Many commentators have already called the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) a continuation of the status quo, since it does not eliminate high-profile defense programs or significantly restructure the department. But in fact, quite the opposite is true. Compared to its predecessors, this QDR was conducted in a much different manner and context and in the end charts a much different course for the future of the Department of Defense (DOD). The most disruptive results of the QDR won't be seen, though, until future budgets are completed.
For starters, DOD entered this QDR with a different set of priorities than past reviews. The nation was, and continues to be, at war. The retention of Robert Gates from the previous administration as Secretary of Defense implied existing strategies and priorities would remain in place. The QDR process emphasized today's wars to an unprecedented degree, ensuring that our warfighters get the equipment, policies, and support they need to be successful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our look at future capabilities used today's force as the starting point, instead of assuming the future force could be created from scratch.
The threats previous QDRs envisioned on the horizon are now today's threats. Past reviews postulated that the force could build capabilities to counter advanced anti-access weapons such as quiet diesel submarines, advanced electronic warfare, long-range stealthy cruise missiles, and highly sophisticated ballistic missiles. In our assessment for this QDR, these capabilities all exist today, and not just in China or Russia. They are increasingly in the hands of potential adversaries like Iran or North Korea, and we must identify ways-both material and non-material-to counter them today.
To capture the importance and impact of today's wars and the growing complexity of likely conflicts, the QDR explicitly rejected the simple planning constructs used in previous reviews. While these supported straightforward determination of the required future force, they didn't address the needs of ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the likelihood of long-term lower-intensity conflict, the needs for future stability operations, and the impact of simultaneous non-major combat operations (MCOs) such as homeland attacks.
Ready for Conflicts of Numerous Dimensions
The sizing and shaping construct of the 2010 QDR includes the possibility of two near-simultaneous conflicts with regional aggressors, but it also addresses the potential for other combinations such as a single high-end conflict during ongoing stability operations or an extended deterrence operation against the backdrop of multiple stability operations.
While in the past these other combinations were considered "lesser-included cases" of the "two-MCO" force, our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows this is not true. The force required for these other combinations has a different composition. If the conflict is of long duration, the required force is much larger to accommodate the rotation we have found necessary to sustain our Soldiers and Marines. This larger force could be difficult to field if the long-term conflict is maritime or air-centric because of the capital-intensive nature of these forces.
The warfighting scenarios we use to plan for the future must also capture this complexity, but it is not reflected in our current analytic efforts. The QDR qualitatively assessed some of the challenges we face in stabilizing failing states or countering attacks on the United States, but we will need to fully evaluate the forces needed to deal with challenges like loose nuclear weapons, large-scale displacement and consequence management, or widespread and potent insurgencies.
This emphasis on today's wars and conflicts like them does not mean the QDR ignored the need to deter tomorrow's high-end competitors. In this arena, the Navy and Air Force remain the nation's strategic reserve and the forces of choice to gain and maintain access against adversaries eager to negate U.S. influence in their regions. The QDR highlights capability improvements both services must make to retain U.S. freedom of action, but, in a break from previous QDRs, the size of the force is largely driven by needs for more likely conflicts.
Not the Status Quo
The QDR explicitly and implicitly lays out some new directions for DOD planning. The shared dependence we and our partners have on the global commons and the stability of global systems makes their contributions not only beneficial, but mandatory. The demands of today's wars on our ground forces place a greater emphasis on the ability of naval and air forces to protect the commons and deter aggression. These priorities result in a practical grand strategy of balancing in the near-term-encouraging partners to address local security concerns and using U.S. naval and air forces to support them while balancing other competitors. Until ground forces have drawn down in the Middle East and reset at home, we can expect increased demand and emphasis on naval forces.
This implicit strategy resulted in continued support for the Navy's force structure, despite the QDR's emphasis on today's ground-centric campaigns. Our aircraft carriers, ballistic-missile defense cruisers, counter-piracy destroyers, and intelligence-gathering submarines are key contributors to today's fights and part of the "enabling force" the QDR strongly supports. Sea-based forces such as amphibious ships have become more, not less, relevant as basing becomes more limited in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and the sensitivity of coalition operations requires a U.S. force that can support partners from over the horizon. The QDR supported the Navy's existing plans for each of these platforms because they contribute to today's coalition operations while standing by to deter tomorrow's conflicts.
To balance other competitors, the QDR emphasized improvements in capabilities essential to deterring adversaries wielding sophisticated anti-access weapons and strategies. Our investments in long-range and stealthy unmanned and submarine strike, electronic warfare, sea basing, and littoral operations reflect this emphasis on being able to fight in an anti-access environment and circumvent or defeat geographic and military impediments.
The Way Ahead
Improving these capabilities and maintaining our Fleet capacity will require resources, as CNO Admiral Roughead notes. Our shipbuilding budget will require several billion more dollars per year than we have historically spent. Manpower and operations costs are growing faster than inflation. Maintenance will become more expensive as our Fleet ages, but it is critical to Fleet capacity.
Our nation is entering a period when federal budgets will tighten. This is the 15th consecutive year of annual increases in defense spending-the longest such period since 1900. We will need to become better stewards of the funds we receive and aggressively pursue efficiencies if we expect to maintain the capacity required for a globally influential Navy. With today's levels of investment, our Navy will not be able to maintain our current level of presence past the mid 2020s.
In the QDR, we correctly emphasized support to the individual Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine. To manage our costs we must now align our manpower and infrastructure with our operational needs, and adjust the size of each element of our total force-military, contractor, and civilian. This will require difficult analysis and hard choices. If we do not take them on, though, we truly will be setting up the Navy and the nation for the "elegant decline" predicted by writers like Robert Kaplan.
This QDR accomplished much in emphasizing support to today's wars and stating the "commander's intent" for tomorrow's force. Now we must begin the work of evaluating the nation's defense needs in a complex future, with growing fiscal constraints and a strategy that places a premium on the ability to operate from the sea.