Reforming Strategic Defense Planning: First, Abolish The Budget

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In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

With a pivotal presidential election on the horizon, contesting visions for the future will proliferate. Presidential contenders will outline their agenda for America over the next four years and esteemed observers will elaborate on global trends. Perusing the bookshelves, one can find new titles declaring the “return of history”, a “post-American world,” or journal articles describing an “age of non-polarity,” globalization, violent insurgencies, and the challenges posed by China, Russia, Iran, India, Brazil, and Japan. Similarly, the departing administration will undertake a last round of assessments and identify key trends and challenges in its compendium of strategic plans. Previously, American strategic planning was facilitated by the singularity of the enemy and the indisputable likelihood of its endurance. One would reasonably conclude the successful peaceful end of the Cold War of 1991 would have validated the inherent value of strategic planning and identification of national interests and objectives. However, the near universal conclusion of former policymakers and observers alike has been the paucity of strategic planning capability within the government and insufficiency of existing strategic plans. Rectifying this deficiency will entail substantial presidential leadership as well as a departure from existing approaches.

(As the entity tasked with management of American military power and nearly four percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, the Department of Defense has always been a critical stakeholder in the national strategic planning process. While the National Security Council (NSC), the Department of State, and other entities each feature powerful players in the development of American grand strategy, this essay will focus on the Department of Defense primarily because of its magnitude in terms of institutional capabilities and budgetary authorities.)

Despite well-deserved criticism for lapses in management of the war in Iraq and a turnover in administrations in less than a year, the Department of Defense has sustained a diligent effort to re-institute rigor into its strategic planning processes. Subsequent to the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review and its discussion of governance reforms, defense leadership has been consolidating the large number of strategic guidance documents previously utilized for matters ranging from the overseas posture, transformation, and force management.

Existing strategic documents such as the National Military Strategy and the National Defense Strategy will remain and will be supplemented by two classified documents, the Guidance for the Development of the Force (GDF) and the Guidance for the Employment of the Force (GEF). The GDF will provide a long-term (20 year) evaluation of the future security environment with implications for the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), the department’s six-year forward budget projection. In contrast, the GEF will establish near term (2 to 3 year) planning for foreseeable military operations and contingencies. In combination with the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Unified Command Plan, the various guidance will constitute the principal documentation, the “gold standards,” identifying the future strategic course of the U.S. military.

Initiating a consolidation and rationalization of strategic guidance is laudable, but as the opening Eisenhower quote indicates, formal plans can be sub-optimal, and in the case of recent Defense Department’s products, the results can be unsatisfactory.

According to Michèle Flournoy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, the 2006 QDR “did not utilize a rigorous risk management framework to frame critical decisions for senior leaders,” noting the construct conceived by the preceding 2001 QDR had been seemingly abandoned. Moreover, the analysis noted the QDR identified a new force planning construct but (inexplicably) concluded the existing force structure was just right, commenting the decision could only entail dangerously high-risk assumptions about the adequacy of forces. More pointedly, Flournoy wrote the QDR failed to offer a “comprehensive alternative vision that links challenges, capabilities, and programmatic challenges.”

In discussing potential enhancements, Flournoy commented, “ideally, the defense planning process should be highly iterative.” Similarly, Aaron L. Friedberg, a former deputy assistant for national security affairs, has written, “the true aim of national strategic planning is heuristic.”

Implicit in these observations is the criticism that the Department of Defense, as much as any other entity, can become overly focused on developing a plan, rather than the efficacy and thoroughness of its planning process. Accordingly, the institutionalization of the plan as the objective results in hardened bureaucratic face-offs and indecision on key issues, leaving senior decision-makers with only conservative, risk-averse documents based on grudgingly accepted compromises and marginal adjustments.

Indeed, Nathan Freier of the US Army War College has argued deliberative planning is not employing best practices and there is a glaring lack of fundamental ends-focused and risk-informed strategic planning. Friedberg has been more blunt – “the U.S. government has lost the capacity to conduct serious, sustained national strategic planning,” warning the nation risks a misallocation of resources at best, catastrophic failure at worst.

If current plans are flawed and the capacity for developing informed plans is absent, what course of action is available to the Department of Defense, and by extension, the United States government? The aforementioned authors have described various options, summarized below:

Revisions to Plans / Guidance

  1. Require a QDR only from a new administration;

  2. Conduct a Quadrennial National Security Review (QNSR);

  3. Create a Classified National Security Planning Guidance;

Revisions to Processes

  1. Establish an Interagency Threat Assessment Process to Support the QNSR;

  2. Establish Semiannual “Over the Horizon” Reviews – a look at possible developments in the international security environment in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years or more based on material developed in concert with the Intelligence Community. The reviews would highlight points of consensus as well as areas of uncertainty;

  3. Establish an Annual Table-top Exercise Program for Senior National Security Officials;

  4. Create an NSC Senior Director and Office for Strategic Planning;

  5. Conduct NSC/OMB Mission Area Reviews;

  6. Establish a “New Planning Board” comprised of agency representatives but operating as a “corporate body” responsible to the president, not agency leadership

  7. Establish an NSC Strategic Planning Directorate or Cell

Interestingly, a common historical thread to these proposals has been the inspiration found in President Eisenhower, who famously established “Project Solarium” which conducted a comprehensive and systematic strategic planning effort. The result was NSC 162/2, which provided a consistent and integrated basis for American military and strategic choices throughout his administration. Well noted is the importance of Eisenhower’s leadership in this undertaking as well as the deep well of national security and military experience he brought to it.

