Defense Secretary Robert Gates's bid to remake the Pentagon enters a new and crucial phase this week as the Defense Department begins a year-long review of its own strategy that will inform how it should spend billions of dollars and what its priorities should be.
The result is the Quadrennial Defense Review, and in addition to the Pentagon budget, the QDR is one of the most powerful tools at Secretary Gates's disposal to try to put the military on a new course. He has argued the Pentagon must get its head in the current fights in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of gazing at the strategic horizon – preparing for hypothetical threats, such as the one posed by China.
The QDR, released every four years, is designed to consider all scenarios. According to a Pentagon internal document, this year's QDR will assess the risks for scenarios including the possibility of militants in Pakistan getting control of its nuclear weapons and a potential conflict between China and Taiwan. Ultimately, the review must answer the question of whether the US should worry about conventional threats from established countries or more "asymmetric" threats emanating from unstable countries such as Somalia.
"Preparing for this operating environment is extremely challenging," said Michele Flournoy, the Pentagon's top policy official Wednesday. "It will pull us in two very different directions."
Given Gates's proclivities, it's likely the finished product will set in stone spending priorities for more irregular forms of warfare. Gates's $534 billion fiscal 2010 budget, which he previewed earlier this month, sets aside billions of dollars for counterinsurgency warfare – from remote-controlled aircraft to new helicopters. At the same time, it tempers spending on programs designed for more conventional warfare, such as F-22 stealth fighter jets.
This QDR "is part of a process by which we're turning a military that is largely organized, designed, trained, and equipped to fight conventional wars into one that is more capable of fighting the irregular conflicts ... of the 21st century," says John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington.
For that reason, this QDR is expected to be more significant than past versions, which have tended to slurp resources and brainpower for months, only to produce bland strategic statements of little practical relevance.
"Everybody always says, 'This is a very important Quadrennial Defense Review,' " says Nagl. "But this truly is a very important Quadrennial Defense Review."
Ms. Flournoy of the Pentagon said several themes will all play large roles in department's planning: the rise of extremism, the threat of weapons of mass destruction, shifting balances of power from the US to places like China and India, and failed or failing states.
But she hinted at Pentagon thinking on how "failed or failing states" will come to dominate the attention of America's national security. In Somalia, for instance, poverty, an increasingly young population, little opportunity, and a weak government has left a vacuum that could threaten US strategic interests. Poverty there has already led to the nettlesome piracy issue in the Gulf of Aden.
"This is really worth significant attention," she said in prepared remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "We are now in a world where many of the security threats come from state weaknesses, and the inability of states to meet the basic needs of their population."