Army readiness - Here we go again

With the House Armed Services Committee National Defense Authorization Act mark-up done, the majority of press coverage has focused on cuts to weapons programs and questions about Base Realignment and Closure.  Missing from the discussion are the major cuts to training that are also occurring, particularly in the Army.  Those cuts are serious, and their impact will be profound.  New recruits, those reporting to their first duty station, won’t have sufficient opportunity to train in their primary occupational skills; platoon leaders and company commanders won’t have sufficient opportunity to maneuver their units at their home station; few battalion and brigade commanders will have any opportunity to maneuver their units, train and drive their staffs through a major operation, and work their combat support systems.  
 
If this situation continues -- and given sequestration, it will not only continue, but get worse – readiness will almost certainly drop like a stone.
 
“There has been no reduction in individual and squad-level marksmanship training – that’s funded,” said Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno during testimony before the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee on March 27. “Where we have had problems is where we get above that level – the collective training that happens at platoon, company and battalion – that is where we have had to reduce funding.”
 

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This reduction in “collective training”, as Gen. Odierno put it, is a very big deal.  Units don’t really come together at any level -- platoon, company or battalion -- until the entire battalion has been out in the field and gone through several training exercises.  Think of crawl, walk, run.  If the Army trains only to company level, it’s still in the crawl phase.

There is an old saying in the Army:  “more sweat in training, less blood in combat.”  Unfortunately, history has proven the truth of that adage.  After World War II, in the rush to return to peacetime status, the government cut the defense budget too much.  The effects manifested themselves in 1950, when North Korea launched its invasion of the South.
 
In the opening days of the war, the Army deployed Task Force Smith – an infantry battalion of 400 men – to slow the North Korean advance.  The unit was poorly equipped and poorly trained; most of the soldiers were teenagers who had only received eight weeks of basic training.  They had outdated equipment that proved to be no match for North Korean armor. Task Force Smith held its position for seven hours, but as North Korean forces overwhelmed the battalion, what was left of the unit was forced to withdraw.  Many of the wounded were abandoned – and were promptly shot by the advancing North Koreans.



Those who want the full story of Task Force Smith should consult T. R. Fehrenback’s excellent history of the Korean War. 



History is repeating itself.  In the spring of 2011, then secretary of defense Bob Gates proposed a budget that was designed to begin recapitalizing the military after a decade of hard fighting.  It would have modestly increased defense spending over the ensuing ten years.  Gates’ budget proposal was not accepted.  Later that year, Congress and the White House agreed to cut a trillion dollars from the defense budget, with no analysis whatsoever of the impact on military preparedness.
 
We are now seeing what that impact is: a Navy that cannot maintain its shrinking fleet, an Air Force that is shedding current inventory in an attempt to protect its remaining modernization programs, an undertrained Army that will be smaller than at any time since before World War II.



Representative Paul Ryan has introduced a budget in the House that substantially increases defense spending from its reduced baseline.  The increase isn’t nearly enough, and Ryan’s budget almost certainly won’t become law, but the fact that the budget was introduced is a hopeful sign that some members of Congress are beginning to recognize the detrimental impacts these budget cuts have on national security.  Yet the damage has been done, and more will occur in the near term no matter what happens now.  
 
Bad decisions have bad consequences; it will take years, and billions of dollars in extra funding, to reverse the consequences of the decisions made three years ago.  In the meantime, the threats to America, and the risk of armed conflict, will continue to grow around the world.
 
In 1982, a memorial to Task Force Smith was erected on the Osan battlefield.  The memorial is a standing rebuke to the folly of political leaders who, weary of past wars, refuse to prepare for future ones.  It is not the politicians who pay the price for such decisions.  It’s the men and women of America’s military who defend their country whenever and wherever called.  They deserve to be prepared before they have to fight.  They’re not getting what they deserve now.


Senator Jim Talent served on the House and Senate Armed Service Committees for 12 years.  He is currently a member of the Independent Panel reviewing the Quadrennial Defense Review. Lindsey Neas, a former Army officer, served as a defense aide for 15 years to five members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.  He also served on the staffs of the WMD Commission and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.