Fast Facts

To adapt to growing threats, the Department of Defense says it must urgently change.

We looked at DOD's process for providing senior leaders with the information they need to adjust the size and capabilities of the U.S. military to meet top defense priorities.

Senior leaders are not getting the information they need to make these important decisions. Our recommendations address the following challenges:

It was difficult to develop a common "starting point" for force structure analysis

The military services' analyses largely supported the status quo

There was no way to compare options and identify tradeoffs across DOD

 

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Cover of the Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America

 

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense's (DOD) analytic approach has not provided senior leaders with the support they need to evaluate and determine the force structure necessary to implement the National Defense Strategy. DOD's analytic approach—Support for Strategic Analysis (SSA)—is used by the services to evaluate their force structure needs and develop their budgets. However, GAO found that SSA has been hindered by three interrelated challenges:

  • Products are cumbersome and inflexible. Although DOD guidance states that SSA products are to be common starting points for analysis on plausible threats, including threats identified in strategic guidance, DOD has not kept the products complete and up to date in part because they were highly detailed and complex and therefore cumbersome to develop and analyze.
  • Analysis does not significantly deviate from services' programmed force structures or test key assumptions. Although DOD's guidance states that SSA should facilitate a broad range of analysis exploring innovative approaches to mitigate threats identified in the strategy, the services generally have not conducted this type of analysis because guidance has not specifically required the services to do so.
  • DOD lacks joint analytic capabilities to assess force structure. Although DOD guidance states that SSA is intended to facilitate the comparison and evaluation of competing force structure options and cross-service tradeoffs, the department has not conducted this type of analysis because it lacks a body or process to do so.

DOD efforts to revise its analytic approach are in the early stages and have not yet identified solutions to these challenges. Moreover, DOD has attempted reforms in the past without success. Without a functioning analytic process that addresses the above challenges, senior leaders do not have the analytic support they need to prioritize force structure investments that would best manage risk and address the threats outlined in the National Defense Strategy.

Comparison of Support for Strategic Analysis Design and Implementation

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DOD's 2018 National Defense Strategy continues the department's shift toward focusing on the challenges posed by major powers—China and Russia. The strategy concludes that DOD must pursue urgent change at a significant scale and starkly warns that failure to properly implement the strategy will rapidly result in a force that is irrelevant to the threats it will face. To implement the change DOD envisions, senior leaders must have quality information.

Senate Report 115-125 includes a provision for GAO to review DOD's analytic approach for informing force structure decisions to implement the National Defense Strategy. This report assesses, among other things, whether DOD's analytic approach has provided senior leaders with the support needed. GAO reviewed DOD guidance, assessed whether DOD was meeting the objectives identified in its guidance, and interviewed agency officials. This is an unclassified version of a classified report issued in February 2019. Information that DOD deemed classified has been omitted.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that DOD (1) determine the analytic products needed and update them, (2) provide specific guidance requiring the services to explore a range of alternative approaches and force structures, and (3) establish an approach for conducting joint force structure analysis across the department. DOD concurred with the recommendations and noted the department has begun addressing them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (OUSD (Policy)), the Joint Staff, and the Office of the Director, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation—in consultation with the services—determine the analytic products needed and the level of detail that is sufficient to serve as a common starting point but flexible to allow for variation of analysis to support senior leader decisions, and update these products to reflect current strategy and intelligence estimates, as well as the anticipated operational approaches needed to address future threats. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation and has taken some steps to address it. Specifically, in April 2019, the Secretary of Defense issued the FY 2021-2025 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), which identified analytic products that would serve as the department's starting point for analysis in fiscal years 2021-2025. DOD has also begun developing some of these analytic products, including several defense planning scenarios that it developed in December 2018 to reflect some of the threats outlined in the National Defense Strategy. To fully implement this recommendation, DOD will need to develop the additional products it needs for the remaining key threats identified in the National Defense Strategy. Additionally, keeping these products updated will require sustained attention by the department, but the direction provided by DOD was limited to budget guidance for fiscal years 2021-2025. The direction would more closely adhere to the intent of our recommendation if it were provided in an enduring guidance or policy document. In March 2021, DOD officials noted that the subject of this report is being re-examined by current leadership, and additional DoD actions may occur in the near future. We will continue to monitor DOD actions in response to this recommendation.
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
The Secretary of Defense should ensure that OUSD (Policy) provide specific guidance requiring the services to explore a range of innovative force structure approaches relevant to the key threats identified in the National Defense Strategy, including identifying key assumptions on which the services must conduct sensitivity analyses. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation and has taken some steps to address it. Specifically, in April 2019, DOD issued the FY 2021-2025 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), which directed some actions relevant to our recommendation regarding the need to explore a range of innovative force structure approaches. However, it did not directly address the need to require the services to conduct sensitivity analysis on key assumptions. The defense planning scenarios that DOD developed in December 2018 identify critical parameters for analytical exploration and encourage DOD components to conduct excursions and sensitivity analysis of assumptions, which we found has not been sufficient to spur this type of analysis in the past. To fully implement this recommendation, DOD needs to require the services to conduct this analysis. In March 2021, DOD officials noted that the subject of this report is being re-examined by current leadership, and additional DoD actions may occur in the near future. We will continue to monitor DOD actions in response to this recommendation.
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
The Secretary of Defense should establish an approach for comparing competing analyses and conducting joint analyses for force structure to support senior leaders as they seek to implement the National Defense Strategy. This could include establishing a separate body with these capabilities and/or specifying the organizational responsibilities and processes for conducting these comparisons and analyses. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation and has taken some steps to address it. Specifically, in May 2019, DOD issued the FY 2021-2025 Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), which could lay the groundwork for DOD to compare competing analyses and conduct joint force structure analyses. To fully implement this recommendation, DOD needs to establish an approach for doing so, which could include establishing a body or process for conducting comparisons or joint analyses. In March 2021, DOD officials noted that, due to the recent political transition, some of the forums established by the prior administration have been disestablished or are in the process of being retooled. They further stated that the subject of this report is being re-examined by current leadership, and additional DoD actions may occur in the near future. We will continue to monitor DOD actions in response to this recommendation.

Full Report

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