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This Executive Summary highlights findings from a comparative historical analysis of the four Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDRs) conducted after 1997 (in 2001, 2006, 2010, and 2014), identifying trends, implications, and recommendations for the Army and Defense Department in order to shape the conduct of and improve future reviews.

The summary systematically compares these most-recent four QDRs — developed during a period of nearly a decade and a half of conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere — by examining them in the following categories: organization and process, strategy development, force planning, resources, risk assessment, and reception. The analysis is based on reviews of QDR documentation and defense budget, force structure, and manpower data, as well as structured conversations with individuals involved in each QDR.

The authors find that the period under review ended much as it began, with an increasingly apparent gap among U.S. military strategy, forces, and resources, reflected in the changing defense strategies of each QDR. Most QDRs failed to adequately address the growing portfolio of demands on the force, as well as the risks associated with different end strengths and mixes of active- and reserve-component forces. Thus, the focus of future defense reviews should be assessing the adequacy of U.S. forces to support the chosen strategy at an acceptable level of risk, and the budgets needed to support those forces in the near, mid-, and long terms. It will be left to leaders in the U.S. Department of Defense to estimate the funding levels needed to execute the stated defense strategy, and it will be left to the White House and Congress both to agree on the level of defense funding that keeps risk at an acceptable level and to determine how best to pay that bill.

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This research was sponsored by the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-3/5/7, and conducted by the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program within RAND Arroyo Center.

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