One officer. Two years. Three different offices all preparing for the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review. It was like switching among gangs during a single street fight. As the new QDR approaches, some lessons can be learned from this field study.
In October 2001, a document appeared that generated surprisingly little fanfare. It was the secretary of Defense's Report of the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). If you had asked anyone remotely familiar with the defense establishment prior to the start of the QDR, he would have told you this report would generate tremendous debate about the future direction of the Department of Defense (DoD).
He would have been wrong. Everyone was wrong about the 2001 QDR, including me. But I have one thing to offer: I am the only person who worked for the Joint Staff QDR preparation organization, a service QDR office, and the Office of the secretary of Defense (OSD) office running the QDR, all during the 2001 process. It was like playing on three different teams in one season, or, more accurately, like switching among three different gangs during a single street fight. I offer this article as both a field study of high-level staff wars in DoD and, more important, a warning for those sentenced to work on the 2005 QDR.
Joint Staff: Preparing for Battle
The first mention I remember of the 2001 QDR was at a staff meeting in late 1999. I worked in the Joint Staff's Directorate of Force Structure, Resources, and Assessments, and Colonel Existential, my division chief, mentioned that Congress had made the QDR a permanent requirement. he also pointed out that working the QDR probably would consume our division for the next two years.
At that time, only one QDR had been completed, in 1997. It was widely viewed as window dressing to enable the administration to squeeze more money from the Defense Department, and the results were attacked immediately. In his book This War Really Matters: Inside the Fight for Defense Dollars (CQ Press, 2000), George C. Wilson interviews high-ranking officers from each of the military services, and each concludes that the 1997 QDR should have cut forces from a service other than his own. The only general officer interviewed who had a dissenting view was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: his comments could be summarized as "I told these guys to maintain the status quo."
It was unlikely the 2001 QDR would maintain a status quo. With a change of administration likely, the services already had named their QDR officer leads and stood up QDR offices. Every contractor who entered our spaces had something to say about what he did for the last QDR and what he could do for us for this one. "You're going to need a lot of help," said one such visitor. "Do you have any idea what it was like the last time?" It sounded like we were in for the Battle of the Somme.
My first indication this might be the case was the Military Operations Research Society symposium, "Joint Analysis: QDR 2001 and Beyond," held in February 2000. Speaker after speaker extolled the virtues of collaboration and implored the audience to set aside parochial interests and find the best solutions for The Nation. "I was ashamed of the behavior we saw in the 1997 QDR," said one general, "and we will not fight among ourselves in this next QDR." I noticed several veterans of the 1997 QDR flee to the hall because they could not suppress their laughter.
One of the touchy parts about preparing for the 2001 QDR was that preparation was occurring in an election year, so no one knew who would run the next OSD. As a result, officials on the OSD staff excused themselves from the Joint Staff's efforts, but also warned that the Joint Staff should not "get ahead of OSD" in its QDR preparation.
In the absence of any concrete direction, we worked on organization. Colonel Existential and his counterparts had a series of meetings on Joint Staff QDR organization, and they spent considerable time talking with the more credible commentators on the 1997 process. Eventually, they produced a very clean and very sparse organizational structure, with only four panels.
It did not survive. As the structure went up the chain for coordination, it eventually came to a general who concluded that all seven of the 1997 panels were there for a reason. he discarded the clean structure, restored all the previous panels, added two more, and promptly retired.
When the panels began work, one of the first things that happened was the "Integration Panel" decided that each panel would participate in a process to describe the defense challenges in its area. In due course, some facilitators showed up, and we found ourselves in a room with a lot of people trying to capture all the issues associated with Colonel Existential's "Force Structure" panel.
The facilitators required us to identify all the critical issues, which came fast and furious: We were desperately short of surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. We did not have enough language specialists. Force readiness was declining. The pace of operations was reducing retention and wearing out weapon systems. Finally, one attendee raised his hand. "My organization's most critical issue," he said to a hushed room, "is whether to buy or continue leasing one of our headquarters buildings."
