August 03, 2010

Read This Now: The QDR in Perspective

Last week, the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Review Panel released its final report on the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The five-month review of the QDR was an opportunity for a panel of national security and defense experts (including CNAS Commander-in-Chief Dr. John Nagl) to assess the shortcomings of the QDR and its processes, and to analyze U.S. national security priorities and challenges from outside the Department of Defense bureaucracy. According to the report:

The issues raised in the body of this Report are sufficiently serious that we believe an explicit warning is appropriate.  The aging of the inventories and equipment used by the services, the decline in the size of the Navy, escalating personnel entitlements, overhead and procurement costs, and the growing stress on the force means that a train wreck is coming in the areas of personnel, acquisition, and force structure. (Emphasis mine)

When I hear train wreck I think Li Lo or Mel Gibson. Despite that distraction, I kept reading.

The panel of experts identified four key national interests that have shaped U.S. national security policy since WWII:

Since 1945, the United States has been the principal architect and remains the principal leader of a durable and desirable international system. American security rests on four principles: the defense of the American homeland; assured access to the sea, air, space, and cyberspace; the preservation of a favorable balance of power across Eurasia that prevents authoritarian domination of that region; and provision for the global “common good” through such actions as humanitarian aid, development assistance, and disaster relief. (P. 25) 

The panel also identified five key challenges to preserving those national interests identified above, including competition for natural resources. Quoting in full from the report:

The combination of the increasing demand for (particularly from a China and India on the rise) and diminishing supplies of hydrocarbons and the increasing global water scarcity will tend to link the two geopolitical trends above; that is, the turmoil in the greater Middle East will have ever-larger global consequences and attract increased interest from outside powers, both raising the potential for and perhaps the scope of instability and conflict. Indeed, as the QDR observed, and the Independent Panel agrees, “Climate change and energy are two key factors that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment…Climate change may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict.” The links between these stressful trends and any specific political effect or military requirement are currently difficult to predict; nonetheless, they could be of critical importance. Indeed, concern over such issues may affect strategic choices: “Perceptions of a rapidly changing environment may cause nations to take unilateral actions to secure resources, territory and other interests.” (P. 27)

The panel issued a series of recommendations that are worth reading in full (PDF), but it’s notable that of the many recommendations in the final report, the panel proposes “an alternative force structure with emphasis on increasing the size of the Navy.”

Given the challenge of resource competition, does increasing the size of the Navy naturally extend to platforms that the Navy and Coast Guard could use? Say, icebreakers for the Arctic…which could be ground zero for natural resource competition as climate change continues to shrink summer sea ice coverage, increasing states’ access to oil, natural gas, minerals and other resources?

It’s worth noting that the U.S. Coast Guard’s only fully functioning heavy icebreaker was recently taken out of service due to engine issues, while its other heavy icebreaker remains in dry dock undergoing a major service life extension.  The service’s only other light icebreaker, Healy, is a scientific research vessel that supports Arctic missions – though it could support other missions if needed. Nevertheless, experts have long advocated that the U.S. government should be increasing its fleet of heavy and light icebreakers in order to monitor Arctic waters and have a more sustained presence there – which the Navy is already planning for. But does the Navy have the force structure to resource those plans?

Whether or not the U.S. government will actually make the investment in more icebreakers is unclear (especially given the political climate and emphasis on cutting federal expenditures). But given that resource competition is one of the five challenges the QDR Independent Review Panel has identified, it might make sense to look to resourcing the Navy for a sustained presence in a resource rich Arctic. Despite summer sea ice increasingly retreating, icebreakers will still be an essential platform for the Arctic theater as there will continue to be floating ice that could compromise naval assets not hardened for the environment. And whether we decide to act or not, and our competitors (such as Russia) are already way ahead of us in resourcing for the Arctic. Time to get moving.