Is the Pentagon Headed for a Military Readiness Crisis?

A U.S. Marine with Combat Engineering Company, Combat Assault Battalion (CAB), 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force uses a radio Sept. 12, 2017, at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan, during CAB Battalion Field Exercise 17.4. Flickr / U.S. Department of Defense

After nearly two continuous decades of war, the armed forces are under significant stress. But to exaggerate today’s problems as a “crisis” is risky.

  • Yet we do not have enough people for some specialties, and we have real dearths in areas like certain types of pilots and equipment maintenance personnel.

  • Taken together, I would evaluate today’s overall readiness, averaged across multiple categories, as something between a B and a B+, with some pockets of lower grades but also numerous units that are simply in outstanding shape, largely because their people are so good, if often tired.

    Still, we need to improve readiness, and make the lives of our people in uniform somewhat easier, without expecting that new streams of money will easily fix the problem. Pentagon leaders need to find new ways to manage the force more efficiently in preparation for the news that additional defense dollars will not be forthcoming. Fortunately, numerous ideas and options are available to them.

    Start with the Navy, which has suffered the most tragic episodes reflecting questionable readiness of late. Instead of maintaining continuous presence with multiple ships in the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf regions at all times, it can scale back the size of some of those deployments. It can also substitute amphibious ships for large-deck carriers in some more benign operations. Also, it can even allow periodic gaps in presence in some cases, unless a theater is feared to be actively on the cusp of conflict.

    The Navy can also use “crew swaps” more often. Rather than keep a single crew with a single ship, it can have sailors train as a team on one vessel in home waters, then fly to meet up with another ship already deployed abroad, relieving another crew there. Ships can stay overseas for a couple years at a time, while sailors rotate every six months or so. The Navy already uses multiple crews for some types of submarines and minesweepers; it would be harder, but probably only modestly harder, to employ this practice for cruisers and destroyers.

    The Navy can also look to the Air Force for some help. The military could station more of its land-based combat aircraft in the Persian Gulf region in countries like Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and perhaps Bahrain. It rotates fighters through some of these places today but does not maintain a consistent, steady presence like it could. (As best I can tell, the Air Force units that are most overused today are not fighters so much as transport and tanker planes, so I believe the Air Force has some capacity to consider this idea.)

    Then there is the U.S. Army. Today it has the equivalent of less than five brigades at a time on overseas deployment, only a third of typical levels during the 2000s. Yet many consider its current deployments to be unsustainably demanding. If that really is the case, then it could perhaps permanently base one brigade of combat forces in Korea and another in Poland, rather than maintain its current presence in these countries with unit rotations, as is done today. Today’s rotational approach is inefficient. It preoccupies at least three units for every one that is deployed, since at any moment one brigade will be forward, another will be preparing to deploy, and a third will be recovering from a recent rotation abroad. Basing forces abroad is much less demanding on the overall force structure, for any given level of overseas presence, and Poland and South Korea are perfectly reasonable places to live these days, including for military families.

    A final idea is to reduce the permanent presence of Marine Corps forces on Okinawa (where they number some fifteen thousand today, most on temporary deployment). This could be done without weakening U.S. capabilities in the crucial Asia-Pacific region, if Japan would help by providing more space in some of its ports for U.S. Navy prepositioning ships. Stationing more such ships in Japan, to complement those already in Guam, would allow Marines to quickly fly from California and marry with prestationed equipment in a crisis.

    Today’s military is indeed under some duress, and its people are working very hard, and their families are sacrificing a great deal. But the American armed forces are far from unready, and where they have problems, the defense establishment has many options that can allow more units and their associated personnel to get healthy without compromising American national security.

    Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

    Image: A U.S. Marine with Combat Engineering Company, Combat Assault Battalion (CAB), 3rd Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force uses a radio Sept. 12, 2017, at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan, during CAB Battalion Field Exercise 17.4. Flickr / U.S. Department of Defense

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