- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

While still largely unnoticed by official Washington, the upcoming 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) has the potential to make lasting changes in how America will be able to fight future conflicts. The results are likely to be more significant and less pre-determined than thought likely a few months ago.

Earlier this year, the accepted wisdom in Washington was that the 2005 QDR, scheduled to be completed by February 2006, would reflect the predetermined priorities and course corrections of Presidential Budget Decision 753, which was approved in December. Seen in the context of the perceived conflict between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the services — one of the many long-running policy games that Washington loves to score — the 2005 QDR would be a top-down solution. Imposed by the office of the secretary defense, it would have minimal service involvement, either to secure “buy-in” to the results or at least to keep them busy and not preparing to implement their preferred agendas regardless of QDR results.

Accepted wisdom — once more — may have gotten it wrong. There is an emerging realization that national security would be poorly served by a low-key policy-affirming QDR. The requirements of the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threats from Iran and North Korea, the war on terrorism and the need to incorporate transformative technologies all constitute critical, and in many ways, competing priorities. The potential cost of avoiding hard questions was perhaps best stated last month by Missouri Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee: “We can win this war and come out the weaker for it, if we’re not very careful.”

Views such as this have had considerable resonance, especially among those who remember how the military concentration on Vietnam for a decade contributed to the “hollow forces” era of the 1970s. In January, at a meeting with Mr. Rumsfeld of combatant commanders — the four-star senior military warfighters — Gen. John Abizaid of the Central Command, reportedly argued that a narrow-focused QDR would be inadequate. There was an emerging consensus for the view that hard defense decisions have to be made now and cannot be postponed until “after”: after Iraq, after budget crises or after Paul Wolfowitz’s successor is fully briefed.

As a result, the focus of the QDR was broadened, which made it less of a predetermined and limited top-down exercise. It also raised the difficult question of how the Defense Department will be part of the larger national security strategy and how it will operate integrated with other federal agencies that are not involved in the QDR process. These arelarger issues raised — but not resolved — in terms of capabilities required for implementation by the recently issued National Military Strategy and National Defense Strategy documents.

Yet it also appears that by originally setting the agenda and budget bottom line in December, Mr. Rumsfeld cut through potential intra-service and inter-service disputes over what is put on the table that could easily have consumed months. The services, already pressed in adjusting their long-range spending plans to new realities, now have limited time to lobby for additional resources. This limited timeframe is further compressed by the decision that 2005 will be a “rolling QDR,” with decisions made and implemented before its completion. QDR results will be used to establish priorities for modernizing forces and future threats.

Maj. Gen. Ronald Bath, director of Air Force Strategic Planning, described the 2005 QDR as a “marathon run at a sprinter’s pace.” The services, which have greater resources in terms of skilled personnel to call on in the process, may find this appealing. Whether there will be time to answer the difficult questions raised by the broadened QDR mandate remains to be seen.

The Department of Defense may use this emerging momentum to put in place a QDR with guidance that reflects the lessons of September 11, Afghanistan and Iraq, and will last past the end of this administration. Even if this is its goal, it is uncertain whether they will select the 2005 QDR as a vehicle for its implementation. But the failure to do so — producing the limited QDR that Washington originally anticipated — would send a message that this administration is going instead to concentrate on solving the near-term challenges to the military in Iraq and elsewhere.

David Isby is a Washington-based author and consultant on national security issues.

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