Less noted however is, again, the existence of established assumptions regarding the security environment in 1953. America’s main enemy was the Soviet Union, containment was embraced as foundation for grand strategy, the NATO alliance was already instituted, and the various actions taken by the Truman administration (the 1947 National Security Act and NSC-68) provided the necessary structures, processes, and resources. Decisions integrating and calibrating these capabilities were required and Eisenhower was well prepared to make and implement such decisions. The end state, containment of the Soviet Union until it “collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions,” had already been established.

Would Project Solarium have equipped President Eisenhower with the strategy and courses of action for the complexity and uncertainty attendant in the current international security environment? Perhaps, but ultimately unknowable. In discussing reform, James Locher, the executive director of the Project on National Security Reform, acknowledged leadership is critical but cautioned, “a good leader alone is not enough, and we do not need to choose between the two. We need both.”

Assuming an experienced general and strategist such as Eisenhower would have identified an objective end state for post-September 11 America is reasonable. Obtaining a clear and unambiguous vision featuring decisions on the hard choices that all universally agree are necessary from either Senators John McCain or Barack Obama, in today’s polarized political environment, is less likely. While unforeseen shocks were still inherent to a seemingly stable era such as the Cold War (and today’s “unknown unknowns” will upend even the most well-informed, risk-attuned plan or process), the objective end state was critical to identifying the requisite policies and resources.

Successive administrations adhered to the containment strategy in principle, but similarly implemented them with equivalent flexibility. While strategic planning capacity may have diminished and reactive crisis response may have colored subsequent actions, the focus remained on countering Soviet aggressiveness.

Flexibility was and will remain absolutely critical. As noted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb has noted in Black Swan, shocks such as September 11, are ultimately unknowable and unpredictable; by extension, strategic planning will never foreclose such events and predicting a specific future is impossible. Recognizing this limitation helps clarify what additional step would strengthen future defense strategy.

Returning to her review of the 2006 QDR, Flournoy asserted it had really been two reviews – one focused on strategy and a second part that “was a largely budget-driven program review that ultimately failed to make the tough choices required to implement the strategy fully.” Flournoy concluded,

Perhaps the largest disappointment of the 2006 QDR was its failure to articulate a comprehensive, long term vision of the capabilities the U.S. military needs for the future and to identify the shifts in investment needed to realize that vision. (italics added)

If strategic planning capacity in the Defense Department, as represented by the QDR, is incapable of identifying the necessary resource adjustments and specific futures are impossible to predict, then shouldn’t reform address budgetary mechanisms as well?

Indeed, at the Department of Defense, budgeting is tightly integrated (on paper) with strategic planning. The Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) was established in 1961 under Secretary Robert McNamara but only updated under Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The outputs of the PPBE include the annual president’s budget estimate submission for the upcoming fiscal year and the aforementioned FYDP; a critical component of the FYDP are the long-term weapons system procurements, the very investments the QDR and other strategic guidance has been designed to direct, albeit unsuccessfully.

Nominally, PPBE would emphasize the planning and programming in order to identify the corresponding budgetary allocations. In practice, “the heart and soul of [PPBE] has become its budget function.”*

How? First, the stability of the Cold War era precluded departures in plans and therefore programs and budgets. Second, the increasing size of the defense budget over decades only exacerbated inter-service rivalries that could only be assuaged by statically apportioning the same percentage year after year. Service percentages of the total defense budget have remained essentially unchanged for decades (chart) and 90% of the budget routinely survives the review process intact. Finally, the PPBS process, once the domain of only the Office of Secretary of Defense, has essentially been decentralized to the services with only minimal input on part of the regional combatant commanders.

During the Cold War, the multi-year budget was justifiable given the existence of the Soviet Union. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the FYDP persisted. Why? Again for the same reasons listed above. Absent a successor threat or guidance, the Department of Defense, as predicted, guarded its equities, justifying it as another component of its strategy planning process. Equally critical to its survival have been the political (presidential and congressional), bureaucratic, and corporate interests in preserving the billions of dollars designated for the procurement accounts.

After September 11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the procurement of advanced military hardware and technology were seemingly warranted. However, the subsequent challenges in terms of manpower, skill sets, and counter-insurgency assets, exposed the inadequacy of these investments. US military aircraft dominated the airspace, but it was Iraqi irregulars with improvised explosive devices doing the most damage. Unmanned aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance has been absolutely critical but the Air Force’s most pressing requirement has been the F-22 advanced fighter. Dr. Thomas Barnett, former senior strategic researcher at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, has commented, “they’ve been fighting one war while buying for another.” Or as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently observed himself, "I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called 'Next-War-itis' – the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict."

