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Marine QDR Rep: Small Is Beautiful For 2014 Strategic Review

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


PENTAGON: Even the name is cumbersome. The congresionally-mandated strategic exercise known as the Quadrennial Defense Review has a reputation, hardly undeserved, for being ponderous, bureaucratic, and irrelevant — to the point that some policymakers want to kill the QDR altogether. But the QDR chief for the smallest of the services, Marine Maj. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, argues that this time, for the QDR due in February 2014, small can be beautiful.

“The report that goes to Congress does not have to be generated by 600 people [in] an industrial-strength process like some in the past have been,” McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon today. “It could be generated by a far smaller number.” In the Marine Corps QDR shop, for example, “we have about ten people, plus or minus…and some of them are not full time,” he said. “Sometimes being relatively small is the best approach.”

The QDR is required by law, but that statute gives the Secretary of Defense wide discretion on how to put it together. In fact, between the prolonged confirmation battle over Sec. Chuck Hagel and the ongoing confusion over the budget, the formal “terms of reference” that officially kick off the QDR process aren’t even out yet.

“We really don’t formally know when the QDR is going to start,” McKenzie acknowledged. But, he argued, it’s precisely the current turmoil that makes some deep thinking necessary and this QDR, at least potentially, really matter.

“The timing is very good,” he argued. “I think this one could be different because you have a new Secretary…. there are fiscal pressures on the Department that are going to have to be addressed… [and] we have adopted a new strategy, the shift to the Pacific. So I think those three things argue that it’s possible this could be a significant QDR.”

It all depends on Hagel, he said, and whether the new Secretary decides to use the QDR as a tool to think through the fiscal and strategic dilemmas.

Arguably, the fewer the people working on the QDR, the easier for the Secretary of Defense to keep control, and the harder for what McKenzie called “hidebound interests” to water it down to a tasteless oatmeal of consensus. Past QDRs have bloated precisely because of an unfocused proliferation of study groups, each of which had to have a representative from all four services, the joint staff, and often other entities as well to make sure no constituency went unrepresented. But a much smaller, more streamlined process managed to produce the January 2012 “defense strategic guidance,” a succinct — just eight substantive pages — but highly influential document that successfully reshaped the debate in terms of the “pivot to Asia,” “building partner capacity,” and “innovative, low-cost, small-footprint approaches.”

One of the key questions for the QDR, McKenzie said, would be whether that strategy is still executable under post-sequestration budgets. Former Sec. Leon Panetta himself said the automatic spending cuts would throw the strategy “out the window.”

The Marines, at least, seem fairly confident about their place in the future force. (Compare and contrast the abiding anxiety in the Army). “We see ourselves as a middle-weight force,” McKenzie said, operating primarily from the sea. Marines expect to spend most of their time in low-intensity or non-combat operations — disaster relief, evacuating US citizens, international exercises, shows of force — and even the service’s highest-priority program, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle, needs to be designed with such missions as much in mind as traditional storm-the-beach assaults, McKenzie said. But the Marines must also be able to step up to major battle whenever necessary and keep it up, at least for long enough to bridge the gap until the Army’s heavy hitters arrive.

“We have the best Army in the world, it’s the force of ultimate decisive action for the United States,” McKenzie emphasized. The Marines are something different, he said: “We can be most effective in… smaller situations.”

Indeed, after a decade serving alongside Army soldiers in sustained land combat, the Marines increasingly see themselves as the middle ground between all three of the bigger services. So even as the Marines join with the Army and Special Operations Command in a new Office of Strategic Landpower — which McKenzie emphasizes is “nascent” and “just beginning” — it’s also increasingly involved in the Air Force and Navy-led AirSea Battle Office.

“We really do operate in that middle ground, between an Air-Sea Battle view of the world and a landpower view,” said McKenzie. In the Air Force and Navy concept of trans-oceanic warfare, the Marines can seize, destroy, or defend critical forward bases for aircraft, supplies, or long-range missiles. For the Army, the Marines can provide a seaborne “early entry” capability to help their big brothers to get ashore. For Special Forces, conversely, Marines can be the big brothers who provide the heavy-duty firepower and logistics to back up a small commando team.

To increase their strategic responsiveness even as budgets fall, the Marines are experimenting with the concept of a “Special Purpose MAGTF” (Marine Air-Ground Task Force), a relatively small unit operating not off ships but primarily from the land. Exploiting the long range of the Marines’ MV-22 Osprey aircraft backed by KC-130J fuel tankers, such forces could react rapidly to a crisis for which a full-sized Marine Expeditionary Unit might not be available. (A somewhat different kind of Special Purpose MAGTF recently deployed to Africa).

“The crown jewel of forward presence for us is the Marine Expeditionary Unit,” McKenzie said. “Well, there’re a finite number of those. [The Special Purpose MAGTF] allows you to put something forward that is not a MEU but provides some of the qualities of a MEU.”

“We can’t be everywhere at once,” said McKenzie. As budgets shrink and strategy changes, the Marines and the military as a whole are going to have to figure out how to be more places with less.

What do you think?