The Pentagon's Readiness Vortex
For the past several years, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been painting a bleak portrait of the state of the armed services. Testifying to the senate Armed Services Committee in January 2015, recently retired Army chief Gen. Ray Odierno admitted that Army readiness “has been degraded to its lowest level in 20 years.” This year, Odierno’s successor, Gen. Mark Milley, went farther: the Army is not well prepared to engage a major power. “If we got into a conflict with Russia then I think it would place our soldiers’ lives at risk,” he said. Other service leaders have made similar statements regarding other potential adversaries, including China, Iran, and North Korea.
“We have a lot of ‘not availables’ in the force right now,” continued Milley, underscoring that force readiness is a multiple of sufficient personnel, serviceable equipment, adequate training funds and time, and a host of other factors. The Navy, for its part, has a constantly growing backlog of deferred ship maintenance. A recent television report profiled a Marine F/A-18 Hornet squadron that had to wait 18 months to receive spare parts and was constantly “cannibalizing” parts from one plane to another. Only half of Air Force fighter pilots—including those who fly the top-of-the-line F-22 Raptor—are receiving the full spectrum of training required. It is small wonder, then, that the chairman of the JCS, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, agreed with the conclusion drawn by Rep. Mac Thornberry, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, “that we have a significant readiness problem across the services, especially for the wide variety of contingencies that we’ve got to face.”
How can this happen? How is it that a military that should be recovering, now that the wars of the post-9/11 era have “ended,” should be in such poor condition?
In fact, the U.S. military has been caught in the vortex of a storm that has been brewing for decades. While the tempest has reached hurricane force during the Obama years, the underlying weather patterns go back to the mid-1980s.
Let us begin by dividing the Obama years into two periods, the most recent shaped most significantly by the 2011 Budget Control Act—meaning that the greatest damage done to the U.S. armed services is the result of a bipartisan agreement between an extremely liberal Democratic White House and a hard-core conservative Republican majority in the House of Representatives. The law, now shaping the fourth of the ten budgets it is supposed to cover, is on track to reduce overall defense spending by about 20 percent from what President Obama planned in his original 2011 budget proposal, roughly a total of $1.5 trillion. There have been minor adjustments to the original figures in the short-term budget deals struck last year and in 2012, but that amounts to less than $50 billion of relief. But that small relief did not make up for the damage done in 2013, when, thanks to a standoff between the White House and Congress, the law’s “sequestration” provision came into effect.
Sequestration accelerated the downward spiral in military readiness in ways that are now manifesting themselves. At one point, only 10 percent of the Army’s 40-plus active brigades—a total that has now been reduced to just 30 brigades—were fully ready. The budget cuts hit hardest at the small-unit level: personnel review boards had to cut 30 percent of the captains who had joined the Army during the Iraq “surge” years. The Navy had to extend ship deployments at the same time it was reducing its maintenance to just 57 percent of what was needed. The Air Force grounded 31 flying squadrons.
At the same time, the Obama Administration worked to lock in the reduction in military capacity and capability in two related ways. To begin with, it rewrote its defense strategy to “rebalance” or “pivot to the Pacific.” While this was spun as a response to China’s military modernization and increasingly aggressive posture in East Asia, the strategy’s biggest effect was to pivot away from traditional U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East. More limited strategic aims allowed for a reduction in the long-standing Pentagon force-sizing construct. Since the end of the Cold War, previous administrations of both parties had accepted that, as a global power, the United States had to be prepared to fight two large-scale wars at the same time. By withdrawing from the Middle East and declaring Europe to be eternally at peace, the White House substantially lowered the bar of military sufficiency.
Since the president issued his “defense planning guidance”—and, at the time, both the White House and the Pentagon boasted about Obama’s personal involvement in the process—the world has defied these planning assumptions. In 2012, Vladimir Putin had not annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine nor intervened in Syria; the Islamic State did not exist nor had Iran embarked on its effort to subdue northern Arabia; China had not created artificial islands nor built military airfields on reefs less than 150 miles from Manila. In other words, geopolitical realities have forced even the reluctant Obama Administration into a redeployment of forces even as it maintained its lowered planning standards, continued force reductions, and budget cuts. Nor has the Republican Congress, despite winning a Senate majority in 2014, raised any serious objection.