But the fun was just beginning. As it turned out, to properly employ the facilitators' technique we had to take every issue we had raised and decide whether it, first, critically affected any other issues or, sec ond, was critically affected by any other issues. We had about 90 issues, so even the least mathematically oriented among us knew we were in for a lot of comparisons. And the group had to agree on all the relations.
The arbitration took three days, at the end of which everyone was ready to kill each other-and then themselves. The result was a "relation chart" about six feet long with the approximate density of a Bombay road map. We dubbed it the "complaint diagram." Colonel Existential hung it in his office, perhaps as a warning to any visitor who wanted to talk to him about the QDR.
In addition to suffering through the management of our panel, our division had been assigned to cover the activities of other panels. When I went to the first meeting of the panel I was given, I found the person in charge was an interesting individual I'll call Colonel Irascible. "Let's get something straight here," he said, his voice rising. "I tried to turn down this job. I tried to resign two weeks ago. I tried to resign last week. And I'll try to resign next week!" Now he was shouting. "And the week after that! And I'm gonna retire after that! Do you understand? There's nothing you can do to me!"
I was deeply impressed by this performance, although other people in room looked as if they were being held hostage by a suicide bomber. I always enjoyed attending Colonel Irascible's sessions, particularly since he began showing up with a pith helmet and demanding that anyone who had anything "pithy" to say wear it while speaking. It is worth noting that Colonel Irascible talked to Colonel Existential about our complaint diagram, and Irascible's panel completed the same process in half a day. Their diagram, to my knowledge, was never seen again.
This sort of thrashing continued for several months. As opposed to the actuarial focus of the 1997 QDR, we were supposed to be conducting a strategy-based exercise. Unfortunately, no one was around to articulate a strategy. Colonel Existential complained that the whole process was like "telling everyone to write his own annex and hoping they added up to an plan."
By fall 2000,1 had been in the Joint Staff for two years and wanted to move on. In particular, I wanted to have an active role in the 2001 QDR, and the leadership was saying the Joint Staff was to be an "integrator," which I had determined by then to mean "punching bag." So I asked to transfer to my service's QDR office. Colonel Existential had left for an operational tour, and his replacement, Colonel Armbar, was a hardened veteran of the Pentagon bureaucracy who liked fights. he sympathized with my desire to play some offense, so he let me go.
Service QDR Office: The Road to War
By the time I arrived at the service ODR office in December 2001, the election had been settled and everyone knew whose administration we'd be serving. Action officers were running at about 200 mph, so I got on the track with the rest of them. What we didn't realize at the time was that we actually were on a treadmill.
The service QDR shop had taken the lessons of the 1997 QDR very, very seriously. They had either brought back the 1997 participants if they still were on active duty, or hired them if they were contractors, and the total team was both very large and very well-resourced. I worked in the Assessments Division, four analysts overseeing all the quantitative preparation for the QDR. The boss of the division, Colonel Turgidson, had commissioned comprehensive analyses of all the mission areas in the service, and a huge number of briefings, updates, and coordination meetings were being produced every week.
Our QDR office was similar, I believe, to the other services'; we had our Assessments Division, a policy/issues group, an outreach (read marketing) group, a guard/reserve liaison group, and an administrative support group. These groups could tap virtually anyone in the service for help, and they were not shy about doing so.
There was another group, but it never appeared on any organizational chart. It was a loose collection of individuals whose job it was to collect secret information about what OSD would do with the QDR. I called this gang "The Plumbers," and they were the most amazing procurers of predecisional documents I have ever seen. The Plumbers operated a spy network that was the largest on this side of the Illuminati, and to this day I do not know how they obtained some of their information (nor have I asked).
The service QDR offices were in a tricky position. Each was responsible for presenting all constituencies of its service to whomever in OSD ended up running the QDR, but it had to do this while not running afoul of the people who owned those constituencies. This put the head of the QDR office on a very high tightrope with no net and lots of wind, and led to some very strange working arrangements. Many service constituencies refused to cooperate at all. Their attitude was that if someone asked, they'd send one of their people to explain their position. As it turned out, this stance ensured they never got a chance to represent themselves on anything.
