Experts examine the current state of U.S. military readiness

The USS Nimitz, USS Kitty Hawk and USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Groups transit in formation during a joint photo exercise during exercise Valiant Shield 2007 in the Pacific Ocean in this August 14, 2007 handout photo. The aerial formation consists of aircraft from the carrier strike groups as well as Air Force aircraft. Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Stephen W. Rowe/U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. - RC14D1EA2880

While the current U.S. defense budget remains unparalleled globally and relatively large in U.S. historical terms, whether the U.S. military is ready for the challenges that confront it has increasingly become a topic of debate. Some allege the military is nearly “broken,” or hollow. Critics say the 2011 Budget Control Act—or sequestration—diminished training opportunities and resources for the services and contributed to a small force structure relative to the tasks demanded of them over 16 years of war. Others have concerns, too, but view military readiness through a more nuanced lens.

On November 13, the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings hosted an event to discuss the military readiness debate. The event convened a panel of experts, including from several branches of the military. Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon moderated the event.

O’Hanlon asserted that although readiness is an important concern, it should not take away from all the other important issues the military faces, such as long-term innovation and modernization. He said: “While sharing a lot of the concerns that readiness has severe problems and strains, I also think that we do not want to overstate the problem.”

Dan Keeler, a commander in the U.S. Navy who is currently a Federal Executive Fellow at Brookings, expressed more concern, particularly about his own service branch’s readiness.

Among key concerns, Keeler pointed to the 2011 Budget Control Act and associated sequestration, a well as general budget insecurity as primary causes of strained Navy resources. These issues, he argued, cause the Navy to fully fund only those units in deployment, or those next to deploy. “If you’re on the bench, you don’t get what you need right now,” commented Keeler.

He further explained that funding deficiencies often mean fewer aircrew flight hours and less personnel education, which ultimately hurts readiness. Keeler did acknowledge that readiness has improved: “[T]hey’ve put another $3 billion into [Operations] and [Maintenance] accounts to keep that going. That’s vitally necessary,” he remarked. Readiness today in the Navy? “It is improving, but it is very fragile,” he said.

Tim Hayden, a Federal Executive Fellow at Brookings and a colonel in the U.S. Army, expressed a more optimistic view. “Your army has never been better trained, better led, and frankly from my most recent experience forward deployed, better resourced for the current fight,” he claimed. He went on to note that “personnel issues do remain our most pressing current challenge, however we are seeing incremental improvement in that area as we have halted the drawdown of force structure and we are improving our personnel readiness.”

He attributed much of his optimism to the Army’s transition to a sustained readiness model. He stated, “Under the Army’s prior resourcing model, Army Force Generation, we trained and resourced units for discrete readiness for a defined mission over a defined period of time.” Whereas “under Sustained Readiness, we maintain a much higher degree of overall readiness focused on being ready for missions across the full range of military operations all of the time.”

Further, Hayden went on to state that “what we’ve done is we have rebuilt the cadre of our junior, mid-grade, and senior leaders on the fundamentals of war fighting tasks.” These changes combined, he argued, will allow the U.S. Army to stay on track to meet its goal of a full return to readiness by FY2021-2023.

Kate Higgins-Bloom, Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard joined the conversation next. Higgins-Bloom is also a Federal Executive Fellow at Brookings this year.

Speaking to the condition of the Coast Guard today she said: “Our state of readiness is decent.” She attributed much of this readiness to the Coast Guard’s culture of Semper Paratus, which means “always ready.”

Higgins-Bloom identified unpredictability and the need to recapitalize in the long term as the main challenge to readiness in her service, pointing to Coast Guard cutters that have been in operation for over 50 years as one example of many in the increasingly aged fleet. She also cautioned that the scope of Coast Guard missions continues to expand, which forces the service to spread itself thinner and thinner. “We need more Coast Guard, and we need more Coast Guard pretty much everywhere,” she noted.

Mara Karlin has spent a lot of time at the Department of Defense figuring out where money for defense should go. Now a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, she emphasized the importance of defining readiness. While the debate is quite complicated, Karlin pointed to key questions to get the conversation started: “Ready for what? Ready for when? And what is everyone else doing?”

Karlin particularly stressed two areas of defense that worry her. Those areas are aviation and munitions. Karlin went on to state that the U.S. Air Force has been operating in an up-tempo environment as far back as the 1990s, and that aviation in the Marine Corps faces particularly notable challenges. Lack of congressional support for munitions is another case that she considered especially worrisome.

Former Assistant Secretary for Installations Sandy Apgar reminded the audience that readiness partially depends on infrastructure. He argued that this infrastructure—broadly defined as the “environment that supports the war fighter” is vital—has increasingly been “the bill payer” when the department needs to cut spending. He argued that we should treat infrastructure as more eminently critical. “If you approach it on a purely annual budget basis, you don’t recognize the long term assets,” Apgar concluded.

In terms of solutions, Secretary Apgar primarily argued for an increased reliance on non-government resources. “The private sector has much more to contribute than the current budget and policy structure allows,” he noted. To further highlight this, Apgar used the example of historical changes to military housing. Over time, there has been increasing reliance on the commercial sector and its practices. This demonstrates that cooperation between the military and the private sector can be efficient and improve readiness.

As the event wound down, and several questions were taken from the audience, Karlin reiterated the necessity of accurately redefining the readiness debate. She also argued for a renewed focus on opportunity costs within the Department of Defense in order to properly and carefully plan for the future.

Commander Higgins-Bloom recommended formal recognition from U.S. Office of Personnel Management that the Coast Guard is a military service for budgeting purposes and that the service would benefit from “more consolidated, and therefore more focused, oversight from Congress.”

Colonel Hayden and Commander Keeler both emphasized the detrimental effect of continuing resolutions—which essentially continue pre-existing appropriations into a new fiscal year, regardless of specific need—pointing out that it is unpredictable compared to the normal budgeting process.

They concluded by asserting that this unpredictability in the budget causes inefficiencies, reduces readiness, and ends up costing the U.S. government more resources in the long run.

Yousra Chaabane offered key contributions in authoring this post.