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Huge Defense Planning Document Leaks; What Does It Mean for the Budget?

Apropos of my story today about the consistently-ballooning defense budget, Defense News has a leak of the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s big planning document that, among other things, is supposed to shape the budget. This is just a leak of a draft, and not the final document. But the document is entering its absolute final phase, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will be testifying about it and next year’s budget (they’re released simultaneously) before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. As I wrote today, Gates sent strong signals last year that the QDR would signal what further big-ticket items would get reined in or cut altogether.

And the draft suggests that Gates wasn’t playing around. Some bullet points:

The FY11 budget build on FY10, providing additional attention to key lines of investment that are highlighted in the reports

? Taking care of our troops and our people

? Reforming how we buy and operate

Rebalancing for:

? The current fight

? Plausible future challenges

Now, you can’t tell from that what will be cut. The defense budget is always a fight between the immediate challenges of the present and what each military service envisions as the future of war and its relevance to it. Gates has said, repeatedly — and conspicuously last year when he chopped a bunch of programs — that he’s sick of buying stuff for every conceivable challenge, no matter how hypothetical. But we need to wait and see how that cashes out. The draft’s intro says:

QDR analyses centered on the following challenge areas: defending the United States and providing defense support to civil authorities, conducting irregular operations (including counterinsurgency, stability operations, and counter-terrorist operations), defeating adversaries armed with anti-access capabilities, countering weapons of mass destruction, and operating effectively in cyberspace.

That paragraph strongly suggests — as does Gates’ entire tenure, really — that the Pentagon ought to be reoriented around immediate, manifested challenges. (I guess you could argue that the “anti-access capabilities” thing is the exception; my ignorant speculation is that’s in there so the South Koreans and Japanese don’t think we’re ignoring North Korea.) But here’s the thing: the services are really good at arguing that their existing priorities are applicable to new circumstances. That’s how the F-22, a Cold War-era fighter aircraft, survived until Gates killed it last year. So we’ll have to see how exactly the budget measures up to the QDR construct. Does it rebrand old wine or does it smash some corked bottles?

Luckily, Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, will give a speech on Tuesday, before Gates and Mullen testify, on the QDR.

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