(Indeed, on June 6, Secretary Gates signed an updated National Defense Strategy emphasizing counterinsurgency and stabilization over the objections of the service chiefs, who have again pushed for continued attention on future conventional challenges.)

If comprehensive Department of Defense strategic planning is to be iterative and flexible, the Future Years Defense Program should be abolished as one of its outputs. As the sole output positing a specific outcome (X number of fighter aircraft, Y number of destroyers, Z pieces of maneuver combat equipment) tied to specific service requirements only tenuously informed by national strategy, the FYDP locks up scarce dollars.

Abolishing the FYDP would re-establish the key to strategic planning -- integrating and translating the futures and scenarios identified during the strategic conceptualization and planning exercises into programmatic elements and budgetary outlays. Eliminating the basis for many political, bureaucratic, and business stakeholders’ confidence in the immutability of existing programs would restore the primacy of the planning component. As such, the way to secure desired investments would have to be accomplished by winning the preceding debate over competing objective end states.

Coupled with the aforementioned reforms to plans and processes (and the purposeful involvement of the president), abolishing the FYDP ensures the planning process would be energetically engaged on a yearly basis, while the defense budget could be adjusted (as needed) per the outcomes of the debate. As Locher noted,

Theories of change management suggest that bureaucracies and organizational cultures can begin to evolve organically if they first change output requirements and oversight processes. (italics added)

Ten years after the collapse of the Cold War and America was blindsided by the September 11 terrorist attacks. Fast approaching a decade since and the nation is readily learning the challenges to security are more complex, more uncertain than fanatics in the desert. Constructive strategic planning may yet be resurrected at the Department of Defense, but only with reforms to plans, processes, the budget, and above all, leadership from the top.

Works Cited

  1. Aaron L. Friedberg "Strengthening U.S. Strategic Planning." The Washington Quarterly 31, no. 1 (December 1, 2007): 47. (link)

  2. Business Executives for National Security, Framing the Problem of PPBS, Special Report, January 2000 (link)

  3. James Locher. "The Most Important Thing: Legislative Reform of the National Security System." Military Review, May 1, 2008, 4-12. (link)

  4. Michele A. Flournoy "Did the Pentagon Get the Quadrennial Defense Review Right?" The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 2 (April 1, 2006): 67-84. (link)

  5. Michèle A Flournoy, Shawn W Brimley. "Strategic Planning for National Security: A New Project Solarium." Joint Force Quarterly: JFQ, April 1, 2006, 80-86. (link)

  6. Nathan Freier "Primacy without a Plan?" Parameters 36, no. 3 (October 1, 2006): 5-21. (link)

1 Michèle Flournoy was appointed President of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in January 2007. Prior to co-founding CNAS, she was a Senior Adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, she was a distinguished research professor at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University (NDU), where she founded and led the university’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) working group. Prior to joining NDU, she was dual-hatted as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Threat Reduction and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy.

2 Aaron L. Friedburg is a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. In 2003–2005, he served as a deputy assistant for national security affairs and director of policy planning in the Office of the Vice President.

3 Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Freier is Director of National Security Affairs at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI). Prior to joining SSI, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where his principal responsibilities included development of the National Defense Strategy.

4 James R. Locher III is the executive director of the Project on National Security Reform, a nonpartisan initiative sponsored by the nonprofit Center for the Study of the Presidency. Mr. Locher was a principal architect of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 that modernized the military system along joint lines. He additionally served as assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

5 PPBE was originally established as the Planning, Programming and Budgeting System (PPBS). In May 2003, the Department of Defense approved the implementation of the successor Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution process (PPBE). (link)

6 From 1998 through 2004, Dr. Barnett was a Senior Strategic Researcher and Professor in the Warfare Analysis & Research Department, Center for Naval Warfare Studies, U.S. Naval War College, Newport RI. From November 2001 to June of 2003, Dr. Barnett was on temporary assignment as the Assistant for Strategic Futures, Office of Force Transformation (OFT), Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he worked on a cluster of strategic concepts that link change in the international security environment to the imperative of transforming U.S. military capabilities to meet future threats. Remark taken from 2004 presentation to National Defense University (link to 2006 broadcast DVD from C-SPAN).

7 “[In the private sector] planning was conducted when it was deemed necessary by corporate leaders. None of the companies examined as part of the PPBS study conducted planning on an annual basis. Instead, major planning efforts and reviews of the company’s direction and focus happened at irregular intervals usually over three to five years. As one corporate representative stated, ‘There is little use in revisiting and redoing your plan inside your cycle time. If planning must be redone every year, then you probably have poor or incomplete planning.’ Annual planning in the absence of a compelling necessity produces new verbiage describing old conditions and intentions, but reduces the time planning staffs could more profitably spend on developing and refining specific objectives and measures of performance.

Framing the Problem of PPBS, January 2000

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