Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Clearing up some misconceptions about the QDR and national strategy formulation (UPDATED)

There are a lot of problems with the way the U.S. government crafts and communicates national strategy. If I were to run them down (which I'm not going to do here, but have done before), I might begin with the most glaring: almost none of them meet even the most very basic test to be accurately identified as strategy: they do not comprehensively consider ends, ways, and means. This goes for the National Security Strategy (published by the White House), the National Defense Strategy (published by the Office of the Secretary of Defense), and the National Military Strategy (published by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs); it also applies to the QDR Report, which makes no titular claim to be a strategy but which is required by law to contain "a comprehensive discussion of the national defense strategy of the United States, the strategic planning guidance, and the force structure best suited to implement that strategy at a low-to-moderate level of risk."

Ex and Spencer had a little back-and-forth this morning based on Ackerman's brief blog post entitled "The Designed-In Failures of Pentagon Strategy," in which he criticizes the statutory language that mandates the QDR:
This year, something unexpected happened. In April, after the Pentagon crafted its budget, President Obama announced that the Defense Department needed to chop $400 billion out of its budget over the next decade. (Since the Pentagon will spend, unimpeded, $5 trillion over the next decade, that might not look like such a big number.) Outgoing Secretary Gates reluctantly said that the Pentagon would conduct a review of "roles and missions" to proritize -- and potentially jettison -- to guide the cuts.
Wait a minute, you might think. Why not just use the QDR for that? 
CNAS' footnote finally provides me with an answer. "[C]ongressional legislation," the CNAS report announces, "prohibits the QDR from addressing [financial] constraints." See Footnote 28:
Pursuant to 10 U.S.C. 118b, each Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) shall be conducted so as "to make recommendations that are not constrained to comply with the budget submitted to Congress by the President." This stipulation was added in the [Fiscal Year] 2007 National Defense Authorization Act.
Aaaaaand that's my jaw hitting the floor. Congress specifically instructed the Pentagon to plan for the future without regard to the money necessary for making its plans reality. At the time, I thought the 2009 QDR was a pretty good document. Others looked at it and saw a wish list. Still others looked at it and saw an incomplete wish list. Now I see that those who considered it a wish list were quite literally accurate.
Ex shot back with "Why the QDR Should Not Mention Cost." And the Beard Battle was joined.
Spencer Ackerman is one of the brightest and most provocative defense policy journalists working today, but he is wrong to be so upset that the Department of Defense executes its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) without consideration of potential budget constraints. [...] It is the responsibility of elected officials in the executive and legislative branches -- not military officers of Department of Defense civilians -- to determine where and how to assume risk in our national defense posture and activities. Here is the way the conversation should go:
Department of Defense: "I need to do X, Y, and Z, and here is what I need to do X, Y, Z."
Elected Officials: "Great. We will fully fund X and Y but not Z. Given spending priorities elsewhere, we will assume risk there."
Department of Defense: "So I understand that if I am called upon to do Z and am unable to do so, the burden of responsibility falls on those elected by the American people and not those commissioned to defend the American people."
Elected Officials: "Correct."
Unfortunately, I think both guys may slightly misunderstand exactly what the QDR does and doesn't require, though they're closer to the mark in their impressions of how strategy formulation and budgeting ought to go.

Let's first go back to the footnote sentence Spencer cited in the CNAS report (which hasn't yet been made public, so we'll have to take his word for it [see update below]): "[C]ongressional legislation prohibits the QDR from addressing [financial] constraints." I'm curious to see the broader context of this statement; at best, it's misleading, and at worst, it's factually incorrect.

Here's the relevant section of the law (which is not, as the CNAS footnote indicates, 10 USC 118b, but rather 10 USC 118 (b)):
(b) Conduct of Review — Each quadrennial defense review shall be conducted so as—
(1) to delineate a national defense strategy consistent with the most recent National Security Strategy prescribed by the President pursuant to section 108 of the National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C. 404a);
(2) to define sufficient force structure, force modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plan, and other elements of the defense program of the United States associated with that national defense strategy that would be required to execute successfully the full range of missions called for in that national defense strategy;
(3) to identify
  • (A) the budget plan that would be required to provide sufficient resources to execute successfully the full range of missions called for in that national defense strategy at a low-to-moderate level of risk, and
  • (B) any additional resources (beyond those programmed in the current future-years defense program) required to achieve such a level of risk; and
(4) to make recommendations that are not constrained to comply with the budget submitted to Congress by the President pursuant to section 1105 of title 31.
It's important to note that the law treats the QDR and the QDR report separately: §118 (a) requires a review; §188 (b) specifies how it must be conducted and what questions must be answered; and §118 (d) specifies what must be contained in the QDR report along with when and to whom it must be submitted.

