Ready or not: The state of America’s military


The General Accounting Office (GAO) just released a report detailing “readiness” levels for the US military. Readiness is measured by each of the services with respect to a unit’s ability to fight and accomplish the missions assigned to it. Put broadly, does a unit have the resources — personnel and equipment — and training required to get the job done?

Insufficient readiness has been a problem now for several years. In May 2016, the second AEI “Readiness Tracker” report authored by James Cunningham concluded that military readiness had “deteriorated” over “the past year” and that the services were “not able to meet their day-to-day requirements and still lack the operational depth required to respond to a major crisis.” Subsequent reports on the Army and cross-service aviation only continued to confirm the problem.

Pushed by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and allotted more monies under Trump’s defense budgets, the Pentagon has tried to address this shortfall. If the GAO report is accurate — and there is little reason to think it isn’t — there have been improvements but there is still a ways to go when it comes to readiness.

Using individual service data and combining them as relevant in the five military domains (eg., Army and Marine land forces), the GAO assesses that from fiscal year 2017 to 2019, readiness improved in the ground domain; in the sea domain, there was no improvement; and for air, space, and cyber, readiness remained something of a mixed bag. Pilot shortages remain a problem in the air domain, and the Navy’s ability to repair and maintain ships continues to be a major challenge. And there is the additional, relatively new issue of finding the appropriate metrics for measuring space and cyber readiness.

While readiness had been an issue for many years given the demands for fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it became more of a public issue in 2016. The combination of budget cuts, still ongoing operations in the Middle East, and the more aggressive behavior of both Russia and China meant that the overall demand on American forces remained high. With a reduced force structure and a rapidly changing global security situation, deployments were more frequent and their length, especially in the Navy, greater. Equipment and personnel were wearing out.

As noted, and seen in the graph, additional monies have helped alleviate some of the readiness issues. But making further progress will either require more money and growth in the size of the force or a significant revision in the national defense strategy. As for the first, the Biden White House is signaling that there will be no additional monies — if anything, there will likely be a reduction in the Defense Department’s base budget. Still, the Biden foreign policy team has not indicated that they intend to roll back substantially US security commitments around the world. With Russia saber-rattling on Ukraine’s border, China pushing the envelope in the case of Taiwan and the Philippines, North Korea testing missiles again, the Taliban refusing to put down its arms, and the likely need to sustain a reassurance presence in the Persian Gulf vis a vis Iran regardless of whether the JCOPA is resurrected, the Biden national security team will be hard pressed to find ways to reduce the demand on the American military.

Historically, like hemlines, readiness levels have gone up and down and their importance sometimes debated, especially when budgeteers are looking for ways to save money. Still, worn out equipment and personnel is not a recipe for a healthy All-Volunteer Force. A key factor in retention is whether the soldier, pilot, or sailor (who, these days, is more often than not a spouse and often a father or a mother) believes he or she is adequately trained, equipped, and rested — that is, ready. Lower readiness levels combined with a potentially booming economy means a lot of military talent and experience will be tempted to turn in their papers.

Modernizing the military’s equipment is typically seen as the priority when it comes to the defense budget. However, readiness is the “software” to that “hardware.” One needs both.

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