The Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review

Today's U.S. military, now nearly through its post-cold war drawdown, has enough funds to meet its year-to-year needs for the rest of the 1990s. But most of the defense equipment purchased in large quantities in the 1970s and 1980s will soon need to be replaced or refurbished. The administration's weapons procurement spending, slated to rise to $50 billion in 2002 from its current level of $45 billion (in constant 1997 dollars), will probably be about $15 billion short of what the joint chiefs, secretary of defense, Congressional Budget Office, and several independent analysts believe is needed. There are ways to redress this looming budget shortfall without abandoning U.S. friends or interests. Most notably, the Pentagon is too pessimistic about the likely requirements for waging wars in Korea and the Persian Gulf region.

Given improved U.S. airpower, the enhanced pre-stationing of U.S. military equipment in both those regions, and the continued deterioration of the North Korean and Iraqi threats, somewhat smaller U.S. ground force capabilities would be adequate. The Air Force and Navy can get by with fewer of the new systems they are now purchasing-notably, the F-22 fighter, F/A-18 E/F fighter, and DDG-51 destroyer. Economies are also possible in nuclear forces, though the possibility of deploying a light nationwide missile defense in the next decade needs to be factored into budget plans. It may be possible to realize several billion dollars a year in further savings from privatizing defense support functions like equipment and base maintenance. But these savings will probably be canceled out by added costs from contingency operations and other unforeseeable events.


For the third time in this decade, the Pentagon is undertaking a major strategic reassessment. In light of the frequency with which they have been occurring, one might be forgiven for a ho-hum reaction to this one, known as the quadrennial defense review (QDR). After all, it was precipitated neither by a major geopolitical event nor by a changing of the guard at the White House. And deficit pressures, while real, do not appear severe enough to force policymakers to raid the same discretionary spending accounts that have borne the brunt of budget cutting to date.

But to give up on the QDR would be to relinquish an important opportunity. Looked at another way, the 1993 bottom-up review (BUR) occurred too soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union and Desert Storm to give those who devised it a balanced perspective on what policymakers would really ask out of the post-cold war Pentagon.

We are now more than six years into the new era. The Clinton BUR strategy was a reasonable first approximation to guide what the U.S. military should look like as we enter the twenty-first century. But policymakers should not be afraid to acknowledge that it has some shortcomings. Still, the needed repairs are of modest scale. Critics sometimes argue that the BUR's basic principles and today's military should be largely scrapped, to be replaced by new technologies and new types of military forces or by a number of dedicated peacekeeping units or some other major alteration. But geopolitical, technical, and organizational realities raise warning flags about any such approach.

The much-touted revolution in military affairs is not unprecedented; such revolutions have been going on throughout this century. It is not clear what is now different about the pace or significance of this one. Even since the advent of blitzkrieg warfare and carrier-based airpower, the following technologies or capabilities have arrived and already been incorporated into modern military forces: radar, helicopters, infrared sensors for guidance and for targeting, laser-guided bombs, laser rangefinders, high-performance jet engines, stealth technology, autonomous and accurate missiles, reconnaissance satellites, and the modern high-speed computer (not to mention thermonuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles). Are the munitions, sensors, and integrated communications systems now being developed or produced of even greater significance? That seems doubtful. Gradual adaptation rather than wholesale rebuilding of defense may be a wiser way to carry out this particular 'revolution.'

Likewise, although today's military has experienced strains and revealed shortcomings in its efforts to carry out various peacekeeping or low-intensity combat operations, it has displayed professionalism, sound tactics, and appropriate discipline and discretion in Bosnia, Haiti, and even Somalia. (There, the mission's major shortcomings were due to a flawed policy for which some national military leaders shared responsibility, not to the tactics and operations of troops on the ground.)

What is more, no single dominating mission seems likely to confront tomorrow's U.S. armed forces. A number will be important. Ongoing hot spots in Korea and the Persian Gulf, as well as the Western Pacific and South China Sea, cannot be ignored. Nor can potential geostrategic competition with a future 'peer rival.' China is perhaps the most likely candidate to fill such a role but is at least two decades from being able to do so. Peace operations, disaster relief, and forcible humanitarian interventions also remain important. By playing its part in such missions, the United States helps save lives, makes the world a more stable and generally safer place, and adds to its moral authority.


Executive Editor

Ms Anna Sullivan

Ms Anna Sullivan