Is there a “readiness crisis” in the U.S. military?
The answer is uncertain because the question itself is unclear. But a perceived need to improve readiness has become a primary DoD justification for increased military spending. Meanwhile, previously unclassified indicators of military readiness are now being classified so that they are no longer publicly available.
“I have been shocked by what I’ve seen about our readiness to fight,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on Monday.
There is a need to “improve readiness conditions” said President Trump in his National Security Presidential Memorandum 1 on Rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces.
Or maybe not.
“America’s fighting forces remain ready for battle,” wrote David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon in an op-ed last year. “They have extensive combat experience across multiple theaters since 9/11, a tremendous high-tech defense industry supplying advanced weaponry, and support from an extraordinary intelligence community.” See “The Myth of a U.S. Military ‘Readiness’ Crisis,” Wall Street Journal, August 10, 2016.
What is readiness? What should the military be ready for? How is readiness measured? How would increased defense spending affect readiness?
Although the term “readiness” is used in many ways, it has two principal definitions, the Congressional Research Service said in a new report yesterday:
“One, readiness has been used to refer in a broad sense to whether U.S. military forces are able to do what the nation asks of them. In this sense, readiness encompasses almost every aspect of the military.”
“Two, readiness is used more narrowly to mean only one component of what makes military forces able. In this second sense, readiness is parallel to other military considerations, like force structure and modernization, which usually refer to the size of the military and the sophistication of its weaponry.”
So is there a readiness crisis or not? It depends, CRS said.
“Most observers who see a crisis tend to use readiness in a broad sense, asserting the U.S. military is not prepared for the challenges it faces largely because of its size or the sophistication of its weapons. Most observers who do not see a crisis tend to use readiness in a narrow sense, assessing only the state of training and the status of current equipment.”
The two definitions are interdependent, CRS said, so that narrow readiness may compensate for deficiencies in broad readiness, or vice versa:
“Greater readiness in the narrow sense, such as better trained personnel, may offset the disadvantages of a smaller or a less technologically sophisticated force, depending on what task the military is executing. Alternatively, the military could be ready in the broader sense because its size and the sophistication of its weapons make up for shortfalls in such areas as training or how often a unit has used its equipment before experiencing combat.”
But readiness for what?
“Some senior officials express confidence in the military’s readiness for the missions it is executing today–although other observers are not as confident– but express concern over the military’s readiness for potential missions in the future,” CRS analyst Russell Rumbaugh wrote.
How is readiness measured, anyway? Not very well.
“Because of the two uses of the term, measuring readiness is difficult; despite ongoing efforts, many observers do not find DOD’s readiness reporting useful.”
Will more spending help?
“DOD’s 2018 request increases operating accounts more than procurement accounts. If readiness is used in a narrow sense, these funding increases may be the best way to improve the military’s readiness. If readiness is used in a broader sense, that funding may not be sufficient, or at least the best way to improve readiness.”
The new CRS report aims to illuminate the debate. But in the end, “it does not evaluate the current state of the U.S. military’s readiness or provide a conclusive definition of readiness.” See Defining Readiness: Background and Issues for Congress, June 14, 2017.
Definitions aside, increasing military secrecy is making the state of U.S. military readiness harder to discern.
“Some readiness information has always been classified and now we are classifying more of it,” a government official told The National Interest last month.
“We don’t think it should be public, for example, how many THAADs are not operational due to maintenance reasons,” the official said. “We don’t think it should be public what percent of our F-22s are not available due to maintenance. We don’t think it should be public how many of our pilots are below their required number of training hours in the cockpit.”
See “How the U.S. Military Is Trying to Mask Its Readiness Crisis” by Maggie Ybarra, The National Interest, May 18, 2017.