Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast took over the Air Force's portion of the QDR in January. (CSIS)
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Every four years, the Pentagon conducts the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review, a large-scale look at strategic military objectives. Maj. Gen. Steven Kwast took over the Air Force’s portion of the QDR in January. Defense News, sister publication of Air Force Times, sat down with Kwast to talk about the review and the future of the service.
Q. Was the QDR affected by the government shutdown?
A. It put the work on pause for the days the civilians were gone. But as soon as they came back, we got right back up on the horse. Process-wise, we’re back on track. It still does not help the fact that we’re already pushed up against a deadline.
Normally, a QDR has a full year to work through all of these conversations, and this one didn’t start until the late summer.
We had the Strategic Choices and Management Review, which set the foundation and did a lot of the analytic work to say: Where is the money?
So we started ahead of the game, in that regard. But it still takes time to develop strategy.
We also have our combatant commanders taking a look at our plans again, taking a look at the basics and asking, can we achieve our end state by doing it a little different way and saving some money? So that creative, innovative work is happening. It’s almost like painting a moving train.
We’re trying to be innovative and creative, do this smarter, cheaper, better, faster, at the same time we’re trying to develop a strategy. It’s hard to do that fast, and we’re rushing to it right now.
Q. What has the impact of the SCMR been on the QDR?
A. What the SCMR did is, it took a look at every single dollar that is spent in this entire department. It took a look at everything and said, here’s where we’re at. That work does accelerate the QDR, because we know where the money is going, so we know where we might adjust it and where we might have flexibility. There was no strategy in it, there were no choices in it, but it did give us that foundation, that insight on where the money is going and where we might be able to save it.
With that, we go back to QDR and start from square one. And we say, unconstrained, what kind of strategy should we have to be leaders in this world for peace, stability, security, predictability, so that people behave responsibly in the global commons and that economic goodness flows to us and our friends. Now we’re saying, OK, there’s strategy, but we only have this much money. What are the options we have to still achieve this strategy with these budgetary realities? That’s where the creative work comes in.
Q. What kind of communication is there between the services?
A. We do all of this work together. We sit down in a room with all of the services and we say, this isn’t about one more Air Force aircraft or one more Navy ship. It’s about an approach. This is a joint conversation at every part of the way.
Q. You’ve said the QDR is a chance to challenge long-held assumptions. Can you give examples?
A. One is we have a long-held assumption that an aircraft carrier can steam to a place where it has presence, and that the presence gives us access and options. That assumption is no longer true in many places around China, because the technology and precision make it so vulnerable that it can’t even get close without being struck.
So you have to ask the question, if this assumption is the way to go as these technologies proliferate around the world? Maybe there’s a different way of approaching that.
Another one would be ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]. Right now, we’re on a path that you want to be able to see everything, anywhere, all the time. Can we really afford to be able to watch every nook and cranny of the globe 24/7? We can’t even process the information, let alone distill it into decision-quality data. Maybe there’s a way of looking at it differently [by] saying, I want the agility, speed and persistence where if something pops up unexpectedly, I can be there [right away], and then I can stay there as long as I need. We’re spending millions on this infrastructure that may kill a staff sergeant in the Taliban. Can we afford that? Maybe not.
Q. You’ve also said the QDR needs a sober look at technology.
A. A perfect example is drones. We fall in love with drones. We think, this is great, we don’t have to have people in there. But the facts are that it costs more money to put up a CAP [24-hour combat air patrol] than it does to have a squadron of F-16s. It costs more people to man a CAP than it does to man a full squadron. The data link is vulnerable. The machine is vulnerable. The command and control is vulnerable. So we have built into it the one thing you don’t want to build into any military approach, and that is vulnerability.
We were forced to do it because we were rushing this to the fight. We were told exactly what we would do to provide it, and we could not design the art of warfare into the architecture. So now we’re stuck with a system that is too expensive to sustain and modernize. That doesn’t mean we don’t have drones. There’s a place for them. But we have fallen in love with the idea that does not make common sense from a war-fighting approach at a price we can afford.
Q. Do you expect the CAP requirement of 65 to come down?
A. The question of how many CAPs is the question of what approach will we have to ISR, and that’s a discussion the combatant commanders are having now. If we do this right, the Air Force will be able to provide more ISR, cheaper, than we currently do. But we have to be given the political authority by Congress to let go of that old branch that is too expensive, doesn’t really give us the right thing, and is a cost-imposing strategy.
Q. Is anything untouchable ?
A. The QDR starts with an unconstrained strategy. In that regard, everything is on the table. But as you start getting down to the realities of your resources and the realities of your technologies, you only have certain pathways you can take. You can’t reinvent the Army or Navy or Air Force overnight. It has to be slow. As you go forward, you realize there are certain pathways that are already invested in. The question is how aggressively you bend those pathways to get to the point where your strategy takes you in 20 years.
The F-35 is an example. We’re on that path, and that’s a good path. But how do we bend that path so the F-35 is more relevant for our future? That means affordability. That means capability and capacity. You continue refining the problem set. You work with industry, you work with Congress, and look for those pathways to make it more relevant.
Q. Is it fair to say anti-access/area-denial [A2AD] is a major QDR focus?
A. One of the essential things the Air Force does for the nation is project power, with the speed, range and persistence to go anywhere in the world and do whatever the president needs. As the world emerges and technology proliferates, other countries are able to push you off.
What we have now is a world where it’s harder to go places and do these things because even very poorly resourced adversaries can get very cheap capability to hold us at arm’s length.
So a contested environment is a big part of this QDR, because our world is turning more contested and lethal.
We have to stay at a higher plateau than that, so when the president says he needs to see what’s going on in the South China Sea, there’s not a darn thing China can do about us getting in there to see what’s going on. That’s our job.