Monday, April 4, 2005

The 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review is scheduled to get underway in earnest next month. Since it is arguably President Bush’s best remaining chance to make lasting improvements to the nation’s military capabilities, we’re heartened to see that a few recent indications — notably the national military and defense strategy documents released by the Pentagon earlier this month and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s classified plans as reported in the Wall Street Journal three weeks ago — all suggest the administration’s vision for change still reflects the need to fight the wars of the future, and is profoundly influenced by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the experience of the Iraq War. It’s too early to know how successful the administration will be in the hard work of a broad and vigorous QDR. But at least the intellectual guidance is on the table.

The president’s plans to pursue defense transformation are still prominent. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s National Defense Strategy states that “adapting the defense establishment” to transformation and “refocusing capabilities to meet future challenges, not those we are already most prepared to meet” are priorities. How this will play out in practice is hard to say, but it’s a good sign when the Secretary can write in his official strategy statement that “Transformation requires difficult programmatic and organizational choices. We will need to divest in some areas and invest in others.” This is a way of warning entrenched interests that a changing security environment means changing defense priorities, sometimes in painful ways.

Second, the president and Mr. Rumsfeld are reiterating their commitment to reshape the military in light of lessons from Sept. 11 and the Iraqi insurgency. Mr. Rumsfeld rightly cites securing the United States from direct attack as the paramount priority. “Preventive” defense — that is, stopping crises before they happen, a category which presumably includes “pre-emptive” actions like removing Saddam Hussein-type regimes — is also critical, the secretary’s strategy states. Among the desired capabilities, strengthening intelligence ranks first — an obvious nod at the September 11 and Iraq War intelligence failures. Then there is mention of “improving proficiency against irregular challenges” — Pentagon-speak for preparing for Iraq-type insurgencies and other so-called “assymetric” war strategies.

How the QDR process will play out is anyone’s guess, but Washington’s many scorers of conflicts between the administration and the military will start giving preliminary assessments before long. There are reasons to be optimistic, as David Isby suggested on the opposite page last week, including Central Command Gen. John Abizaid’s reported role in January as an advocate of a broader QDR that tackles the tough questions. There’s no doubt that the president’s approach is likely to meet resistance from the services, from critics of his foreign policy and from defenders of billions of dollars worth of military contracts. The coming months will show whether the president and Mr. Rumsfeld can make their transformation vision a reality.

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