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Is the Quadrennial Defense Review A Fraud?

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Last fall I attended a seminar at MIT entitled “Analytical Tools for the Next Quadrennial Defense Review”  given by a senior analyst who had worked on several QDRs. The QDR is an every-four-years Pentagon study mandated by Congress and meant to review how closely the defense posture and its supporting budget fits with the national strategy. The seminar presenter spent an hour detailing the analytical methods of those who worked on the “force structuring” and policy studies that provide the basis for the QDR review process. That process is ongoing this year in preparation for the release of fourth QDR in early 2010.

After the presentation a former member of the National Security Council who happened to be seated to my right turned to me and said, “[The QDR] seems like a fraud.”

More recently Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), Chairman of the House Armed Services air and land forces subcommittee, referred to the QDR as a “PR stunt” and a “PR exercise” (as reported by Marjorie Censer, Inside the Pentagon, 18 June 2009.) Rep. Abercrombie then went on to offer a less than precise elaboration, saying, “It’s all Thunderbird stuff, booms and all that.”

I can not be all that sure what the former National Security Council member or Rep. Abercrombie meant by their characterizations of the QDR. But, having followed all four QDRs fairly closely, I can make an educated guess at what they are getting at.

Congress has intended that through the QDR the Pentagon will make a serious attempt to reconcile the national defense strategy to the defense posture of the services and from that presumed point of congruence reconcile it to the defense budget. Policy analysts frequently complain that strategy, posture, and budget are dangerously out of whack. If the QDR process addresses this problem and then does the analytical and policy work required for making real advances toward reconciliation then we can judge that it is meeting its stated purpose. If it results in a public document that uses rhetorical flourish in order to mask disjuncture of ends and means and to perpetuate prior posture and budget directions, then it is something like a "fraud" or "PR exercise."

The unfolding 2010 QDR process gives us a good opportunity to look for evidence of either real reconciliation or PR exercise. A few pieces of evidence:

There are dozens of high level policy professionals and planners in the Pentagon who have more than a cursory responsibility for aspects of the QDR. They work with hundreds of others, some inside the military and many civilian consultants and contractors. Models are built and simulations are run. Task forces and issue teams work the results. No doubt many of these people would be indignant if you told them their work was simply serving public relations and had little effect on the direction of policy.

On the other hand, modeling output and even the output of task forces are quite sensitive to starting assumptions and specifications. Senior civilian and military leaders in the Pentagon carefully review input parameters and seek to influence how the particulars of output is summed up and presented to those responsible for the next steps in the process of getting to the final report. “Startling findings” and their policy implications are unlikely to find their way into the document drafts unless senior leadership wants them there.

Consider also that Defense News has reported that the Pentagon is moving ahead with the FY ’11 budget process before the budget work on the 2010 QDR is completed. This is at least suggestive of prior budget and posture decisions running the QDR output rather than the other way around.

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