Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
June 2, 2005
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Some doubt cast on ‘rolling’ QDR
DEFENSE OFFICIALS WORRY QUADRENNIAL REVIEW MAY GET BOGGED DOWN
In the wake of four roundtable discussions, two “senior planning council” powwows, several “senior level review group” gatherings and untold numbers of “integrated process team” and working group meetings, Pentagon officials say the ongoing Quadrennial Defense Review has since January raised a host of sweeping questions about how the military might organize and equip itself differently to operate around the globe more effectively.
But the far-reaching review also has become so unwieldy that leaders may be unable to make substantial policy or programmatic changes in time to affect the fiscal year 2006 budget, as earlier planned, officials tell Inside the Pentagon.
The review is examining four central challenges facing U.S. forces: defeating terrorist extremism; defending the American homeland; handling emerging strategic challenges around the globe; and preventing the proliferation or use of weapons of mass destruction.
Pentagon leaders have held four closed-door roundtable discussions to date, one on each of the core challenge areas, defense officials say. The forums have raised plenty of questions for consideration and analysis, but answers have yet to surface, according to these officials.
Examples include reconsideration of alternatives to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and what new capabilities should be developed for handling attacks involving weapons of mass destruction, according to Pentagon sources.
“We’ve asked some pretty hard questions that don’t lend themselves to traditional analysis,” says one military participant in the review process.
Critical issues are being weighed “more by gut reaction than by cold, hard facts,” another Pentagon official tells ITP. “There’s a lot of guys sitting around the table talking … But in terms of programmatic guidance, [we] haven’t seen that yet.”
Rather, “each one of these roundtables resulted in, ‘Let’s study this more,’” this official said.
The Defense Department has built a considerable review apparatus to do just that. It begins with six integrated process teams, or IPTs, dedicated to: the mix of force capabilities; capability “enablers” that support combat forces; roles and missions required to address the four challenges; balancing force manning; business practices; and DOD legal authorities.
To get into the nuts and bolts of the review, the Pentagon has created under the six IPTs no fewer than three dozen working groups, ranging in title from “Core Problem Development and Integration” to “Human Capital Strategy” to “Coalition Management,” according to defense sources.
“There’s virtually no part of the department that remains untouched,” says one military official.
That has made for an enormous undertaking. So big, in fact, that defense officials are becoming increasingly concerned the quadrennial review will collapse if Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or his top lieutenants do not either narrow the review’s scope or issue some initial decisions.
“It’s really a good process this time, as long as the very senior players in the process can stay engaged,” one senior defense official told ITP last month. “My concern is the process will burn out … before we come to decisions.”
This official and others spoke about the Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, on condition of anonymity, since the deliberations are largely held in secret.
The tempo for the review is rising, says one military source, looking at a revised QDR calendar issued this week. More meetings are scheduled for senior leaders — including several between chairmen of the various integrated process teams — in coming weeks, this officer says.
Thus far the review has not lacked for senior-official involvement, defense sources say. Even at the working group level, there is some quite high-ranking leadership. A group dedicated to “Supply Chain Logistics,” for example, is chaired by the four-star general who leads U.S. Transportation Command, sources say.
The QDR is overseen by Rumsfeld’s senior level review group, a panel that includes the deputy defense secretary, the under secretaries of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and service secretaries.
When augmented by the four-star combatant commanders from around the globe, the group morphs into Rumsfeld’s strategic planning council, which met Jan. 30 and again on May 18 to discuss how the QDR was unfolding, defense officials say.
Following the first two QDRs in 1997 and 2001, Rumsfeld and his team decided this review would be run differently in a number of respects, according to Pentagon officials. High-level officials would be involved throughout the review and would make “rolling” decisions that could be fed into ongoing FY-06 budget debates on Capitol Hill, defense leaders have said.
“This was going to be the right guidance from the top. We weren’t going to let the [action officers] run rampant,” says one Pentagon official, recalling the dueling PowerPoint briefings and frenzied meeting schedules of past reviews. “But [this time] either the top guys haven’t engaged yet or they’re afraid to make a decision.” A senior level review group meeting slated for May 26, entitled “Hard Choices,” appears to have been postponed, defense officials say.
“I don’t know what they could have done in terms of hard choices,” says one military official. “No choices have been teed up yet.”
The QDR calendar still shows the first “integration roundtable” scheduled for June 14 and another to follow on June 28, defense sources report. A senior meeting tentatively slated for July 9 is expected to be a “Key West”-like confab — “where the four-stars run for coffee,” quips one official — to hash out major changes in military forces and operations (ITP, April 28, p1). At that meeting, defense leaders may take the first round of QDR outputs and construct some initial direction, officials say.
And senior leaders are to issue strategic guidance — perhaps in the form of one or more program decision memorandum-like documents — by mid-July, according to these sources. That is potentially the vehicle for affecting congressional decisions on the FY-06 budget, officials say.
