Monday, November 19, 2001

On Nov. 1, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ran an op-ed in The Washington Post, asserting that the United States must “act now to prepare for the next war, even as we wage the current war against terrorism.” He also stated that the guidelines for such preparation can be found in the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released last Oct. 1.

When it first came out, the QDR was greeted with nearly universal disdain: too general, mere rhetoric, an evasion of the “hard choices.” Yet a closer reading reveals a document so relentlessly rational, so implacably wise, so utterly new, that it’s not surprising nobody grasped, or cared to grasp, its significance.

It’s time we did.

The QDR is a congressionally mandated Defense Department self-study; such efforts rarely produce anything of consequence. The 1997 QDR amounted to little more than a tinny apology for the Clinton administration’s disastrous stewardship of the common defense; a crass vindication of bureaucratic and armed service business-as-usual; and a surrealistic assertion that the United States could still fight and win two (more or less) simultaneous major wars, presumably in Korea and the Persian Gulf.

The 2001 QDR was supposed to be different, if only because it would reveal the depth of opposition to Mr. Rumsfeld’s plans to drag the Pentagon into the 21st century; or, as the process is known, to “transform” it. Many analysts expected that Oct. 1 would kick off an intramural slugfest of a viciousness not witnessed since the late 1940s. No doubt, a few had already prepared their opinions and rehearsed their spontaneous quips.

Then, three weeks later, a document that, against all odds, made sense. Four fundamental transformations (more may be adduced) fairly leap off the page.

First, the primary mission of the armed forces is now defined as homeland defense, as it must be and always should have been. Back to basics. Amen and hallelujah. Selah.

Second, the QDR shifts the military from a “threat-based” to a “capabilities-based” strategy. In plain English: We may not know where and whom we’ll fight, but we know pretty much what we’ll need.

Third, the QDR does not explicitly abandon the “two war strategy” (actually, no strategy at all, merely a “force-sizing” gimmick). But it does posit that in the future the military must be ready to: “Swiftly defeat aggression in overlapping major conflicts while preserving for the president the option to call for a decisive victory in one of those conflicts including the possibility of regime change or occupation.”

For those of us old enough to remember when U.S. goals stopped at “restoring the border on favorable terms” in Korea or Europe or Kuwait … let us all rejoice that we’ve lived to see it.

Fourth, the QDR outlines a new approach to operations: adequate forward basing coupled with rapid reinforcement capabilities and this is vital attacks conducted by “long-range strike aircraft and special operations forces.” Read here, no more enemy sanctuaries, regardless of the identity or political structure of the foe.

The QDR’s approach to technological and organizational transformation displays the same good sense, although a bit of reading between the lines may be required. Only a portion of the present force need be transformed or recapitalized; a portion of the “legacy force” will be “selectively retired.” While the National Guard and reserves will remain vital war-fighting assets, homeland defense duties (“a primary mission”) will slowly end the Clinton-era policy of using citizen-soldiers to relieve the active forces of distasteful foreign missions, such as Bosnia.

Further, the QDR proposes establishment of standing Joint Task Forces to work on inter-service standardization and inter-operability. Waning may be the days when “jointness” meant that each service got a piece of the action, then went off with that piece to do pretty much as it pleased.

In sum, a magnificent approach. But then, to borrow from the poet Robert Burns, “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the zipper and the zip.” Can the Pentagon really get it done?

Obviously, much depends on money. There’ll never be enough for everything, and the QDR seems almost Sphinxlike on the matter of future procurement, especially as it affects future service roles and missions. A “capabilities-based defense” means that a lot of things could be up for grabs. A heavy new emphasis on long-range Air Force bombers, for example, could lead to diminution of the role of aircraft carriers, even of ground forces. Nor is everybody thrilled with the homeland defense mission. The National Guard, for example, may be expected to resist any move that might threaten its role as the Army’s overseas combat reserve. And for all the services, the real missions and the big bucks lie overseas, not in providing “consequence management” assets or quasi-law enforcement duties.

That said, it’s possible that the Pentagon may be entering an era, not of supercharged confrontation, but of military statesmanship. Some years ago, an Army general acquainted me with his notion of the “Three Drink Consensus.” After that third Martini or bourbon or whatever, most officers and civilian officials would pretty much agree in principle on what needs to be done. Only the requirement to defend their own turf bowls (and perhaps a bit of parochial pride) prevents agreement on the job. But today, if the words of the QDR have any real-world meaning, a basic consensus exists cold sober.

To borrow from an old recruiting ad, “It’s a great place to start.”

Philip Gold is a senior fellow in national security affairs at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.

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