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Shoring Up Military Readiness

Today's U.S. military is about one-third smaller and one-third less expensive than it was at the end of the Cold War. Even so, on a unit-by-unit basis it is as good as the U.S. armed forces of Ronald Reagan's presidency. It is far from hollow; its readiness to carry out a wide range of operations from warfighting to peacekeeping to deterrence remains quite good on the whole.

But there are important gaps and holes in readiness--as well as generally downward trends that if left unchecked could seriously degrade the caliber of the U.S. armed forces within a fairly short time, particularly if the military's global workload continues unabated. Most can be resolved, or at least significantly mitigated, through carefully targeted funding increases totaling perhaps $10 billion a year for the next several years. Although that amount of money is significant by any normal measure, it would do no more than allow the Pentagon's budget to keep up with inflation, and it pales next to the $100 billion cut in annual defense spending that has been achieved since 1990. Without annual increases of $10 billion, the U.S. armed forces will not fall apart, but they will continue to decline--and the decline may not remain gradual forever.


What is going on in the U.S. defense debate? Just last year, nearly everyone seemed in agreement about how to structure and fund U.S. armed forces for the foreseeable future. The 1997 balanced-budget deal eliminated what small difference--about 1% in total dollars--had previously existed between congressional Republicans and the White House on their five-year defense spending plans.

Then, in September 1998, congressional Republicans and the Joint Chiefs of Staff clashed publicly over the readiness of today's U.S. military and the truthfulness of previous testimony that the Chiefs had delivered to Congress. The tenor of that debate helped persuade President Bill Clinton to support congressional demands that nearly $9 billion be added to the 1999 defense budget. However, only about $1 billion of those funds are intended to redress existing readiness problems. (Another $2 billion, for the Bosnia mission, are designed to prevent readiness problems from getting worse; without them, that operation would need to be funded by raiding Pentagon accounts for training and equipment maintenance.)

In our view, it is desirable that modest increases in defense spending of about $10 billion should continue in 2000, 2001, and 2002--but that they should all focus on readiness. If additional missions like those in Bosnia and Kosovo are undertaken, a further $1 billion to $3 billion a year may also be needed for contingency purposes. Although a new quadrennial defense review and defense strategy will take effect after 2002, some more immediate and narrow issues obviously need to be addressed before then.

As a practical matter, defense-spending increases of this size are not increases at all. They simply allow the defense budget to keep up with inflation. At present, the balanced-budget accord projects modest real decreases in defense spending through 2002.

Some will argue that if only excess military bases were closed and other economies made in the Pentagon's ways of doing business, added money would become available for readiness. That is correct--but only eventually. In the short term, closing bases actually costs money. Two more rounds of closures, if authorized, would save only about $3 billion a year when completed, which would not be enough to solve today's readiness problem even if the savings were attainable immediately.

If additional funds are not provided, the U.S. armed forces will not fall apart. But if we keep up present levels of global engagement and deterrence by simply tightening belts and trying to make do with available funds, shortages of key personnel may worsen, and equipment will continue to deteriorate.

In that event, fewer U.S. forces will be prepared to deploy and fight on short order. Units are already undermanned and underequipped when they arrive at advanced combat training facilities. That means they are not extracting proper benefit from their exercises and are not as combat-ready as they once were. If trends continue much longer, the United States will find it difficult to maintain a robust two-war strategy. Forces needed for a second possible war will require many months of training before deploying. It might take even longer to acquire enough spare parts to make much of their equipment operational. Even those who consider the current two-war strategy more than ample should be concerned; left unchecked, these trends could eventually cut into our ability to sustain a vigorous one-war strategy while conducting missions in places like Bosnia.

Worse yet, at some point a threshold may be reached where declines in military standards accelerate. The biggest danger here is that the people making up the U.S. armed forces will become discouraged by the blend of rising demands and a lack of support. If compensation and training and maintenance standards continue to decline while workloads and deployments away from home remain heavy, good people may leave the armed forces in droves. At that point, the military truly could become hollow. Once lost, top-caliber people would take at least 5 to 10 years to replace.

Ready for What?

Readiness refers to the U.S. military's prompt ability to pick up, deploy, and do what it is asked to do: fight, or keep the peace, or alleviate humanitarian suffering, or make a show of force in a crisis. That is a broad set of missions. But they all make sense in a world where we have to deter immediate threats, hold together alliances, and try to save innocent lives. Moreover, the experience of the last decade suggests that, if properly supported, U.S. troops are up to the challenge.