But many in the defense community say they find it hard to believe significant decisions will be made by July, given that many of the IPTs and working groups have only just begun operating. The teams are grappling with monumental questions but have little indication, thus far, on what direction top leaders want them to pursue.
“There’s a lot of talk of the need to [integrate across study teams] but not a clear vision of how to do that,” says one officer.
“The process we plan on today is different from what we planned last week and different from what we planned last October,” says a senior official, who calls the atmosphere in the review “chaotic.”
Senior military and civilian leaders have expressed concern behind the scenes “that we’re doing too much and giving it all equal weight,” another officer said.
Limiting the review’s reach by putting off some issues until after the quadrennial review is done might help narrow the Pentagon’s focus onto the highest priority problems, some officials say.
But those whose program or policy area is left out can be expected to push back if they are told, “This won’t be looked at in the QDR because it’s not as important,” says one official. “I don’t think there’s a great consensus about what to do about that yet.”
Turnover in key leadership posts also is contributing to uncertainty in the process, some defense officials say.
Gordon England only recently took on the role of acting deputy defense secretary and many are watching intently to see how the former Navy secretary might differ with his predecessor, Paul Wolfowitz, in approach.
England not only becomes Rumsfeld’s No. 2 — traditionally a critical post for managing the Pentagon — but also now chairs the QDR’s important force capabilities panel, which is to lead the integration of all review issues. Observers say England, whose nomination remains pending before the Senate, may bring a more practical approach to the task, in contrast to Wolfowitz’s notoriously cerebral style.
Douglas Feith, the Pentagon’s top policy official, remains in place only until his nominated successor, Eric Edelman, is confirmed by the Senate, defense officials say.
Several top positions at the military services remain unfilled and two of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are to retire this summer. Adm. Michael Mullen has been nominated to replace Adm. Vern Clark as chief of naval operations and Gen. T. Michael Moseley is to take over as Air Force chief of staff from the outgoing Gen. John Jumper, pending Senate approval.
Some officials have wondered aloud whether shifting leadership, combined with the significant distraction of ongoing instability in Iraq, might make a coherent QDR virtually unattainable.
If top-level guidance is issued in July, it may relate only marginally to the working group analyses performed this month, according to some defense officials. Alternatively, it may simply take longer for Pentagon leaders to generate significant decisions, sources say.
“PBD 753 cooled a lot of enthusiasm” for making big programmatic changes in the near term, says one Pentagon official, referring to a wide-reaching “program budget decision” Wolfowitz issued last December that sparked considerable controversy (ITP, Jan. 6, p1).
Many are predicting the quadrennial review is more likely to culminate in weighty decisions late this year, which could then be incorporated into the FY-07 budget request delivered to Congress next February.
But there is a chance — some say a likelihood — that no substantial changes at all will emanate from the Pentagon’s quadrennial review. Interservice fighting and political pressures from Capitol Hill may preclude an executive branch decision on the biggest issues facing the department, officials say.
“The chances of nothing being done that’s material as a result of the QDR are about 80 percent,” says one officer who nonetheless hopes the review process can be a vehicle for well considered change.
But with ongoing operations in Iraq, Social Security and other federal funding issues looming large, defense leaders are painfully aware Pentagon budget cuts will be made in the not-too-distant future. The question is whether they will come from the quadrennial review process or not, sources say.
Absent big decisions, the Pentagon has traditionally stretched out force modernization and procurement programs to meet annual budget toplines — an approach that costs more in the long run, according to defense experts. When cuts have been made, officials typically have taken a small reduction from a large number of programs, regardless of priority, a practice called “salami-slicing.”
“The strategy itself is costing us billions … with the day-to-day decisions on things that get deferred,” says one officer.
Even if the QDR promises to result in big changes, it may only affect a tiny fraction of the nearly $500 billion Pentagon budget, defense experts say. With defense health care and personnel costs devouring most of the defense budget, just a portion is available for “discretionary spending,” officials say. Much of that funding pot will continue to be dedicated to traditional warfighting capabilities, according to Pentagon insiders.
So Rumsfeld and his deputies can effectively tinker only around the margins if they seek to make force or operating changes related to the four focus areas on the QDR drawing board, many officials say.
“We’re all fighting over one-half of 1 percent” of the Pentagon budget, says one source. Despite the overall growth of the defense budget through time, “we probably have fewer dollars to play with … than in any of the previous QDRs,” another defense official agrees.
Some say the amount of effort being expended in this year’s quadrennial review may be out of step with the ultimate effect it will have. But others say perhaps there is a method to the madness.
“This is crazy and we’ve never done [it like] this before,” one Pentagon official says. “Or [it could be that] someone already knows the answers.”
Though the QDR may be “ready to collapse under its own weight,” says a senior defense official, “they’re playing it at such a high level that if they ever get to the tough issues, then we should have some pretty good decisions out of it.”
—Elaine M. Grossman