QDR should ring alarm bells for policymakers

DoD/Sgt. 1st Class Ron Burke

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Eric W. White leads soliders off a UH-60 Black Hawk after landing near the confidence course on Fort McCoy, Wis.

Article Highlights

  • In Pentagon's latest strategy, risk to forces grows

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  • Today’s military is out of balance

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  • The rest of the world sees that US military capabilities are in decline. Will Washington?

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President Obama has submitted an updated defense strategy to match the first set of defense budgets taking into account the effects of the Budget Control Act and modified sequestration. The 2014 defense strategy is updated by formally ending the requirements of Iraq and Afghanistan on current forces and continuing the pivot to Asia and expanding on minor military elements of it where possible in places like Japan and Australia.

The Pentagon’s major force-sizing construct is unchanged to essentially defeat a regional aggressor in a major campaign while denying the objectives of a second antagonist elsewhere.

What is different from the first Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) under Obama and the second is that there is much more risk to the military, more gaps in capabilities and less margin for error should policymakers get this wrong. For example, the Department of Defense will continue to refine downward the definition of overseas presence so as not to highlight America’s overall shrinking overseas posture.

The QDR is honest in its assessment that today’s military is out of balance—not just a sequestered force years from now. Two key priorities that have been particularly harmed in recent years include readiness and modernization.

Time and money are requested to recover. If additional funds are provided above the president’s budget, they will be spent on readiness first, weapons modernization next and finally facilities upgrades. Even without additional funds, Pentagon leaders will shrink the overall size of the military in order to supposedly make the smaller force more modern and slowly rebuild readiness.

The QDR rings enough alarm bells to raise a big red flag for policymakers. It notes that current budgets only support a force that will still face increased risk in some missions. Ongoing gaps in training and maintenance are here to stay in the near-term. Over a longer horizon, the military will have a “reduced margin of error in dealing with risks of uncertainty.”

Worse, policymakers could further increase the risk facing US forces if sequestration is not reversed, if compensation changes are not accepted by Congress and budget uncertainty continues through the use of continuing resolutions, delayed budgets and unclear and shifting toplines year-over-year.

The institutional reforms and adjustments to compensation in particular account for $12 billion in savings over the next five years. That money will have to come from elsewhere within the defense budget if rejected. The QDR is clear that the entire Pentagon leadership — both civilian and military, including officer and enlisted — stands behind these proposed changes to compensation.

Finally, defense officials seek to make clear the consequences and shift the blame of sequestration continuing in 2016 and beyond. If unchanged, the document states that wars will be longer and casualties potentially higher. So, too, would our enemies be emboldened and our friends undermined.

Unfortunately, that outcome is likely under current budgets — even if sequestration were reversed. That is the reality that Washington must come to grips with sooner than later. It seems increasingly obvious that the rest of the world interprets our declining capability and capacity through this dire lens already.

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