Preparing one's military, as the French did in the 1930s, to fight "the last war" rather than the one at hand is a prospect that preoccupies generals and military officials the world over. In the late 1990s, for instance, the predominant military debate in the United States concerned the need to construct a National Missile Defense system, a technologically challenging effort that continues to this day. It turned out the more pressing initial threat came from low-tech terrorists wielding box cutters.
This is the essential context of any debate about the future size, force structure, and mission of the U.S. military. The Pentagon tackles the topic every four years in its Quadrennial Defense Review, the most recent of which was released last week. That this QDR would be something of a departure is natural: It is the first one written during wartime.
That said, the shift in tone is dramatic. The revolutionary language of the "transformation" movement, a staple of Bush administration defense policy speeches for years, is all but gone. As Slate's Fred Kaplan notes, "the document envisions a world where the U.S. military's main missions are homeland defense, the "war on terrorism," and "irregular" or "asymmetric" warfare."
This is a long way from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's stated vision. As recently as 2003—just before the Iraq war—debate raged over the future viability of such military mainstays as the aircraft carrier, the main battle tank, and the high-performance fighter. Rumsfeld even appointed a "transformation czar" to weigh options.
But analysts say the new QDR does not resolve the competing visions of the future U.S. military. Or as Lt. General Bernard Trainor put it in a cfr.org interview, "They're trying to have their cake and eat it too." CFR Fellow Max Boot also criticizes the QDR and defense budget. "Why is the Pentagon still throwing money into high-tech gadgets of dubious utility while ignoring the glaring imperative for more boots on the ground?" he writes in the Los Angeles Times.
More philosophically, the QDR marks a departure from the lofty visions of the 2001 edition, which was released just 19 days after the 9/11 attacks and reflected much of the blue-sky transformation thinking of a peacetime military. U.S. war colleges and defense research agencies spent much of the 1990s looking for way to shift paradigms. Terms like "network-centric warfare" and "revolution in military affairs" entered mainstream political discourse. Just as innovative nations used the 1930s to rethink warfare—experimenting with armored vehicles, aircraft carriers and long-range bombers, just to name a few—the Pentagon had hoped the unexpected end to its standoff with the Soviets would give it time to, in the words of candidate George W. Bush in 1999, "skip a generation of technology."
Al-Qaeda had other ideas, and the 2006 QDR reflects the hard landing defense visionaries have experienced. As the Washington Post puts it, "the review's key assumptions betray what Pentagon leaders acknowledge is a certain humility regarding the Defense Department's uncertainty about what the world will look like over the next five, 10 or 20 years." Then again, as Rumsfeld himself noted in a speech on February 2, he's not worried about the next war. He's already got one to fight.