Defense Transformation and the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review

By Henry, Ryan | Parameters, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Defense Transformation and the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review


Henry, Ryan, Parameters


At the end of the Cold War, America entered a new and unfamiliar global security environment. As the Department of Defense began to alter strategies and plans, it quickly became apparent that changes might have to be made across the defense establishment. This led in 1993 to the Bottom-Up Review, and, starting in 1997, to the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) process. As the Department of Defense enters its third QDR this year, it is important to understand how central the QDR has become to the work of the department--and how different this QDR is, compared to its predecessors.

With a yearly budget in excess of $400 billion, the Department of Defense is perhaps the largest single bureaucracy in the world. Sheer size, as well as vested interests and old ways of thinking, tend to give large bureaucracies an inertial resistance to change.

One of the tasks in the department this year is to ensure that the QDR can instead be an engine of continued transformation. The need to transform our military has elevated the role of the QDR from a tool of periodic refinement to a fulcrum of transition to a post-9/11 world. This article will explore what the QDR has become, how it is being processed, and what the Defense Department hopes it will achieve.

The Modern History of US Defense Transformations

It is rare in history for institutions at the height of their success to transform themselves in anticipation of new challenges, but the armed forces of the United States have done it before. Looking back at major defense transformations through our history, we can see that periods of concerted national effort to transform the military have tracked a cyclical pattern: New challenges lead the defense establishment to develop new strategies, which in turn leads to investments in capabilities appropriate to that strategy.

In the 1930s, faced with the rise of aggressively expansionist regimes in Japan and Europe, the United States needed to prepare for the possibility of a new kind of conflict, and on a huge scale. We devised a strategy of both mass and speed, one that emphasized destroying the enemy's industrial capacity as much as its forces in the field. Accordingly, the United States invested heavily in amphibious warfare, carrier-based air power, a strategic bombing force, and an industrial base to support mechanized warfare. In the nuclear age, faced with a global threat from the Soviet Union, we had to transform the military to integrate nuclear and conventional forces, dramatically increasing its power and scope to maintain a strategy of containment and the capability for massive retaliation. In the 1980s, America embarked on a series of competitive strategies meant to expose fissures in the military establishment and strategic posture of the Soviet Union, in the hopes--successfully as it turned out--of stressing them beyond their breaking point in their competition with the United States. In each of these cases, a new set of strategic problems led to new strategic thinking and then to sweeping transformation in the structure, posture, weapon systems, and tactical doctrines of our military.

Since 9/11, the Defense Department has gained sufficient insight into the new problem-set we face that the time is again ripe for new strategic thinking and for transforming the force. The QDR provides a unique lever with which to translate these insights into action.

When the Defense Department began its work under a new Administration nearly five years ago, President Bush charged it with preparing the military for the challenges of the 21st century. This was to be no easy task: if we knew anything about those challenges, it was that we didn't know enough about them. Because we can no longer make confident predictions about the specific threats we will face, we must be able to provide for national defense across a broad spectrum of threats. This has required a change in planning methodology, using new tools for thinking about developing needed capabilities. …

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