Since the concept of readiness encompasses so much, it may help to state clearly what it does not include. Most important, it generally does not refer to the weapons acquisition process. Most major weapons developed or contracted for today will not be in the operational inventory for 3 to 10 years, so they cannot influence near-term readiness. Nor should debates over readiness be confused with debates over strategy. The latter, like the 1997 quadrennial defense review (QDR) process, should be asking if the overall size and capabilities of the U.S. military are appropriate. Readiness, by contrast, focuses more narrowly on the caliber and upkeep of individual units and troops and reflects how well those units measure up to their own potential.

Under the 1997 QDR, the U.S. armed forces must remain prepared for overlapping wars in the Persian Gulf and Korea, maintain about a quarter million troops based or deployed overseas at a time, and conduct various operations such as keeping peace in the Balkans and containing Saddam Hussein. These missions are similar to those set forth in the country's first post Cold War defense plan, the Bush administration's base force concept, and are reiterated in the Clinton administration's 1993 bottom-up review. Those who say that North Korean and Iraqi military capabilities have been atrophying over the 1990s are right--but those facts have already been largely incorporated into U.S. military strategy, which now plans to handle the same set of missions with a quarter million fewer active-duty troops than the Bush administration thought necessary. Still, as noted, our purpose here is not to revisit this debate, which is due to resume in two years in any event, but to consider more narrow and mundane readiness issues, such as spare parts and military pay.

Another defense spending debate is likely to heat up around 2001 or 2002--this one over new weaponry. During most of the 1990s, the United States has been able to get by spending only about $45 billion a year procuring new equipment. That is down about 50% from the 1980s average and reflects the fact that the Reagan defense buildup left us with large stocks of advanced weaponry. This procurement holiday will have to end in the next decade, however, since Reagan-era equipment will begin to wear out. The Joint Chiefs have stated that annual procurement spending must increase to at least $60 billion. Certain other experts, such as analysts at the Congressional Budget Office, believe that it may take $70 billion a year or more (in 1998 dollars) to buy all the equipment now on the Pentagon's books.

Must real defense spending go up after 2002? It is difficult to say. On the one hand, further personnel cuts, base closures, and other reforms will free up funds for weapons modernization. Cumulatively, these changes could make available $10 billion a year. But annual procurement spending needs to increase by perhaps $25 billion under existing plans. Those plans may be revised. Even then, procurement spending will surely need to increase somewhat--if only to fund new production runs of existing weaponry so that equipment remains safe and reliable.

The military relies on a wide range of indices to keep a careful eye on readiness. All are keyed to answering the following questions: Does the military have enough of the right kinds of people in the right jobs? Do those people have serviceable equipment on hand? And are they being provided the resources and training opportunities needed to ensure that their skills measure up to requisite warfighting standards? What readiness measures seem to be telling us today is that the U.S. armed forces remain very good, but also quite strained and stretched. Most of their specific problems concern military personnel, with several also showing up in equipment and infrastructure.

Troubling Trends

  • The navy fell short of its numerical recruitment goals in 1998. Overall, some 200,000 recruits are needed annually, which is down about one-third from the Cold War. Whereas the other three services achieved at least 99% of their goals, the navy enlisted only 88% (or 7,000 sailors short) of the number it sought. Largely as a result, those navy ships not on deployment are considerably less ready for combat than in recent years: specifically, only 50% of nondeployed ships are considered ready for most or all possible missions, down from 70 percent a decade ago. Similar problems afflict other services, meaning that many stateside units would require weeks or in some cases months of preparation before being fully deployable for war.
  • More and more people are leaving the services before completing their first tours. In the 1980s, 28% of recruits departed before completing their first three years of service, whereas recent figures are around 35%. This trend increases the number of personnel gaps and the general sense of flux in many units.
  • Pilot shortages are becoming serious. The air force is now 1,000 pilots short of its official goals. If current trends remain unchanged, it will be about 1,400 pilots--or 10%--short of its goals by September 1999, and the problem will only keep getting worse. Current shortages can be coped with by leaving some desk jobs normally taken by pilots unfilled, but that may be only a temporary solution given worsening trends. Other services are experiencing pilot shortages, too, in large part because of competition from a strong and high-paying civilian airline industry, fatiguing and tedious missions to patrol the skies of Iraq, the Bosnia no-fly-zone operation, and other taxing demands.
  • Some types of equipment are in their worst shape in a decade. For example, the mission capable rates or availability rates of air force aircraft have declined just below 75%, after being around 80% in the late 1980s and 85% in the early 1990s; and aggregate mission capable rates for marine corps equipment have dropped from 90% to 85% in the last five years.
  • Funds for the upkeep of bases are inadequate. This recent trend puts commanders in a Catch-22 situation. They must either let bases deteriorate or they must raid operating accounts and cut back on training to maintain facilities. In the army, many units have been forced to reduce tank training hours by about 20% as a result. This means, among other things, that some large exercises at the battalion level and above have been canceled.

