In 2010, a PhD candidate at Duke University named Ionut Popescu wrote an essay for Armed Forces Journal titled “Last QDR?”. Popescu, now a political scientist at Old Dominion University, argued that the Quadrennial Defense Review taking place that year was part of a flawed strategic planning system that sought to rationalize the planning process, but instead institutionalized bureaucratic status quo biases. While Popescu’s essay was really a look at the Pentagon’s strategic planning system as a whole, it was framed around the idea of the 2010 QDR being the last. While the Department of Defense proceeded with both the 2010 and 2014 QDRs, Popescu might be getting his wish six years later. But the alternative being proposed might not prove all that satisfying given his larger critique of defense planning.

The Quadrennial Defense Review is a strategic review and planning exercise that takes place—as its name suggests—every four years. It began in 1996 as an effort to spur strategic reform in the post-Cold War U.S. military. Several previous reviews had failed to instigate any significant change, so Congress established the QDR as an ongoing, iterative review process that would take place at the beginning of each new presidential term to stimulate new thinking. Like the post-Cold War reviews that preceded it, the results have never been satisfactory.

Popescu, whose essay has been discussed here previously, was ahead of the political game in recognizing the need to jettison the review, but the politicians who oversee defense policy are now starting to come around. In his markup of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, Congressman Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), included a provision to kill the QDR. According the summary posted on the HASC majority’s website,

The Proposal will eliminate the ineffective Quadrennial Defense Review, which has grown into an autonomous behemoth, and replace it with a new frame for Secretary [of Defense]-led strategic guidance. The Proposal would establish the Defense Strategy Commission as an independent panel of bipartisan national security experts appointed by Congress to make recommendations for the nation’s defense strategy at the outset of an administration. The Secretary would then be required to issue top-down Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) every four years that sets force structure and resource priorities.

The Defense Strategy Commission will be an independent panel that will handle the review, instead of it being conducted by the military bureaucracy. As Sydney Freedberg of Breaking Defense described it, the proposal will create a commission “comprised of seven ‘greybeards’ appointed by HASC and the Senate Armed Services Committee, similar to the National Defense Panel that was supposed to critique and analyze the QDR.”

While doing away with the ineffectual QDR is a good thing, the imposition of the Defense Strategy Commission shows that congressional overseers are still missing the forest for the trees when it comes to defense strategic planning. As Popescu wrote in 2010, “the overall utility of current models of strategic planning inside the Pentagon remains highly problematic.” The QDR is a symptom of this problematic approach; the larger disease is the Pentagon planning system that has been in place for over half a century. Popescu explained the problem in his essay:

The rational design model that dominates much of defense planning inside the department represents the state-of-the-art of the strategic management literature of 50 years ago. The business world left this model behind decades ago as archaic and unresponsive to the real world. Therefore, its failures to produce successful strategies for today’s defense challenges are not terribly surprising.

The system could largely operate on autopilot as long as the Soviet Union provided it with a single focal point. When the communist superpower collapsed, bureaucracies fought to maintain what they had instead of adjusting to the new environment. Henry Mintzberg, a management scholar whose work Popescu built on in his essay, argues that strategic planning is justified by the need to contend with turbulence, but instead reinforces organizational status biases. Making strategy requires dynamism, but the planning system of which the QDR is only a part actively impedes it.

The Quadrennial Defense Review itself was an attempt to rectify these problems. Following the Cold War, defense officials and congressional overseers made several attempts to reassess the U.S. military’s size, missions, structure, and doctrine. Retired military officer Richard Lacquement has documented how, in each case, the military services stymied those efforts. One of the review panels he discussed, the 1995 Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces, recommended  “a comprehensive examination of the defense strategy, force structure, force modernization plans, infrastructure, budget plans and other elements of the defense program and policies.” But as Lacquement notes, the military bureaucracy moved immediately to preserve its Cold War structure and practices.

It is unclear how the Defense Strategy Commission will be different than the post-Cold War review panels the QDR was meant to replace. Freedberg specifically compares it to the National Defense Panel, which Congress established to assess the QDR. As discussed here previously, the last National Defense Panel report, released following the 2014 QDR, is a thoroughly political effort to justify the preconceived notions of its congressional sponsors. Jettisoning the QDR is a good first step, but Congress and the Department of Defense need to recognize it is only a symptom of a larger problem. And all the “greybeard” commissions in the world cannot solve it.