The Buzz

A "Readiness Crisis": Would America Lose a War to Russia or China?

The United States military is at a crisis point in terms of readiness against high-end threats such as Russia or China—at least that’s the view of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee majority staffs. While part of the cause stems from the counter-insurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the blame can be attributed to a moribund acquisition system that chokes the life out of innovation.

“We’re in a dramatic crisis now. There is no question that we’re capable against the threats on the counter-terrorism side, but we’ve reached a point where we’re in fact—not heading towards—but we’re already hollow against a high-end threat,” said House Armed Services Committee majority staff director Bob Simmons speaking before an audience at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on June 21. “We lack the capacity and capability that we need to effectively deter on the high-end.”

The problem manifests itself in many ways—and it spans across the Pentagon’s entire range of capabilities in the air, on land, at sea and in space. One immediate example is U.S. Marine Corps aviation—where the service does not have enough trained maintainers to fix their aircraft. Out of a total of 271 Marine Corps strike aircraft, only about 64 are flyable at any given time, Simmons noted. The Air Force—meanwhile—is not doing much better with only 43 percent of its aircraft being full mission capable.

Because of the aircraft shortage, the Marine Corps’ naval aviators who fly those warplanes are getting far fewer hours in the air than their Russian and Chinese counterparts. These days, Marine pilots are flying only four to six hours per month instead of the twenty to thirty per month they once used to—that creates permanent experience gaps. “To put it bluntly, we fly about as much as the North Korean pilots do and about three times less than Chinese pilots do today,” Simmons said.

Meanwhile, the aircraft themselves—except for the handful of Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirits—are not able to penetrate into the teeth of enemy air defenses. Be it the Fairchild Republic A-10, Boeing F-15, Lockheed Martin F-16 or the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet, none of those warplanes can survive against the current generation of Russian and Chinese high-end air defense systems. Even the latest Russian fourth generation fighter aircraft can’t survive against Moscow’s own formidable integrated air defense products. “Could the Russian fly their aircraft over Ukraine?” Simmons asked. “Nope. If you’re flying fourth-generation aircraft in the current environment, you’re in trouble.”

The Pentagon’s lack of readiness to fight a high-end war can in many ways be attributed to the Defense Department’s byzantine, risk-averse bureaucracy that does everything it can to crush innovation. Indeed, the current debacle is a direct result of the Pentagon’s pursuit of so-called “transformational” capabilities such the F-22, F-35 and the now defunct Future Combat Systems rather than a more incremental approach. During the Cold War, the United States would evolve systems incrementally over time.  “We continued that through the Cold War, we continued that steady incremental improvement to all our weapons systems forcing them to chase us, then the Berlin Wall came down and we adopted their acquisition system,” Simmons said sarcastically. “We’re trying to get back to incrementalism.”

Fundamentally, the House and the Senate are trying to reform the Pentagon’s procurement system so that new technologies are developed and fielded faster in an incremental fashion. The country can simply no longer afford to invest tens of billions of dollars into programs that might only bear fruit two to three decades later—if at all. Enemies will catch up in the meantime, Simmons said. Indeed, in some cases—like the Army’s Future Combat Systems—billions were squandered with no appreciable result. Chris Brose, Senate Armed Services Committee majority staff director—who was also speaking at the AEI event—said he agreed with Simmons’ assessment—the current situation is not acceptable. “We’re seeing the exact same problem,” Brose said.