'Military readiness crisis' a risky misdiagnosis

'Military readiness crisis' a risky misdiagnosis
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As we begin yet another fiscal year with a stopgap funding measure known as a "continuing resolution" rather than a proper annual budget, Pentagon leaders are understandably frustrated. Such interim arrangements are the new norm this decade. 

They prevent the Department of Defense from entering multi-year contracts that can save the taxpayer money, and they also interfere with innovation, since they simply extrapolate the previous year's budget priorities into the future.

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They also disrupt training and hiring by leaving planners unsure of what the future holds, once the temporary budget measures expire.

 

However, these budgetary shenanigans, combined with recent high-profile accidents like the U.S.S. Fitzgerald and U.S.S. McCain tragedies, have led numerous officials to wrongly declare a military readiness crisis. 

To be sure, after nearly two continuous decades of war, the armed forces are under significant stress. But to exaggerate today's problems as a "crisis" is risky.

Doing so can divert attention from other military challenges, like long-term modernization. It may embolden foes who mistakenly conclude we are unprepared and lead to cynicism among taxpayers who wonder why a defense establishment consistently funded at more than $600 billion a year (well above the Cold War average, in inflation-adjusted terms) is sometimes described in terms reminiscent of the "hollow force" era of the 1970s. 

Today's armed forces, while challenged, are far from hollow. They need more consistent and modestly higher budgets. But rather than wait for readiness salvation in the form of much higher budgets that are unlikely to appear, Pentagon officials also need to think of what they can do to mitigate readiness problems through better management of the forces at hand.

Current military readiness — i.e., the ability of the U.S. military, unit by unit, to carry out assigned tasks promptly and competently — can be summarized as follows: First, most major categories of equipment are in fairly good shape, in terms of their "mission-capable rates" relative to historical norms. 

For example, major Army vehicle readiness rates typically exceed 90 percent today. That said, a number of categories of equipment across the services, like certain helicopter fleets, are not in good shape. 

Second, funding for major training is being provided to the military at 85 to 95 percent of comprehensive rates. That is not perfect, but by historical standards, it is still rather good.

Third, the quality of our personnel is quite high, and recruiting as well as retention statistics are strong. Yet, we do not have enough people for some specialties, and we have real dearths in areas like certain types of pilots and equipment maintenance personnel. 

This review is admittedly cursory and imperfect, partly because the Department of Defense has been classifying more readiness data than it used to or than it should. But my research suggests that it is correct in broad strokes. 

Today's overall readiness, averaged across multiple categories, is probably something like a B+ — though that kind of broad assessment can admittedly gloss over specific problems that might prove disproportionately serious in a given mission or crisis. 

What to do? As noted, more and steadier defense funding is needed to further bolster funds for training and equipment repair and to modestly increase some force structure — though that would not help if the money comes by slashing other key federal accounts, as the Trump administration has proposed. 

As Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley told Congress last spring, "The conduct of war is not just a military undertaking. We have to use not only our military forces, but we need the State Department, the CIA, the FBI, Commerce and so on and so forth." 

Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Trump signs 7B defense policy bill into law | Rips McCain hours after signing bill named after him | Green Beret killed in Afghanistan blast US soldier killed by IED in Afghanistan Trump signs 7B annual defense policy bill into law MORE was even more pithy in telling Congress that if it doesn't provide adequate support for diplomacy and economic assistance, "I need more ammunition" to deal with the ensuing inevitable crises.

Thus, Pentagon leaders need to find new ways to manage the force more efficiently, in the expectation that large influxes of additional defense dollars may not be forthcoming. Fortunately, numerous ideas and options are available to them.

The Navy can lighten up its busy schedule, allowing sailors more time to train and technicians more time to maintain ships and aircraft, by modifying its forward presence operations abroad. Rather than having 100 out of 300 ships in a fleet at sea at a time, it can scale back by 10 to 25 percent. 

First, without necessarily even announcing the changes, it can allow some gaps in forward presence rather than slavishly insisting on maintaining continuous operations in both the Persian Gulf and the Pacific. Second, it can use "crew swaps" more often, keeping surface combatants deployed abroad for one to two years at a time and rotating crews to them by airplane.

This goes against Navy culture, but so be it; the Navy already uses multiple crews for some types of submarines and minesweepers.

The Air Force can alleviate strain on the Navy's aircraft carrier fleet by stationing more combat aircraft in the Persian Gulf region in countries like Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and perhaps Bahrain. We rotate fighters through some of these places today but do not maintain a consistent, steady presence like we could. 

The U.S. Army can permanently base one brigade of combat forces in South Korea and another in Poland, rather than maintaining its current presence in these countries with unit rotations.

The rotational approach preoccupies at least three units for every one that is deployed, since at any moment, one brigade will be forward, another will be preparing to deploy and a third will be recovering from a recent rotation abroad. 

Operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere will still require deployments rather than permanent stationing and will keep the Army flexible and expeditionary.

Marines tend to celebrate their expeditionary mindset and often complain about readiness problems less than the other services. However, given their own challenges in domains such as helicopter fleets, they could use a bit of a break too. 

One option is to scale back the permanent presence of Marine forces on Okinawa (where they number some 15,000 today, most on temporary deployment), if Japan would help by providing more space in ports for prepositioning and amphibious U.S. Navy ships that could allow Marines quickly to fly from California and marry with pre-stationed equipment in a crisis.  

Today's military is indeed under strain, and we owe a huge debt to our sailors, soldiers, Marines, airmen and airwomen for all they do. But the American armed forces are far from unready, and where they have problems, the defense establishment has many options besides waiting like Godot for a big influx of additional dollars.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in U.S. defense strategy, the use of military force and American national security policy.