Quadrennial Defense Review

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Mandated by Congress in the Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is intended to be a fundamental statement of U.S. military strategy, both for Congressional oversight and as a means of review within the U.S. Department of Defense. It requires "a comprehensive examination of the defense strategy, force structure, force modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plan, and other elements of the defense program and policies with a view toward determining and expressing the defense strategy of the United States and establishing a revised defense program." It is focused primarily on non-nuclear forces; a separate Nuclear Posture Review reviews them, and there is also a separate Missile Defense Review. These complement the annual U.S. Department of Defense Budget.

In a good deal of U.S. military planning, the underlying processes and assumptions were appropriate to the Cold War. The QDR had to deal with multipolar situations without a clear threat. "A new approach began to emerge in formulating U.S. national military strategy — capabilities-based planning, or designing a military with distinct asymmetric abilities that could be used universally in different theaters against diverse foes..." In the late 1980s, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney advocated "a region-focused Base Force to handle a “spectrum of conflict” ranging from peacetime through crisis and regional contingencies up to global war, with the assumption that forces would handle the entire spectrum of conflict." It assumed the U.S. might have to fight Major Regional Conflicts (MRC), such as in Korea and Iraq; Colin Powell, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested winning two MRCs simultaneously was unrealistic.[1]

While it draws much attention, some analysts question its actual utility to the planning process:

Past reviews have been decoupled from meaningful budget figures, realistic force plans, and honest procurement decisions. As a result of this “strategy-reality gap” between concepts and resources, they have had limited practical value. [2]

Obama Administration

In a briefing introducing the QDR, MDR and budget, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates challenged a number of past assumptions.

For years, U.S. defense planning and requirements were based on preparing to fight two major conventional wars at the same time -- a force-sizing construct that persisted long after it was overtaken by events. The department's leadership now recognizes that we must prepare for a much broader range of security challenges on the horizon. They range from the use of sophisticated, new technologies to deny our forces access to the global commons of sea, air, space and cyberspace to the threat posed by non-state groups developing more cunning and destructive means to attack and terrorize -- scenarios that transcend the familiar contingencies that dominated U.S. planning after the Cold War.

...One of the steers that I gave to the folks working on the QDR was that I felt that, for some time, the two-major-theater-of-operations construct was out of date, that we are already in two major operations. What if we should have a homeland disaster? What if we have another encounter? What if we have a Haiti? The world is very much more complex than when the two-[MRC] concept came together in the early 1990s.

And what I wanted to convey was a much more complex environment, in which you may have to do not just two major conflicts, but a broad range of other things, as well, or, perhaps in the future, one of those conflicts and then a number of other contingencies. So I just felt that construct was too confining and did not represent the real world that our country and our military forces are going to face in the future.[3]

The Obama Administration filed its first QDR in February 2010. In its cover letter, Gates wrote

This is truly a wartime QDR. For the first time, it places the current conflicts on the top of our budgeting, policy and program priorities, thus ensuring that those fighting America's wars and their families — on the battlefield, in hospitals, or on the home front — receive the support they deserve.[4]


It has four priority objectives, which dictate the methods of planning:[5]

  • prevail in today’s wars
  • prevent and deter conflict
  • prepare to defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies
  • preserve and enhance the All-Volunteer Force.

In planning, "these priorities shape not only considerations on the capabilities our Armed Forces need but also the aggregate capacity required to accomplish their missions now and in the future." Planning thus leads to the goal of rebalancing the force:

Rebalancing the Force

  • Defend the United States and support civil authorities at home: The rapid proliferation of destructive technologies, combined with potent ideologies of violent extremism, requires sustaining a high level of vigilance against terrorist threats. Moreover, state adversaries are acquiring new means to strike targets at greater distances from their borders and with greater lethality. The United States must also be prepared to respond to the full range of potential natural disasters.
    • Improve the responsiveness and flexibility of consequence management response forces;
    • Enhance capabilities for domain awareness;
    • Accelerate the development of standoff radiological/nuclear detection capabilities; and
    • Enhance domestic capabilities to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
  • Succeed in counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations: The United States must retain the capability to conduct large-scale counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations in a wide range of environments. In order to ensure that America’s Armed Forces are prepared for this complex mission, it is vital that the lessons from today’s conflicts be further institutionalized in military doctrine, training, capability development, and operational planning.
    • Increase the availability of rotary-wing assets (i.e., helicopters and tilt-rotor)
    • Expand manned and unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR);
    • Increase key enabling assets for special operations forces (SOF);
    • Increase counterinsurgency, stability operations, and counterterrorism competency and capacity in general purpose forces;
    • Increase regional expertise for Afghanistan and Pakistan; and
    • Strengthen key supporting capabilities for strategic communication.
  • Build the security capacity of partner states: Since the end of World War II, DoD has worked to build the security capacity of allied and partner states and to ensure that the Armed Forces of the United States have ample opportunities to train with and learn from counterpart forces. As ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq make clear, these dimensions of U.S. defense strategy have never been more important.
    • Strengthen and institutionalize general purpose force capabilities for security force assistance;
    • Enhance linguistic, regional, and cultural ability;
    • Strengthen and expand capabilities for training partner aviation forces;
    • Strengthen capacities for ministerial-level training; and
    • Create mechanisms to expedite acquisition and transfer of critical capabilities to partner forces.
  • In the absence of dominant U.S. power projection capabilities, the integrity of U.S. alliances and security partnerships could be called into question, reducing U.S. security and influence and increasing the possibility of conflict.
    • Expand future long-range strike capabilities;
    • Exploit advantages in subsurface operations;
    • Increase the resiliency of U.S. forward posture and base infrastructure;
    • Assure access to space and the use of space assets;
    • Enhance the robustness of key ISR capabilities;
    • Defeat enemy sensors and engagement systems; and
  • "Prevent proliferation and counter weapons of mass destruction: ... As the ability to create and employ weapons of mass destruction spreads globally, so must our combined efforts to detect, interdict, and contain the effects of these weapons." Actions include:
    • Establish a Joint Task Force Elimination Headquarters to plan, train, and execute WMD elimination operations;
    • Research countermeasures and defense to nontraditional agents;
    • Enhance nuclear forensics;
    • Secure vulnerable nuclear materials;
    • Expand the biological threat reduction program; and
    • Develop new verification technologies.
  • Operate effectively in cyberspace: The security environment demands improved capabilities to counter threats in cyberspace. In the 21st century, modern armed forces simply cannot conduct effective high-tempo operations without resilient, reliable information and communication networks and assured access to cyberspace. DoD must actively defend its networks.

Guiding the Evolution of the Force

Ground forces will retain "full-spectrum operations" capability, meaning that they can operate in large-scale conventional conflict, counterinsurgency and peace operations. In the 2011-2015 period, they will consist of:

  • Army
    • 4 Corps headquarters
      • 18 Division headquarters
      • 73 total brigade combat teams (BCTs) (45 Active Component [AC] and 28 Reserve Component [RC]), consisting of:
        • 40 infantry brigade combat teams (IBCTs)
        • 8 Stryker brigade combat teams (SBCTs)
        • 25 heavy brigade combat teams (HBCTs)
      • 21 combat aviation brigades (CABs) (13 AC and 8 RC)
      • Air defense artillery: 15 MIM-104 Patriot battalions; 7 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries
  • Marine (including organic aircraft)
    • 3 Marine expeditionary forces
      • 4 Marine divisions (3 AC and 1 RC)
        • 11 infantry regiments
        • 4 artillery regiments
        • 4 Marine aircraft wings (6 fixed-wing groups, 7 rotary-wing groups, 4 control groups, 4 support groups) F-18 Hornet, EF-18 Super Hornet, EF-18 Growler, KC-130, CH-53, MV-22
        • 4 Marine logistics groups (9 combat logistics regiments)
        • 7 Marine expeditionary unit command elements

Naval forces likewise will continue to be capable of robust forward presence and power projection operations, even as they add capabilities and capacity for working with a wide range of partner navies. The rapid growth in sea- and land-based ballistic missile defense capabilities will help meet the needs of combatant commanders and allies in several regions. Including organic aircraft, they will include