Good News

  • The force has never been better educated or more experienced. About 99% of all enlisted personnel have graduated from high school, and 94% of all officers have graduated from college--both all-time highs.
  • Recruits remain skilled and well educated. About 94% of recruits in 1997 and 1998 had high school diplomas, and 68% scored above the national average on the armed forces aptitude test. These numbers are still slightly better than 1980s levels, although they have declined somewhat since the early to mid-1990s (when they averaged almost 97% and 73%, respectively).
  • Peacetime casualty rates are at an all-time low. In the last ten years, accidental death rates per 100,000 troops (including operational, training, and off-duty causes) have dropped by about one-quarter. Overall safety rates improved in 1998 for the third consecutive year and are now their best ever in most services. These trends reflect well on the quality of equipment but even more on the caliber of the men and women of the armed forces who are operating and maintaining the equipment.
  • Training funds remain robust for first-to-fight units. Although operations like those in Bosnia and Iraq can interrupt training, Pentagon budgets are still providing adequate resources for units based in key regions overseas or slated to rapidly reinforce those forward units in the event of a crisis.
  • Some QDR initiatives should bear fruit soon. For example, the air force is adding 5,000 people to low-density/high-tempo specialties such as security forces, civil engineering units, communications units, and AWACS (airborne warning and control system) aircraft crews. Recognizing that today's frequently deployed forces often need time at home even more than extra training, the Pentagon has scaled back joint-service exercises by about 25%. Similarly, downturns in the mission-capable rates of key equipment should soon be at least partly redressed by increases in funding for spare parts that began in 1997.


Current trends suggests a mixed picture of U.S. military readiness. Today's soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines remain as good if not better than they have ever been on an individual basis. But, collectively, military readiness has slipped somewhat and is still slipping.

Some steps to reverse these trends have already been taken and should mitigate the problems to a degree. But more needs to be done.

  • Increase military compensation. Recent conflicting reports illustrate the difficulty in comparing the pay of military personnel to civilians of similar age and with similar educational backgrounds and skills. But we feel confident that military salaries and pensions should increase in any event. Today's young military personnel are held to very high standards of competence and discipline and typically spend many weeks or months away from home each year--demands not matched in many parts of the civilian economy. Moreover, the market is speaking: young people are showing less propensity to enlist in the armed forces than they used to and are leaving the military after shorter terms of service than before. These realities need to be addressed.
    Two important issues are at stake here: pay and pensions. In the wake of the 1986 reforms in the military pension system, those who leave the service after 20 years? time will earn roughly 25% less in retirement pay than they would have before. Our preferred approach to improving military compensation would combine the full restoration of the pre-1986 retirement system with a modest across-the-board real pay increase and larger raises for targeted specialties. It would cost about $3 billion annually.
  • Fund all readiness and operating accounts, including property maintenance, at 100% of projected need. In the case of the army, recent funding has totaled only 84% of expected requirements for base operations and 59% for real property maintenance. Closing these gaps would require $1.3 billion a year. Generalizing this approach to all services might cost $3 billion to $4 billion annually in all.
  • Provide adequate funding for spare parts and depot maintenance. To take another example from the army, depot maintenance funding meets only 80% of the expected need of the active-duty force for key combat systems and 50% of the need for other equipment. The air force anticipates shortfalls in spare parts and depot maintenance funds of about $400 million a year from 2000 through 2002. Fixing these problems across the active-duty force would require some $1 billion a year over five years.

We also strongly support a prompt resumption of the base closure process. With national unemployment very low today, the timing could not be better for what is inevitably a painful process in certain communities. An additional two rounds of base closures would cost about $2 billion a year over roughly a five-year period (but would permanently save $3 billion a year thereafter).

Altogether, these various initiatives would require a grand total of about $10 billion a year above the current Pentagon budget plan. We urge the Clinton administration to add these amounts to its 2000, 2001, and 2002 budget requests, and the Congress to approve the increases (or add the funds itself if the president does not). That amount translates roughly into holding the line against inflation in future military spending levels, rather than allowing real defense spending to decline further between now and 2002, as forecast under the 1997 balanced-budget accord. So our proposal would not constitute an increase in defense spending at all. Its dollar magnitude amounts to only 10% of the savings that have been achieved in the annual defense budget since the end of the Cold War. This is a small price for a military that has been doing so much to advance American and allied interests from Iraq to Korea to the Taiwan Straits to Bosnia, indeed, to many places all over the world.

SERIES: Brookings Policy Brief Series | # 43