The bit Spencer and the CNAS authors are talking about is in sub-subsection 4. Read it in context. It doesn't say that the QDR must ignore financial constraints -- only that the requirements identified by the review must not be adjusted or suppressed to fit with the administration's budget request. (The statute further ensures this by requiring in 10 USC 118 (d) that the QDR report be submitted to the relevant Congressional committees "not later than the date on which the President submits the budget for the next fiscal year.") The law isn't saying "don't even think about how much this costs!" -- it expressly requires consideration of budget plans "that would be required to execute successfully the full range of missions called for" in the specified national defense strategy.

If we consider this language on its face, it makes perfect sense: the Congress requires the DOD to make a full accounting of what missions, capabilities, and systems are required to execute national strategy with a low level of risk in order to understand how much must be appropriated to that end. Of course, it's hard not to be cynical (aka realistic) about the whole thing and conclude that this mandate exists to facilitate the sort of military-legislative-industrial collusion that ensures near unimpeded increases in defense spending; if legislators require the military to lay out its "requirements" irrespective of administration funding priorities, they can hammer the president for imperiling national security by failing to adequately fund their favored defense programs. This is Congress saying to the Pentagon "do not take the president's guidance about future funding levels as an appetite supressant. Tell us what you need to defend the country and we'll worry about getting the cash."

There's a simple way to solve this problem if you're the White House, to keep the military from making an end-run around you to Congress: write a good National Security Strategy (this is not a good one), complete with prioritization of interests and an appreciation of relevant conditions in the operating environment (like for example the nation's fiscal health).

You're not going to hear me say this very often, but the law is actually pretty good here: the Department is directed to conduct a review that's based on the requirements of executing the NSS with low-to-moderate risk, not on some out-of-left-field assertion of national defense requirements that the Pentagon has cooked up from scratch. If the president does a good job of setting out his view of America's vital interests and national security priorities, and he happens to define those things more narrowly than the hawks on the Hill do, that's fine; he can be held accountable by those who argue that his view of what's necessary to defend the country isn't expansive enough, but so long as his budget plans are in line with that strategy, he can't be criticized for a failure to appropriately resource the things he's asking the military to do.

Where I think Ex gets this wrong is by suggesting that there's a way for the military to punt on missions it's directed to perform, whether or not they're resourced or included in national strategy. The burden of responsibility always falls on the elected government: the Defense Department is merely the president's proxy on matters of defense. And if the military can't execute a mission that the president assigns, there may be plenty of explanations ("we're not budgeted for this," "we didn't plan for this," "you didn't tell us you were going to want to do this in the NSS," etc.) but there are no excuses. The Army and Marine Corps weren't prepared to perform counterinsurgency and stability operations in 2003 and hadn't been given to expect that they'd need to by previous guidance from higher, but they still had to adapt to accomplish the mission. The reality is that if the military is called upon to perform mission Z and found unable to do so, few people will be comfortable with the explanation "but the burden of responsibility falls on those elected by the American people and not those commissioned to defend the American people!", and Ex knows this.

But the current NSS justifies and perhaps even requires a defense program that prepares the military for nearly all contingencies in all circumstances and all climes and places, while the budget will not resource that program. Considering the fiscal and political environment, it seems clear we need a new strategy. 

Just as a point of reference, let's look at the state of national strategy formulation and publication in the Obama administration. When the president was inaugurated in January 2009, the government was operating under an NSS that was published by the Bush Administration in 2006, an NDS from 2008, and an NMS that was last published in 2004 (and then recertified as current on a two-year basis thereafter, as required by law). The QDR had last been conducted in 2005, with the report published in 2006.

