully unaware that anything is amiss.