Leadership: October 7, 2000

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QDR Follies; By law, every four years the top Pentagon brass must take a hard look at what they are doing and where they are going. This is the QDR, or Quadrennial Defense Review. The idea behind the QDR was sound; take a fresh look at defense needs on a regular basis. The circumstances are less auspicious. The QDR was established in 1994 to take some of the politics out of reorganizing the armed forces now that the Cold War was over. 

You could say that the QDR did have some positive effects, but not all of them were what was intended. For example, everyone knew that a new enemy was needed once the Soviet Unions disintegrated in 1991. No one could agree on who the new bad guys were, how bad they were, and what was needed to deal with them. The QDRs have designated North Korea and Iraq as the principal evil foes, with blow ups in places like Indonesia and Taiwan or Pakistan as backups. With that came the demand that enough money be spent to enable the troops to handle wars breaking out in Korea and Iraq at the same time. Well, that didn't work out. When the bombing campaign against Serbia commenced in 1999, it quickly became obvious that all our resources were not adequate for even that one operation. Oh, there were plenty of aircraft, but not all were available for operations. This was because not enough spare parts were available, and inventories of guided bombs were quickly used up. Modern warplanes wear out a lot of components quickly under combat conditions. For reasons no one quite understands, buying billions of dollars of spare parts for wartime use rarely gets high priority in peacetime, and it's too late to do anything about it once the shooting starts. The QDR did not make a stink about the sinking spare parts inventories, until bombing Serbia smoked out the truth.

Even before the Serbian air campaign showed the impossibility of making a two war policy work, simple math revealed that there insufficient transport aircraft and ships to get the troops to Korea or the Persian Gulf in time to get anything done. Transport aircraft and ships are also not considered sexy, so there are never enough of them.
So where did the two war policy come from? On the surface, the policy came from the generals and admirals in the Pentagon. They looked at the world, decided it was a dangerous place and that America needed the wherewithal to fight at least two medium grade wars at once. That's the official story. In reality, the defense budget is a snakes nest of pet projects and parochial interests. And then there's peacekeeping, which no one anticipated when the first QDR was conducted in the mid 1990s. Peacekeeping duties have made the official "two war" strategy even more of a fairy tale. But the Pentagon public relations troops have shown they are at the top of their game, as the impact of peacekeeping on the "two war" plan has been kept pretty much undercover. 

When the Cold War ended, everyone expected a "peace dividend" from a greatly reduced defense budget. But that desire ran into the realities of defense budget politics, and lost. Cold War era weapons development projects worth hundreds of billions of dollars were not going to disappear without a fight. The companies that were building all this stuff were naturally reluctant to see their projects cancelled in the name of a "peace dividend." Within the military, there were also fans for each of the threatened systems. Both the civilian and military proponents of the threatened systems knew how to use the media and politicians to save their projects. On the media side, you pump out a lot of stuff about how America will lose it's military edge if the threatened projects are given the chop. These pleas often sound a bit forced, if not silly, and few stand up to much scrutiny. What really saves the day is the classic political gambit of reminding politicians of lost jobs among constituents if the projects are eliminated. And so, few of the systems designed to fight the now defunct Soviet Union were eliminated in the 1990s. 

OK, so the brass and civilian experts get together and talk strategy every four years. What good comes of it? Actually, there is some. Like many military reforms, the effect is usually much less than anticipated. The QDR does get a lot of issues out in the open on a regular basis. At the very least, the politicians are forced to do some fancy dancing to justify the continued abuses. The military has also used the QDR as an opportunity to showcase new ideas, including new concepts that would rarely see the light of day were it not for the QDR. Things like dramatically different weapons or new strategies and tactics. We get a peek at new types of ships, aircraft and tanks. New military organizations (like "peacekeeping brigades") are considered. However, in the end, we generally end up with business as usual. 
At least you only have to face this stuff once every four years.

 


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