The latest Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) of the US was released on 1 February along with the defence budget. This report, prepared once during the four-year term of every president, lays out the principal threats, strategic priorities and the broad direction for the US military to achieve these objectives under the current Obama administration.
In many ways, the 2010 QDR is a continuation of the 2006 QDR issued by the Bush administration. The previous QDR written against the backdrop of the so-called long war on terror called for a shift “from single focused-threats—to multiple, complex challenges; from nation-state threats—to decentralized network threats from non-state enemies; from conducting war against nations—to conducting war in countries we are not at war with (safe havens); from ‘one size fits all’ deterrence—to tailored deterrence for rogue powers, terrorist networks and near-peer competitors; and from responding after a crisis starts (reactive)—to preventive actions so problems do not become crises (proactive)”.
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While the 2010 QDR underlines these shifts, it also goes further and is more ambitious in its efforts to create what is being called a “do-it-all military”. Besides the rise of China and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the 2010 QDR also identifies growing demand for natural resources, rapid urbanization, the effects of climate change, the emergence of new diseases and population and social tensions in several regions as “some of the trends whose complex interplay may spark or exacerbate future conflicts”.
Against this backdrop, the 2010 QDR calls on the US forces to prevail in the ongoing war against Al Qaeda and its allies, and respond to the “full range of challenges posed by state and non-state actors” through the growing cyber and space capabilities, coupled with the ballistic missile defence and counter-WMD capabilities, as well as the nuclear deterrence. The 2010 QDR also does not repudiate the abhorrent “preventive” war doctrine promulgated by the Bush regime and instead aims to broaden and deepen “prevent-and-deter” missions. These missions are, of course, in addition to the traditional mission of the US military to prevail in a two-front war and succeed in a “broad range of operations that may occur in multiple theatres in overlapping time frames”.
As if this was not enough, the 2010 QDR also calls on the defence department to respond to an attack or natural disaster at home; support and stabilize fragile states; and prevent human suffering caused by large-scale mass atrocities or natural disasters abroad. This is a mandate far beyond what the US military was called upon to do even under George W. Bush; the only real difference is the US will not carry out all of these missions by itself, but “in concert with allies and partners”.
This might explain why, unlike previous QDRs, the 2010 QDR downplays the threat of China. Clearly, a US, which is deeply indebted to China, cannot afford to paint its de facto banker as a potential threat.
Similarly, the 2010 QDR, for the first time, also gives greater recognition to India’s growing military capacity, particularly “long-range maritime surveillance, maritime interdiction and patrolling, air interdiction and strategic airlift”, and notes that “India has already established its worldwide military influence through counter-piracy, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief efforts”. If there is any doubt that New Delhi is being seen as a strategic counterweight to Beijing in the future, it is allayed by the QDR’s assertion that Washington now sees India as a “net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond”.
Clearly, working in concert with partners, especially democratic ones, such as India, and downplaying the perceived threat from China is, perhaps, the only logical approach, given the growing overstretch and the expanded mandate of the US military machine. However, the same cannot be said for the continued centrality given to nuclear weapons in the 2010 QDR.
Indeed, there is a fundamental contradiction between the emerging missions and the present range of weapons, particularly nuclear weapons, in the US arsenal. It would be fair to say that there is no role whatsoever for any type of nuclear weapons—strategic or tactical—in 90% of the missions outlined in the 2010 QDR. And yet, key doctrines are based on a continued role of nuclear weapons.
This is both dangerous and self-defeating. It is dangerous because, in the past few years, military units dealing with nuclear weapons have repeatedly been found negligent in their handling of these weapons, perhaps reflecting their diminishing role in the missions confronting the US military. It is self-defeating because the US military needs a new set of doctrines and conventional weapon systems to carry out its ambitious missions; nuclear weapons and their related military, technical and scientific complexes are preventing this vital transformation. Clearly, ensuring the success of the mission and the 2010 QDR should be more important than preserving the relics of the Cold War.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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