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Measuring U.S. Military Readiness

Jason Forrester, Micah Zenko, and Michael E. O’Hanlon

Are U.S. armed forces ready? That is, can they accomplish the likely near-term missions that they are designed to handle?

These questions were central in the 2000 presidential campaign, not to mention in congressional hearings throughout the last half-decade. Phrasing the issue in this way leaves aside the broader strategic question of what America’s military should be ready for—a question that is admittedly at least as important, but different. Measuring and understanding traditional military readiness, narrowly defined, is difficult and contentious enough that it warrants separate treatment.

We attempt to provide such an assessment here. On the whole, today’s U.S. military is in good shape—comparable in general to typical levels during the 1980s. It is not as ready as the military of the early 1990s, however, and several trend lines have continued downward in recent years. Existing problems require prompt attention before readiness deteriorates to the point where it significantly affects U.S. military capabilities and security interests.

To assess military readiness, the proper approach is to inquire in the U.S. armed forces have enough of the right types of skilled and adequately trained personnel, and if they own adequate stocks of equipment in good working order. Although a plethora of readiness statistics and stories exist, all ultimately bear on these two broad issues.

Analyzing readiness in this way is intentionally somewhat narrow. It focuses on the nuts and bolts of well-understood military operations. It does not address the broader question of strategic readiness—whehter the United States as a country has prepared for the right types of threats, and developed the right types of policy instruments to address them. This article simply focuses on the internal consistency of Pentagon plans. Given how the Department of Defense and the U.S. Government as a whole have assessed and described threats to the country’s interests, have they also maintained military forces capable of handling these likely threats?

Even when the question of military readiness is put in these rather limited, technical terms, it is a difficult and contentious matter. In fact, it was this rather narrow question that played heavily in the recent presidential campaign. Then-Texas Governor George W. Bush alleged that the military was suffering from “long neglect,” having been underfunded and over-used during the Clinton-Gore administration, with two Army divisions simply unready for combat and many other units strained and weakened. Vice President Gore and his running mate, Senator Joseph Liberman, claimed in rebuttal that the U.S. military was in outstanding condition. With a few exceptions, these debates were generally not about broader matters of strategy and grand strategy. They were about the day-to-day condition of military personnel, equipment, and individual combat units. But even if the issue was somewhat overrated in the presidential race, it is nonetheless important.

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