Politics & Policy

The Myth of the U.S. Military ‘Readiness Myth’

Marine Corps F-18 Hornets during training flights in 2013. (Photo: Corporal William Waterstreet)
The risk that our armed forces face should not be underestimated.

In a recent Wall Street Journal essay, “The Myth of a U.S. Military ‘Readiness’ Crisis” (August 9), General David Petraeus and Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon sadly perpetuate one of the most deeply held myths about the state of the U.S. military: that its “readiness” problems are a myth.

The Petraeus-O’Hanlon piece is off the mark in a number of respects. To begin with, readiness shortfalls themselves aren’t a crisis, but they induce a kind of wasting disease that becomes a crisis in a surprising situation like the one that marked the beginning of the Korean War, when the Army’s “Task Force Smith” was overrun by North Korean tanks. The incremental but constantly accumulating challenges of too few people, aging equipment, and insufficient time to fully prepare large-scale units don’t show themselves in day-to-day operations but would be manifest in combat against tougher enemies. That said, we’re seeing manifestations of the disease even today.

Having designed their straw man, Petraeus and O’Hanlon then begin with the most specious statistic, the size of the U.S. defense budget. The extent of Pentagon spending tells much — about the overall size of the American economy, for example, and that we try to pay the superb, but few, men and women in uniform an amount that at least approximates the value they give us — but very little about true readiness. It is even less enlightening to compare the dollars we spend to the formally announced spending of others, particularly Russia and China. That would be to compare true information with disinformation, for the purpose of misinformation.

Second, Petraeus and O’Hanlon paint a far too rosy picture of weapons modernization; the idea that the post–Cold War “procurement holiday” is over is simply false. Many of the programs on the books in the 1990s have simply been terminated before anything new was acquired, or the programs were cut short. The list of casualties is long: The Army has failed six times to buy new ground combat vehicles and howitzers, and twice in attempts to field a new scout helicopter; the Air Force halted the F-22 fighter program at just 187 planes rather than the 750 originally planned, and the partnering F-35 has been hit with roughly a decade of delays while much-needed new refueling aircraft and long-range bombers have been likewise slowed; the Navy has cancelled submarine, destroyer, and cruiser projects and a medium-range stealthy strike plane for its carriers; the one ship it has managed to field, the small littoral combat ship, is now to be ended at about half the intended buy. 

While enjoying this holiday, the Pentagon has entertained itself with the idea that “skipping a generation” of weapons buys was actually a good thing. Donald Rumsfeld called it “military transformation”; Ashton Carter called it the “third offset” (the first being the Eisenhower nuclear “New Look,” the second being the introduction of “stealth” aircraft technologies), but then he created a “Defense Innovation Unit Experimental,” which has now been scrapped for “DIUx version 2.0.”

Current U.S. military systems, the legacy of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, no longer provide the technological edge they did when introduced.

Skipping modernization has begun to have serious consequences in the real world. Current U.S. systems, the legacy of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, no longer provide the technological edge they did when introduced. For example, F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s cannot penetrate modern air defenses of the sort fielded by the Russians, the Chinese, and, in short order, the Iranians, without extensive and expensive support from a variety of electronic warfare aircraft.

In focusing on the “sequestration” provision of the 2011 Budget Control Act, Petraeus and O’Hanlon again miss the forest for the trees. It is true that sequestration has introduced both additional cuts and imbecilic turbulence to defense plans, but the more important wounds were inflicted by the baseline budgetary “caps” established by the law. Those caps go back into effect next year. Further, the BCA was inflicted on top of more than $300 billion in cuts during the early years of the Obama administration, and the increases of the Bush years were more than consumed by the costs of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Petraeus and O’Hanlon lampoon the worry that the U.S. military is “somehow not up to the next challenge.” The answer, of course, depends on what the next challenge is. We would simply note that the military has not been up to the challenges it has faced since 9/11: Despite the superb leadership shown by Petraeus and the tireless courage of the troops he led, America lacked the forces necessary to properly conduct campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. This “two-war standard” has been the measure of strategic readiness for America’s armed forces since Representative Carl Vinson rammed the Two-Ocean Navy Act through Congress in 1940. Obama-administration doctrine notwithstanding, a global power cannot survive a one-war military. Given the world as it has become, with conflicts and crises in Europe, across the Middle East, and in the western Pacific, a three-war standard would be appropriate. Certainly, none of today’s service chiefs indulges in readiness happy talk. As he approached retirement as Army chief of staff in January 2015, Petraeus’s comrade-in-arms General Raymond Odierno told the Senate that service readiness “has been degraded to its lowest level in 20 years.” The current Army chief, General Mark Milley, confessed this spring that “if we got into a conflict with Russia then I think it would place our soldiers’ lives at risk.” If that conflict were over the Baltics, it’s also likely that the Russians would win, as several recent studies have revealed.

In sum, the real readiness crisis is not measured in the fight against ISIS, or in Afghanistan, but in the capacity and capability needed in a more demanding contingency. As the House Armed Services Committee found in its version of this year’s defense bill, “the services are very good at counterinsurgency, but they are not prepared to endure a long fight against higher order threats from near-peer competitors.” Nor are they prepared to fight two advanced adversaries at once. Through the pose they strike, Petraeus and O’Hanlon not only mischaracterize the nature and extent of today’s problems. They also lead readers to underestimate the risks of a real crisis.

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