One continual battle was the constant pressure to take wide-ranging quantitative studies and dehydrate them into slick presentations. This drive to reduce everything to cartoon format made life very difficult for the myriad study teams that were bringing in results on every aspect of the service. "You guys just don't get it," said Colonel Turgidson. "The Chief thinks in pictures." Every time he said that, I wanted to reply that my son-in kindergarten at the time-also thought in pictures, but that I hoped someday he would be able to read. My persistent impression of this period was of Major Warhol, our lead PowerPoint gunslinger, pointing and clicking well into the evening, surrounded by a group of colonels offering helpful advice on clipart and layout.
As we treadmilled into spring 2001, we heard nothing about the QDR. We did hear about a bunch of "strategic reviews" commissioned by the new secretary of Defense, all of which were being led by people outside DoD. Predictably, these reviews caused tremendous angst, and uncovering what these study teams were doing became a significant mission. Every once in awhile, The Plumbers would give us an information request from one of these groups, and we would pass back an answer. We never saw who asked.
A seemingly significant event occurred when it was discovered that the secretary had asked the OSD Office of Net Assessment to write a new defense strategy. That office and its head had been fixtures in OSD for many years, but they largely were viewed as a boutique futurist group that did not affect near-term issues, and the various QDR offices had not been tracking their activities.
With the news that they would draft a strategy, all that changed. Anyone who had ever worked as a Net Assessor or had any substantive contact with them was unearthed and interrogated. People with current contacts became rock stars. The Net Assessors were inundated with phone calls, visits, and offers of "help"; in particular, several services tried to donate action officers to "assist" with the drafting of the new strategy. Not used to being chased by groupies, the Net Assessors stopped answering their phones and replaced the friendly noncommissioned officer who managed the office with a huge, formidable sergeant. It became harder to get into Net Assessment than Augusta National.
None of this stopped The Plumbers, however, and our office eventually got a draft of the strategy. With considerable trepidation, I approached a Plumber and asked to read the draft. he agreed, and I sat down with trembling hands to absorb whatever secrets were contained in the purloined document. Anticipation coursed through me.
I was wrong again. The draft made broad, sweeping statements and called for some geographic shifts of interests, but as a road map for matching military means to political ends, it was useless. It simply did not contain enough information to derive any unambiguous judgments about the future size and shape of the force. Using the Net Assessment strategy to decide, say, the proper balance between active and reserve forces would have been like trying to use the Ten Commandments.
In early May, Colonel Turgidson told us the release of a Terms of Reference (TOR) for QDR 2001 was imminent, but no one knew what it would contain. Those of us who were veterans of the previous administration knew that coordinating a TOR like this would take several months, so we didn't see how the QDR (due in September) could possibly get done in time.
We were wrong, as usual. The new OSD didn't bother with the normal, plodding coordination process; it simply put out a draft, organized study teams, and started up the machine. The problem was, this TOR didn't look like any TOR I'd ever seen, as the entire first half was a draft defense strategy. This, to me, was like finding a draft of the Constitution in the front of a real estate contract. Nonetheless, the train was rolling.
Another interesting incident occurred about this time. The secretary began having meetings with the service chiefs and secretaries, and during one of these meetings he gave this group 23 questions on the strategy and direction of DoD. Furthermore, he told them not to staff the replies. "You've got to be kidding," commented a bemused action officer. "Those guys haven't written their own thoughts since the '8Os."
I ran into a member of a service QDR office the day after this request was made, and I asked him how his group was handling it. "The secretary said he would work on his answers this weekend and get them to us to format on Monday," he said. "And the Chief?" I asked. "He said to make his answers short," was the response.
Office of the secretary of Defense: SinglePlatoon Football
By early june, QDR 2001 had achieved warp speed. Our office had action officers running everywhere, covering working groups, prebriefing generals, pouring over stolen drafts, and plotting tactics. In the midst of all this, Colonel Turgidson yelled for me to step into his cubicle. "Have you ever worked with OSD Strategy?" he asked, naming an office I'd heard of but never communed with. "Well, you're going to. Go see this guy."