Here's what's happened since:

  1. The Pentagon conducted a QDR in the latter portion of 2009 and delivered the report (pdf) to Congress on February 1, 2010.
  2. The National Security Strategy (pdf), which the law requires be submitted to Congress within 150 days of the inauguration of a new president, and which is meant to serve as the foundational document for the delineation of a national defense strategy by the Secretary of Defense as part of the QDR process, was published on May 1, 2010 -- 466 days after the president took office, and a full three months after the issuance of a report for which it was meant to serve as a guide. (10 USC 118 (b)(1): "Each quadrennial defense review shall be conducted so as to delineate a national defense strategy consistent with the most recent National Security Strategy prescribed by the President pursuant to section 108 of the National Security Act of 1947 (50 USC 404a).")
  3. The National Military Strategy (pdf) was updated on February 8, 2011; according to the introductory letter by the CJCS, "the purpose of this document is to provide the ways and means by which our military will advance our enduring national interests as articulated in the 2010 National Security Strategy and to accomplish the defense objectives in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review."
And we still don't have an updated NDS, for whatever that's worth.

So long as you've read this far, I figure you're probably interested in a solution to this mess, right? Here's how the process should work, optimally:

  1. When a new administration takes office, the White House should publish a meaningful, realistic, and constrained NSS. This strategy should take account of context as well as America's enduring and contemporary national interests to set concrete, achievable policy objectives (ends); describe the general approaches through which these goals can be accomplished (ways); and elaborate the elements of national power that will be created, strengthened, or maintained for application to this general plan (means). This document should be published at the outset of the president's term, as required by both law and reason.
  2. Upon publication of this strategy and in accordance with the relevant statute, the Pentagon should begin a review of extant force structure, modernization plans, infrastructure, and budgets to account for the present state of the Department and the nation's military forces in parallel with the development of a national defense strategy -- to be published both as an independent NDS and as a required portion of the QDR report. This strategy should specify the defense-related objectives laid out in the NSS that DoD will seek to accomplish (ends); the types of missions that U.S. military forces will be required to conduct to do so (ways); and the military capabilities necessary to perform those missions (means). The QDR report should specify the changes to the overall defense program the Secretary deems necessary to execute an appropriate NDS in support of the NSS. 
  3. In accordance with his or her legal obligation to submit "a report containing the results of a comprehensive examination of the national military strategy" not later than February 15 of each even-numbered year, the CJCS should elaborate through the publication of the NMS the Joint Chiefs' assessment of the military capabilities, doctrine, concepts, organization, personnel, and weapon systems required to execute and support the Secretary of Defense's NDS. The NMS should constitute not so much a strategy as a plan: explaining how the military services will execute the operational tasks set out for them in the NDS and the transformational objectives of the QDR report.
How's that for a start?

UPDATE @1630 ET: The CNAS report (pdf) is out. The footnoted paragraph that Spencer cited reads like this:

In light of the significant budget cuts now being considered, civilian leaders should not ask the military to execute the expansive defense plans codified in the Obama administration's National Security Strategy, Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and National Military Strategy. These documents did not adequately address the possible effects of budgetary constraints. In fact, congressional legislation prohibits the QDR from addressing such constraints.
Word. As should be obvious from what I've written above, I agree: it's the administration's job to make sure the NSS is realistic and attuned to environmental realities, including fiscal pressures. But it's a bit disingenuous to say that "congressional legislation [one wonders what other kind of legislation there is!] prohibits the QDR from addressing such constraints" when in fact that legislation simply requires that the QDR be conducted in line with national strategy. The law puts pressure on the administration to get the strategy right rather than putting pressure on DOD to try to make that strategy work with the limited resources on offer. As Ex wrote, it's the elected leadership's responsibility to say what ought to be done and why, and the Department's responsibility to say "here's how we will accomplish what you're asking." When the means change, you've either got to change your ways, change your ends, or accept a higher level of risk. The law doesn't allow DoD to unilaterally accept more risk, so there are two options: the Pentagon can say "here's a plausible way that we're going to do more with less," or the White House can say "we're going to ask you to do less." If doing more with less were that easy, we'd already be doing it. So national strategic objectives is what we've got left.


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