  • 10 – 11 aircraft carriers and 10 carrier air wings
  • 84 – 88 large surface combatants (Ticonderoga-class cruisers, Burke-class and Zumwalt-class destroyers), including 21 – 32 ballistic missile defense-capable combatants and Aegis Ashore; the followon CGX cruiser program has been cancelled and Zumwalt production capped at three vessels
  • 14 – 28 small surface combatants (+14 mine countermeasure ships)
  • 29 – 31 amphibious warfare ships
  • 53 – 55 attack submarines and 4 guided missile submarines (non-nuclear weapons)
  • 126 – 171 land-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and electronic warfare (EW) aircraft (manned and unmanned)
  • 3 maritime prepositioning squadrons
  • 30 – 33 combat logistics force ships (+1 Mobile Landing Platform (MLP))
  • 17 – 25 command and support vessels (including Joint High Speed Vessels, 3 T-AKE Class dry cargo/ammunition ships, 1 mobile landing platform)
  • 51 roll-on/roll-off strategic sealift vessels

Air forces, in addition to organic Navy and Marine aircraft, "will become more survivable as large numbers of fifth-generation fighters join the force. Land-based and carrier-based aircraft will need greater average range, flexibility, and multimission versatility in order to deter and defeat adversaries that are fielding more potent anti-access capabilities. We will also enhance our air forces’ contributions to security force assistance operations by fielding within our broader inventory aircraft that are well-suited to training and advising partner air forces."

  • 8 ISR wing-equivalents (with up to 380 primary mission aircraft)
  • 30 – 32 airlift and aerial refueling wing-equivalents (with 33 primary mission aircraft per wing-equivalent) C-130 Hercules, C-17 Globemaster III, C-5 Galaxy; KC-135; KC-10
  • 10 – 11 theater strike wing-equivalents (with 72 primary mission aircraft per wing equivalent) F-15E Strike Eagle, F-35A Lightning II, B-1 Lancer
  • 5 long-range strike (bomber) wings (with up to 96 primary mission aircraft) B-52, B-2 (nuclear capable)
  • 6 air superiority wing-equivalents (with 72 primary mission aircraft per wing-equivalent)--F-15 Eagle, F-22 Raptor
  • 3 command and control wings and 5 fully operational air and space operations centers (with a total of 27 primary mission aircraft)
  • 10 space and cyberspace wings

Special operations forces will enlarge, and also get better support from conventional units. While there will certainly be some classified units, the force will have:

  • Approximately 660 special operations teams (includes Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha[ODA] teams, Navy Sea, Air, and Land [SEAL] platoons, Marine special operations teams, Air Force special tactics teams, and operational aviation detachments [OADs])
  • 3 Ranger battalions
  • 165 tilt-rotor/fixed-wing mobility and fire support primary mission aircraft


The QDR process draws on a great deal of internal expertise. Senate candidate Joe Sestak (D-PA), a retired vice admiral and the highest-ranking retired military officer to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, was Director of the Navy's QDR office. Michelle Flournoy, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in the Obama administration, was, in 2001, a Distinguished Research Professor Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, where she created a working group that participated in Joint Chiefs of Staff preparation for the QDR.

So, each service has a QDR office, as well as several offices at DoD level, as well as ad hoc organizations.


The Army QDR Office leads, integrates, and synchronizes the actions of the Army Secretariat, Army Staff, and subordinate commands in the conduct of congressionally-directed, OSD-led Quadrennial Roles and Missions and Defense Reviews. The Army QDR Office leads the Army Secretariat and Army Staff in support of OSD development of Guidance for Development of the Force, which provides strategic planning guidance to DOD Components for development of the Defense Program. The Army QDR Office leads, integrates, and synchronizes the actions of the Army Staff in the conduct of Joint Staff-led Operational Availability Studies to assess future defense capabilities and capacity to execute the defense strategy.[6] The office director is a civilian, Tim Muchmore.

Products and processes of the office are:

  • Act as the Army lead for the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)
  • Act as the Army lead for the Quadrennial Roles & Missions (QRM) Review
  • Act as the Army lead for the Guidance of the Development of the Force
  • Coordinate studies and strategic reviews
  • Coordinate Senior Leaders preparation for the Deputy's Advisory Working Group (DAWG) and the Senior Level Review Group (SLRG)
  • Prepare /recommend issues via the Council of Colonels for the QDR Panel Leader and QDR 3-Star meetings


Air Force