This was an interesting development. The Strategy Division of the Office of the Under secretary of Defense for Policy essentially was running the QDR, and the action officer in our service's billet was leaving. Two other people had been nominated, but both had been picked up for other assignments, so I was the last kid available.
Unfortunately, I had never worked in a strategy position. I called some friends who were political scientists and asked them for some literature on strategy. I collected all of it, hated most of it, and decided one author had it right when he suggested most contemporary strategic writing was "overblown nonsense." That attitude clearly would not work in an interview with a group of strategists, so I sold myself as an experienced quantitative analyst who could moderate some of the more exuberant ideas being thrown around. Amazingly, they bought it and hired me. So i landed right in the middle of the QDR tempest.
QDR 2001 was built around the activities of seven study teams: Military Organizations and Arrangements; Space, Information, and Intelligence; Personnel and Readiness; Strategy and Force Planning; Capabilities and Systems; Forces; and Infrastructure. Supervising these teams was the Executive Working Group (EWG), headed by the Principal Deputy Under secretary of Defense and including the three-star plans and programs officers from the Joint Staff, services, and their civilian equivalents from OSD. Above that were the true Gods of Olympus: the Senior Level Review Group, which was the secretary, the Deputy secretary, the Under secretaries, the Chairman and ViceChairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the service secretaries, and the service chiefs.
The problem was that these seven mobs charged off independently without any organizing principles. Because of tight timelines, the head of, say, the Infrastructure Team couldn't wait for the Forces Team to tell him what forces he would have to suggest infrastructure for; he had to guess and go. Each team ended up having to send ambassadors to every other team, and since no team trumped any other, the impasses were frequent.
One advantage of being assigned to OSD was finally discovering who had been writing various briefings and position papers, as well as the mysterious QDR TOR. Shortly after I arrived, I was ushered to a temporary office near the secretary's. There, I met The Scribes-a couple of Pentagon employees who had been deputized by the new administration to work on the defense strategyand The Intern, who polished their work and even took on a few of the tasks. There was no Great and Powerful Oz; it was just a few guys behind a curtain.
I didn't have much direct contact with The Scribes, as that was my boss's territory. I did work with The Intern periodically, and this person was notable for being the only individual I met during the entire drama who maintained a cheerful disposition. I suspect to this day that The Intern was not human.
One interesting job I got immediately on arriving in OSD was as recorder for the EWG meetings. The EWG had an officer stand at a rostrum and type any conclusions and !askings into a laptop so they could see their decisions on large screen in real time. Colonel Filter had been doing the stenographer duty, but he had been chosen for a new assignment. His subordinate, Colonel Intersection, could not type as fast as I could, so I got the job.
Watching the service approaches to the EWG meetings was an interesting anthropological experience. Principal participants in these meetings generally were the service champions in the particular area, and all of them were highly skilled bureaucratic infighters. I detected four basic styles in these sessions:
* The Things. The Fantastic Four (comic book superheros popular in the 1960s and 70s) featured a character called The Thing. The Thing was exposed to radioactivity on a space flight and developed superstrength, but also, unfortunately, skin made out of orange rocks. Many organizations chose as their representative their own version of The Thing, an ugly, vicious individual who opened most conversations with a right to the chin.
* The Akido Men. To sidestep attack, these folks used the attacker's weight against him. It simply was not possible to score debating points against Aikido Men; anyone who rushed them found himself flying through the air and crashing against a figurative wall. Aikido Men were so adept at turning around a debate that the accuser often forgot what point he was trying to make in the first place.
* The Jetsons. Many representatives portrayed themselves as members of an advanced culture whose programs were clearly transformational, while everyone else was still hunting mastodons with clubs. The Jetsons had very uneven effectiveness; sometimes they won, but they mostly left the impression that they were just interested in crazy gadgetry, like the bed that folded up in the morning and ejected George Jetson like a toaster.
* The Mystics. Mystics offered no evidence whatsoever that their programs were the right ones. Instead, they merely said over and over that they had done their missions for years, knew how to do them, had always known how to do them, would always know how to do them, and anyone who questioned how they did them was inexperienced or ignorant.
