On September 30, the Department of Defense released its Quadrennial Defense Review, a congressionally mandated assessment of the U.S. defense posture timid to coincide with the advent of a new presidential administration.

The press and the public largely ignored the QDR—one of many studies generated each year by the national security bureaucracy—for the very good reason that an actual war was underway. Further, the document had essentially been completed before the events of September 11; only a hastily written and brief foreword by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dealt substantively with the Age of Terrorism. The QDR’s central conclusions had been known and largely discounted by many defense experts over the summer. Rumsfeld and his key civilian aides had come into office determined to fulfill President Bush’s campaign pledge to transform fundamentally the American military in response to new types of strategic threats. According to the common wisdom prior to the terrorist attacks, however, Rumsfeld’s efforts had been derailed by congressional resistance to base closings and weapons cuts; the refusal of the White House to support sufficient increases in defense spending; and the reluctance of the uniformed military to move too far, too fast outside of familiar bureaucratic territory.

The undeniable result was a QDR heavy on analysis and virtually silent on actual decisions about which programs would be funded or eliminated. These hard decisions—those that matter most in Washington—were put off until future budget cycles. (In the Pentagon, the saying goes, serious people move money, everybody else moves paper.) And speculation grew that Rumsfeld and his team would not be around to make those choices.

Given all this, why should Americans now be interested in this piece of paper? In part, because White House and Congressional fiscal constraints on defense have been relaxed, at least for the present. Rumsfeld seems likely to stay long enough to move some of that new money. But more importantly, the QDR signals the first, tentative conceptual steps that will eventually guide U.S. military strategy beyond the current operations in Afghanistan. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in thoughtful testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 4, insisted that the findings of the QDR anticipated in many ways the world now facing the United States. Wolfowitz drew the following lessons from the September 11 attacks.

  • Military history is full of surprises, and we must prepare ourselves for the virtual certainty that we will be surprised again. Rumsfeld had made this point repeatedly prior to September 11. Adapting quickly and decisively to surprise must therefore be a condition of planning. Future adversaries may employ even bolder forms of terrorism. These could include cyber attacks, advanced conventional weapons, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction to strike at our people and our way of life. And we must not assume that terrorism is the new, predictable threat of the 21st century—to do so could leave us exposed to different challenges in the next decade. The next challenge may not be a terrorist attack at all, but something entirely different, even a return to the past practice of nation-states invading neighbors.
  • Our adversary has changed. In addition to the spread of more powerful weapons, we will also face new adversaries in the decades ahead—with different motivations and different capabilities. Our new adversaries may be, in some cases, more dangerous than those we faced in the past. They may not possess the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads capable of ending life on earth that the Soviet Union did—but the may be more likely to use the increasingly powerful weapons in their possession. Their decision-making is not subject to the same constraints that earlier adversaries faced. Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il answer to no one. They may be less likely to be discouraged by traditional deterrence. What this means is that we need a new approach to deterrence for the 21st century.
  • The same thing unites our enemies today, as it did in the past: a desire to see America driven into retreat and isolation. Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il and other such tyrants all want to see America out of critical regions of the world, constrained from coming to the aid of friends and allies, and unable to project power in the defense of our interests and ideals. This is why terrorist states harbor terrorist movements like al-Qaeda—these groups serve their ends. That is why the challenge today is greater than winning the war against terrorism. Today’s terrorist threat is a precursor of even greater threats to come. It is no coincidence that the states harboring, financing and otherwise assisting terrorists, are also in many cases the same states that are aggressively working to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, and the means to deliver them.

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In their post-attack comments, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz argued that the QDR did set the strategic direction and planning principles necessary to address these lessons. Most importantly, the QDR established homeland defense as the top Defense Department priority for the first time since the late 1930s—without however calling for an isolationist approach to national security policy or military strategy. Quite the contrary. The QDR also emphasizes the need to prepare for uncertainty and surprise; contend with asymmetric threats; develop new concepts of deterrence; replace a threat-based strategy with a capabilities-based strategy; and balance deliberately various dimensions of military risk.

Two of these elements seem particularly revealing of the mindset of the Bush Administration’s defense planners: deterrence and transformation.

The threats the United States faces in the 21st century will be multifaceted, and its deterrence strategy must be as well. According to the QDR, the U.S. needs a strategy of “layered deterrence” in which it develops a mix of capabilities, offensive and defensive, which can dissuade and deter a variety of emerging threats at different stages. The United States must dissuade potential adversaries from developing dangerous capabilities in the first place, by developing and deploying U.S. capabilities that reduce their incentives to compete. In the same way, the Department of Defense must develop a broad range of new capabilities that, by their very existence, dissuade and discourage potential adversaries from investing in other hostile capabilities. For example, effective missile defenses discourage potential adversaries from investing in ballistic missiles that threaten U.S. and allied population centers. The United States also needs to strengthen the capability of its forward-deployed forces and global striking power to respond rapidly to threats. Finally, it must maintain the capacity to swiftly defeat attacks and impose severe penalties for aggression in critical regions.

To do this, the Defense Department will need forces and capabilities that give the president an even wider range of military options. Implementing such a multilayered deterrence and defense strategy requires improved intelligence capabilities, long-distance force projection, integrated joint forces, and a credible offensive nuclear deterrent. It also requires a transformation of U.S. forces. Long-time Defense Department official Andrew Marshall notes in his analysis that military transformation is about more than technology. It is about innovative concepts of operating and configuring U.S. forces, and adjustments in how the Department of Defense trains and bases people and materiel and how it conducts day-to-day business. The goal of transformation is to maintain a substantial advantage over any would-be adversaries in key areas such as information warfare, power projection, space, and intelligence. If the United States can do this, it can reduce its own chances of being surprised, and increase its ability to create surprises of its own.

To realize the vision of the QDR, Rumsfeld must now make the hard choices and move money. He must promote those who support the new way of thinking and get rid of those who do not. Of course, thoughtful words and sound strategy in the Pentagon must be matched with decisive action in the field. “Every great army has a soul,” historian Victor Davis Hanson once observed. “It is nourished on military competence along with success; but without an identity and élan it eventually starves. In the coming crucible, the nation’s real benefactors may prove the most odious to organization and bureaucracy. We do not require ‘A’ students with impressive recommendations, but scrappers who have been overlooked amid the order and routine of the past—the more eager and desperate the better—who know opportunity and fate are not ordained, but fleeting and of the moment.”

These various elements of defense policy, military strategy, operational art, and field leadership must come together in Afghanistan and beyond. President Bush has correctly argued that the war in which we now find ourselves will be fought on many fronts, most of them outside the arena of armed combat, and in association with many other nations. But here is a sobering thought: every other member of the so-called anti-terrorist coalition can contribute in the areas of law enforcement, intelligence gathering, public diplomacy, critical infrastructure protection, border security, and the like. But only one nation can project serious and sustained military power anywhere on the globe, and destroy its enemies and their instruments of terror. If we fail in that, all the rest ultimately won’t matter.