War Stories

Rumsfeld Surrenders

The QDR dashes his dreams of military transformation.

If Donald Rumsfeld were more likable, he might be a tragic figure. Consider the Quadrennial Defense Review, a 90-page document that the Pentagon issued today. Rumsfeld has lived for this moment these last two years. Amid the scandal of Abu Ghraib and the disastrous lack of planning for the war in Iraq, he has resisted calls for his resignation in order to solidify what he sees as his “legacy“—the “transformation” of the U.S. military, which he hoped the QDR would embody and galvanize. And yet the document, in its finished form, is a muddle at best, an assortment of interesting ideas with no scheme for translating them into reality.

The report’s preface attempts to disguise this failing. “The QDR is not a programmatic or budget document,” it reads. “Instead, it reflects the thinking of the senior civilian and military leaders of the Department of Defense.” This just isn’t so. Here is the congressionally ordered mandate for this report:

The Secretary of Defense shall every four years … conduct a comprehensive examination (to be known as a “quadrennial defense review”) of the national defense strategy, force structure, force modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plan, and other elements of the defense program and policies of the United States with a view toward determining and expressing the defense strategy of the United States and establishing a defense program for the next 20 years. [Italics added.]

In other words, lawmakers weren’t interested in learning about the secretary’s “thinking.” They wanted to know how his ideas and policies were related to actual programs and budgets. Rumsfeld knows this; he felt the same way and saw the QDR as the instrument through which he would overhaul the Pentagon’s policies and practices. This is what he has failed to accomplish.

The document envisions a world where the U.S. military’s main missions are homeland defense, the war on terrorism, and “irregular” or “asymmetric” warfare (i.e., wars against enemies that are not nation-states or that use weapons and strategies, such as roadside bombs, that make the most of their relative weaknesses). Much ink is spilled in discussing these new kinds of wars and the new kinds of soldier and command structures that they require. But look at what the Pentagon is really doing, how it’s spending its vast sums of money (close to $500 billion next year, not including the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). With a few notable exceptions (most of them inexpensive), you’d think that we were still fighting the Soviet Union and that the Cold War were still raging on.

Rumsfeld intended to make lots of changes. Back in 2001, when he wrote his first (far more ambitious) QDR, he observed that military transformation required major changes in the budget; that new technologies couldn’t be developed, built, or maintained unless many of the weapons geared to old-style warfare were dropped. In preparation for this new QDR, one of his chief aides—Andrew Marshall, the Pentagon’s longtime director of net assessment, who coined the term “military transformation”—recommended cutting the budget for tactical fighter planes by one-third. The newsletter InsideDefense.comrecently quoted one senior official as saying, “Some people went into the QDR thinking that ‘tac air’ was going to be the piggy bank to pay for a lot of things.”

But it was not to be. The fiscal year 2007 military budget—which Rumsfeld will present next week—imposes no cuts on the Air Force and Navy’s Joint Strike Fighter program (a total of 2,443 planes over the next several years). It slightly boosts the number of F-22 stealth fighter planes to be built by 2010 from 178 to 183. And even the QDR touts a plan to deploy an additional aircraft carrier and to resume building two nuclear-powered submarines each year. What these (and many other) big-ticket items have to do with the new kinds of threats, or new kinds of warfare, is unclear.

The QDR does spell out a fourth military mission, beyond defending the homeland, fighting terrorism, and engaging in asymmetrical warfare—”shaping the choices of countries at a strategic crossroad.” This is Pentagon-speak, these days, for countering the potentially looming threat of China. This mission provides the intellectual gloss for the top brass to keep demanding the multibillion-dollar weapons systems that they’ve championed throughout their careers—and for the powerful congressional leaders to keep funding these same systems, which bring so much money and jobs to their districts. (A case could be made for hedging against the possibility of an emergent, aggressive China—but not for doling out such a vast share of the military’s procurement budget in its name, especially at the cost of more pressing and real threats.)

In the case of the generals and admirals, it’s an insistence not so much on expensive weapons as on particular kinds of expensive weapons. The Air Force is run mainly by former fighter pilots, so they want to buy new tactical fighter planes like the F-22 and the JSF. The Navy is run by former carrier and submarine captains, so they want more carriers and submarines. This is perfectly natural; to their way of thinking, these sorts of weapons define what their branches of the armed forces is all about. Rumsfeld made a go at forging a new vision; but he’s never had more than an abstract notion of this vision, he’s had no sense of how to push it through, politically, bureaucratically, or strategically; and, in the end, he was outgunned by experienced officers who do know how to push their vision through, who have been around for a long time, and who will still be on the scene after Rumsfeld has moved back to Chicago.

At one point, the QDR reads: “Based on the Operational Availability analysis, other related assessments, and extensive senior leader discussions, the Department concluded that the size of today’s forces—both the Active and Reserve Components, across all Military Departments—is appropriate to meet current and projected demands.” This is Rumsfeld’s ultimate surrender: the concession that, fundamentally, all’s well; there’s no need for structural changes.

The QDR does contain some important ideas that can be implemented, in part because they don’t cost much money, in part because they’ve proved their worth in the last few wars: more Predator and Global Hawk drones; converting a few Trident submarine-launched missiles from nuclear to conventionally armed warheads; modernizing B-1 and B-52 bombers to enhance the U.S. ability to strike targets from long distances; continuing to break down the Army’s combat units into more flexible, self-sustaining brigades.

There are other proposals whose fate we’ll have to await: boosting the number of special operations forces; training future warriors to be as skilled in counterinsurgency as they are today in conventional combat; offering higher pay scales to those trained in foreign languages and cultures. These goals require money—and a larger, better-educated pool of recruits. The money is lacking (Rumsfeld couldn’t crack open the tac-air piggy bank), and the recruit base is diminishing in size and aptitude. The higher ranks are depleting as well. The QDR calls for rewarding “performance rather than longevity.” Yet officer ranks are depleting so badly these days that nearly all captains are promoted to majors and nearly all majors are promoted to lieutenant colonels. There aren’t enough people to demand good people. It’s another example of a nice idea without a solid foundation.

For the last four and a half years, the checkbook has been wide open for anything called “national security.” Rumsfeld and the chiefs got all the money they could wish for. Rather than use the opportunity to set priorities, they gorged. Now the well’s run dry, the budget has to be cut, the priorities are set by those with the staying power—and that’s one thing Rumsfeld doesn’t have.