EWG meetings were highstakes events but largely were polite. One of my former service QDR coworkers finally got into a EWG session after two months of trying, and he expected to see a benchclearing brawl. His impression after the meeting was much different. "Everybody shows up with this gigantic gun," he said, "but when they draw it and pull the trigger, all that comes out is a little flag that says 'Bang.'" If you did nothing but watch EWGs, you'd conclude that OSD had the services on the run.
For a time, the services tried to press the fight in the study teams and in documents circulated for coordination. In the past, a "critical" on a document had to be solved to the satisfaction of the submitter, but not in QDR 2001. The new OSD simply trampled criticals underfoot. "But my general says you can't write that!" a hapless action officer would cry, as he looked at the final version of a document he had spent three all-nighters trying to defeat. The protester, knowing he was in for a buttchewing from his boss for failing to secure a change, would trudge back to his office, wondering why the old magic didn't work anymore.
This treatment created tremendous resentment, much of which was manifested in a huge number of leaks. An extraordinary number of disgruntled action officers started passing what they believed to be enormous injustices to various reporters, who dutifully reported them. The low point occurred when an anonymous general was quoted as saying if he had one round left in his gun, he would save it for the OSD official running the QDR (that official immediately procured a large-caliber bullet to display on his desk). Articles with titles such as "The Rumsfeld Death Watch" began to appear.
Groups such as The Plumbers also became bolder, openly courting media sources and floating complaints to congressional staffs. Some individuals simply took up espionage. One particularly amoral character, Colonel Despicable, frequently visited our offices and looted documents on our desks when he thought we weren't looking. His activities dropped off, however, after he was severely burned when he transmitted several outrageous "close hold plans" we had fabricated specifically for him.
The four uniformed action officers in our office-one from each service-had to walk a thin line when it came to transmitting information. As a result, we adopted various styles for dealing with our respective service staffs, but we had an unofficial agreement that we wouldn't ask each other about those relationships.
There was nothing pleasant about being an insider. My former coworkers, frustrated with impossible deadlines and ambiguous guidance, exploded several times when I told them I could not tell them anything about some burning issue coming down the line, or when I dropped yet another 24-hour deadline on their heads. The other action officers in our office had it much tougher; they often came back from field trips to their service staffs looking as if they had been beaten with tire chains. Adhering to the code, the rest of us normally didn't ask what happened, and the victim generally didn't want to talk anyway. "They were spittin' today," was all one of my compatriots would say.
By late August, almost everyone associated with the QDR was worn out. The study teams had reported out to the secretary's Senior Level Review Group multiple times, and almost none had received a passing grade. In all the face-slapping that had gone on, we had hammered out an overarching strategy, but not much else. Despite the fact that we didn't have answers to the questions specifically posed in the QDR legislation, word came down that we were done and should start writing. This job was too big for The Scribes and The Intern, so I found myself on the masthead as an author of QDR 2001.
Several of my coworkers predicted that the QDR fight would last for months, and that we would get sent back to redo the entire thing. But they were wrong.
End of the Lines
We slugged through two drafts of the QDR 2001 Report, using the same staffing procedures we had used through the entire QDR (24-hour coordination deadlines and rejection of critical comments). By this time, though, the services had learned how to win a few fights, and some substantial language was modified through successive drafts. Visits to our office on QDR report issues became more ominous, like house calls from The Terminator. "I'll be back," was the normal reply when we said we couldn't change something. I remember an encounter with Colonel Irascible, who inexplicably had stuck to his post during the entire QDR and was none too happy about it. "Who is writing this @#$^*&!!" he roared, pointing to a passage that offended him. "Why do you want comments if you just ignore them?"
One Tuesday morning, I was running around the building collecting comments on our latest draft. I happened to stop by my service's QDR office to pick up its input, and I noticed a lot of people clustered around a TV watching a news report. I didn't know what the excitement was about, so I headed back to our office with the latest ream of criticism.
When I arrived, we were just sitting down to discuss the progress of the latest QDR report draft. That meeting never started, though; it was 0943 on 11 September 2001, and American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at that instant.
