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Research Questions

  1. Why has the defense strategy process evolved in the way it has?
  2. Why, despite so much time and effort, do strategies so often come up short?
  3. How can the process change to make for better strategy?

Defense reviews are political documents, as much as they are analytical ones. This report examines three main questions. First, why has the defense strategy process evolved in the way it has? Second, why, despite so much time and effort, do strategies so often come up short? Finally, and most importantly, how can the process change to make for better strategy? Using a mixture of primary and secondary sources and firsthand interviews, this report first traces the history of major defense reviews in the post–Cold War period from the Base Force through the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. The report then explores the politics behind these reviews to explain the structural, personnel, and political reasons why these defense reviews often embrace the status quo, and predicts what factors — from budgets to timing to senior-level involvement — may allow a review to develop more-innovative findings. The report concludes with a series of recommendations for the services, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. government at large to get the most out of these defense reviews. Ultimately, this report argues that defense reviews at their core are as much the product of political compromises as they are objective analysis. Consequently, understanding the politics behind defense reviews can help explain how they evolve, what their limitations are, and how to maximize the process in the future.

Key Findings

  • Few officials believe that any of the dozen major defense reviews in the past quarter century produced a satisfactory answer to questions on national security.
  • The process behind writing and staffing defense reviews gives these documents a powerful status quo bias that often leads to recommendations of incremental, rather than dramatic, changes.
  • Reviews often failed to anticipate major geopolitical events just a few years out. Even when the reviews did anticipate correctly, policymakers were often disinclined to make major budgetary or programmatic shifts until months, if not years, into a crisis.
  • A senior leadership's level of interest often correlates with a review's significance.
  • Reviews produced early in an administration tend to matter more than those produced later on because new administrations often are more inclined to use these reviews as ways to signal a new course.
  • Outside reviews tend to be more hawkish, both because of the members who are chosen to sit on these reviews and because these reviews are typically not constrained by budgets.
  • A review's impact depends as much on the political climate as it does on its analysis. Some of the most impactful reviews were both politically useful and analytically correct.


  • Acknowledge that defense reviews require political awareness, not just analytical depth, and select a representative who can navigate this complex terrain.
  • Directly involve the services' senior leadership because these officials are ultimately the ones who must articulate and fight for the services' resourcing needs.
  • Explain service needs in a simple, unclassified manner to build a case for the service's budget in external reviews and in the wider policy community.
  • Tailor the service's recommendations in light of the political climate to best exploit the opportunities for small wins.
  • Keep the target date for the review about a year into the administration to maximize policy flexibility.
  • Design a relatively transparent force-sizing construct to sell the numbers to Congress and a wider policy audience but build in additional slack to account for unpredicted events.
  • Leverage outside reports to fight for additional resources but do not expect them to make hard trade-offs that come with defined budgets.
  • Recognize the trade-offs of having senior-leadership involvement for more impactful reviews, but not necessarily more successful administrations.
  • Understand that defense reviews have a built-in status quo bias, and manage expectations accordingly.
  • View defense reviews as the start of a dialogue about national priorities. In this sense, the answers in these reviews may matter less than the policy discussions they provoke within the Department of Defense, Congress, and the broader policy community.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Director of Strategy, Concepts and Assessments, Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategic Plans and Requirements (AF/A5S) and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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