Bigger changes are on the way for the US military

The latest Quadrennial Defense Review, presented by the US Department of Defense, outlines a five-year programme until 2015 that sees the US playing a 'global role' in 'a complex environment'. It could pave the way for big changes as it accommodates itself to adjusting military capability so as to be able to do more with its allies.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director, RUSI

This article first appeared in The Guardian

The US military's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is the usual weighty document loaded with equally weighty phrases. US forces are to be 'rebalanced' to address the new threats the US faces in 'counterinsurgency, stability and counter-terrorism' operations. And there must be 'reform' in the way the US defence establishment goes about all its business so that a complex 'risk management framework' can be 'operationalised'.

Beyond the defence-management-speak there are some important ideas in this document, but most of them do not go much further than that.

US defence planners can see the direction in which they need to go but they cannot commit to going there too fast. For one thing, military reform was pushed hard by Donald Rumsfeld when he was in charge of defence, and the forces pushed back pretty hard themselves, with some poor results in Iraq after the initial success in breaking down the door.

Reform in US defence always comes up against powerful interests, not just in the very separate armed forces themselves - the army, navy air force, and the US marines - but also in the defence contractors who have long-term investments to defend.

The defence establishment also knows that there are some swingeing expenditure cuts on the way - not in 2010-11, which is largely committed already, but certainly after that. There is no point in offering too much change before the shape of the future budget is clearer. Indeed, there is a natural desire to build in as much continuity to the programme as possible.

So the document is much heavier on words than on deeds. Nevertheless, this is the five-year programme until 2015 that sees the US playing a 'global role' in 'a complex environment'. Everyone knows that bigger changes than this will be on the way and that some sacred cows will have to be slaughtered before the US has fully accommodated itself to the challenges around it.

President Barack Obama has recognised this. The US openly speaks now of working more closely with allies and partners around the world. The QDR speaks of adjusting military capability so as to be able to do more with its allies. When it speaks about this it doesn't seem to have countries like Britain in mind so much as Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates or Indonesia.

Much more attention will apparently be given to military assistance, joint exercises and training missions. We will see. Certainly there are themes here that have been echoed in the UK for quite some time - more joined-up government in the approach to security, better intelligence fusion, a root and branch reform of defence equipment procurement, to name but three.

Whether the US will be more successful in these ambitions than we have proved to be will rather depend upon how seriously they take their QDR.

Like the Romans before them, the US has a great tendency to address the world the way they would like it to be; to fail significantly, and then to learn fast and get it right while the rest of us are still feeling smug. Obama would like them to do this again.

We will see how far their five-year strategy will go down the road to real transformation.



Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

View profile

Explore our related content