I made my way out of the building (our office was several corridors from the point of impact), got home somehow, and let my family know I was unharmed. Sometime during the evening, I saw the secretary on TV. "We're still here today," he said, speaking of the staffs in the Pentagon. "And we'll be here tomorrow." Shortly afterward, our office deputy called. "We're working Wednesday," he said. "The secretary wants as many people in as possible."
I came in very early on Wednesday and tried to get to our office. Our hallway was completely black with soot, and there was a single set of footprints, leading in. I opened our vault, but there was so much smoke inside it wasn't possible to work. My next move was simplified by a passing fireman, who politely advised me to leave. "You have to get out of here, sir," he said. "We're working a fire just on the other side of that wall."
The Man had said to report, so I reported. But what was I supposed to do? I wandered down to my old office in the Joint Staff, where I'd started the QDR 2001 odyssey. Amazingly, it was up and running, and Colonel Armbar had just come back from a meeting with his general. Addressing everyone there-there were many other refugees besides me-Colonel Armbar said they would be working some emergency funding requests to Congress, and the call had gone out for anyone with certain types of operational planning experience. If we didn't fit either category, he said, the best thing to do would be to go home.
A couple officers stayed, but the rest of us started to shuffle out, realizing that this was a day when it was not worth a damn to be a bureaucrat. Colonel Armbar, who I had spoken with often since I'd left the Joint Staff, stopped me and said, "As of today, no one cares about the @#$%&8!!QDR anymore. It's over."
But Colonel Armbar was wrong, too. When our organization regrouped in a borrowed office the next day, our boss said the secretary had directed that QDR 2001 be finished and delivered to Congress on 30 September as the law required. It would not be delayed.
But no one's heart was in it. I clearly remember the arbitration of the comments on the final draft; the services, combatant command staffs, and other organizations had been given one last chance to critique the document, and they responded with considerable vengeance-collectively turning in about 1,200 scathing comments. Typical of the input was a comment on the section I had written that said "the information in this chapter could have been said in two paragraphs, neither of which is worth including anyway."
The expected crush of requests for presentations never happened. The enormous number of copies of the QDR Report that we had arranged to be printed (on a crash schedule, of course) languished in our office for months, and we began pressing them into the hands of visitors like they were sales literature. I did, however, get to brief our results to a visiting group of Japanese metallurgists.
QDR 2001 was over, and no one had predicted any of it.
What Did It Mean?
My experiences in QDR 2001 reaffirmed some basic lessons. Large bureaucracies resist change, and trying to do sequential tasks simultaneously almost always leads to failure. We also know that there are fanatics devoted to their causes, and extremism (bureaucratic or otherwise) is to be expected.
I chose to delay my retirement so I could attend the dedication of the rebuilt Pentagon wedge on 11 September 2002. I had watched the demolition and reconstruction for the entire year, and was continually impressed with the drive and efficiency of the construction teams. They showed-again-what a group of people can do with a clear goal and an effective organization.
A day or two later, I stopped by my old office in the Joint Staff to say goodbye. Walking out, I noticed a large piece of paper rolled up and shoved behind a desk. I took it out and discovered it was none other than the complaint diagram-a reminder of what seemed like a previous lifetime. I thought about asking to take it with me as a memento, and I'm sure no one would have objected. Instead, I chose to leave it where it was, archaeological evidence of a bureaucratic campaign that ended as strangely as it had started.
Maybe things are changing. Maybe we should worry less about legislatively mandated civil wars such as the QDR. Maybe we should worry more about supporting current operations. It is worth noting that Congress has changed the timing of the QDR to line up with DoD's budget cycle, so if OSD chooses, it can merely execute the current planning, programming, and budgeting process and submit that as the QDR. No lifted documents, special organizations, crazy deadlines, EWGs, or other nonsense. Maybe we can just do what we normally do with the staffs who normally do it.
And we can concentrate on preventing conflicts, and winning any conflict that can't be prevented. That, I think, would be much greater than anything I did in QDR 2001.
Colonel Yost, a 1980 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, retired from the Air Force in January 2003. he is now a senior analyst with the MiTRE Corporation in Virginia.