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A Strategy for Heroes

What's wrong with the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review.

Feb 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 22 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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THE PENTAGON RELEASED ITS QUADRENNIAL Defense Review on February 6. The latest installment of the congressionally mandated report on the state of the military declares, "manifestly, this document is not a 'new beginning.'" Indeed it is not. The new QDR reflects a concerted effort by the Pentagon to return to its pre-9/11 course, focusing on long-term dangers as though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had never happened, as if America's ground forces were not badly overstretched, as if the nation were not really at war.

Wise commanders design plans that can be executed by ordinary soldiers. They know that if they expect every soldier to be a hero and every commander a genius, they will inevitably be disappointed. Wars are never neat. The unexpected happens. The enemy gets a vote in determining how things go. Sound planning therefore builds in a margin of error: attacking with more force than necessary; maintaining larger reserves; expecting greater friction; and preparing for stronger enemy resistance. This approach has been the American way of war for decades. It is so no longer. Although the Pentagon officially promises to "overmatch" any potential adversary, a military policy of "just barely enough" has been the reality since the beginning of the Bush administration. The 2006 QDR continues in this mold. It propounds a strategy that only heroes could make succeed.

By refusing to propose radical growth in the defense budget even in this time of war, the administration has forced choices about whether to prioritize the present or the future. And as this QDR shows, the Pentagon remains firm in its determination to organize for tomorrow's potential problems rather than today's actual crises.

President Bush placed military transformation at the center of his defense agenda from the time of his first address on national security issues as a candidate, the 1999 Citadel speech. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made transformation the hallmark of his tenure within a few months of taking office. Transforming the military to prepare for the challenges of the future was the theme of the 2001 QDR, as it is of the just-released 2006 QDR. The administration at least has been steadfast.

Such steadfastness is remarkable considering the dramatically changed national security circumstances of the past five years. Military transformation was all the rage in the post-Cold War 1990s, when most analysts believed we would enjoy a "strategic pause," a period in which there were few visible threats. Most transformation discussions in the 1990s assumed that the military should therefore prepare for enemies in the 2020-2025 time frame. Transformation enthusiasts were regularly frustrated that so many resources were being devoted to current operations they felt were less important than the challenge of preparing for massive change decades away.

Bush and Rumsfeld embraced this focus on the distant horizon. Throughout 2001, rumors flew that the Army would lose as much as 40 percent of its active-duty combat forces to pay for transformative airpower and missile programs. These rumors ended with the September 11 attacks, but the transformationists continued to argue that ground forces were outmoded, expensive, risky, and likely to generate far more casualties than the American public would tolerate in a conflict.

Recent history has not been kind to the transformation worldview. September 11, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom have shown that the strategic pause, if it ever existed, is over. Recent conflicts have also shown that ground forces remain central to accomplishing meaningful political goals in war. A nearly pure airpower campaign in Afghanistan did not obviate the need to keep an Army division there for the next four years (and likely into the indefinite future). A land-air campaign in Iraq relying heavily on the air component merely created the preconditions for the long-term maintenance of 140,000 American soldiers there. Astonishingly, the 2006 QDR shows that these facts have not swayed the Pentagon from its commitment to focusing on airpower solutions to long-term threats.