Why the U.S. Army's Readiness Crisis is So Terrifyingly Real
The Huffington Post recently ran an article by David Wood in which he disputed claims of a readiness crisis in the Army. Wood insisted that, in spite of contrary views expressed by senior civilian and military leaders in the Pentagon, the Army “is more ready for major combat that it has been at any time since 2003.”
To reach this conclusion, Wood draws primarily from a misunderstanding of operational requirements, misrepresentation of expert testimony, and wishful thinking. However, the facts and sources he uses to debunk the “readiness myth” tell a very different story when viewed in a larger context.
Ready for What?
What does it mean to be ready for major combat? According to historical averages, the Army commits the equivalent of 21 Brigade Combat Teams (each BCT has about 4,500 soldiers) to a major engagement. Yet today, only one-third of the active Army’s BCTs are rated “ready” for combat.
In addition to remaining prepared for major engagement the Army must also be able to meet ongoing commitments around the world and to deter opportunistic enemies from acting against America’s interests while troops are engaged elsewhere. Measured against this requirement, the Army’s current state of readiness does indeed constitute a crisis.
Wood bases his assessment of readiness primarily on the percentage of BCTs that have received training for high-intensity conflicts—a skill that he states has been “largely neglected since 2003.” Of the total number of BCTs (59) in the Army’s active, reserve , and National Guard components, Wood claims that 21 BCTs (approx. 36%) are fully ready and “prepared to immediately deploy into and win a high-intensity war against a great power like China or Russia.” Unfortunately, he mistakenly includes 11 units already committed to ongoing operations. This inconvenient reality reveals that the Army would be unable to meet surge requirements without drawing heavily from National Guard and Reserve forces, which maintain a lower baseline level of readiness and would take far longer to prepare and deploy.
During the height of operations in Iraq, it took all of the Army’s Active BCTs, plus contributions from the Guard and Reserve, to sustain ground operations. From October 2007 until March 2008, the Army maintained 20 BCTs in theater. Sustaining forces in the field on a rotational basis requires approximately three times the amount of forces deployed (as there are simultaneously forces returning from deployment and forces preparing for deployment). It should also be noted that the Army also maintained at least three BCTs in Afghanistan over this same time period. Given the rising threat from near-peer competitors, and with fewer BCTs in the Army’s current force, it is bold, if not dangerous to approach the issue of readiness so casually.
Nonetheless, Wood bases his argument that the Army has what it needs on the statement of Gen. Mark Milley, Chief of Staff of the Army, that his troops “are more capable, better trained, equipped, better led and more lethal than any other ground force in the world today.…”
While highlighting this assertion, Wood omits key content in Milley’s testimony, such as his acknowledgement that “there are serious readiness challenges in the United States Army today.” Milley also noted that, while the Army is adequately resourced to meet current demands, he believes the Army is at “high military risk ” when it comes to the “potential for great power conflict,” between countries with large conventional militaries such as China and Russia.
Wood challenges claims that only one-third of the Army’s combat forces are ready. While he is correct in stating that there are multiple tiers of readiness, the Army’s Posture Statement clearly specifies that only one-third of the Army’s total BCTs meet “acceptable combat readiness levels.” If units at lower tiers of readiness were forced to deploy tomorrow, the cost of success would be greater risk and higher casualties.
Still, Wood claims that readiness “critics” are simply insatiable and would be happy with nothing less than “having all 482,000 active-duty soldiers certified ‘combat-ready’ for ‘decisive action.’”