Commentary

Is Military Readiness Overrated?

By James L. George
May 27, 1999

Military readiness promises to be a major issue when Congress marks up a defense bill later this year. Some members of Congress are already using readiness as a reason to increase funding in the emergency spending bill for the war in Yugoslavia. Most experts cite the initial stages of the Korean War and the Hollow Force of the late 1970s as cautionary examples of being ill-prepared. A closer look at both those examples, however, shows that they really had little to do with readiness. Moreover, the current crisis in Yugoslavia illustrates once again why readiness may be overrated and the funds better spent elsewhere.

Although often used as a generic term for all military capabilities, readiness—defined as the ability to respond with appropriate force with little or no warning—is only one of four pillars of military preparedness. The other pillars are force structure, modernization and sustainability. Thus, an effective military force depends on much more than just readiness.

Interestingly, the two favorite examples cited by readiness alarmists fail to prove their case. The performance of Task Force Smith, an ill-prepared battalion quickly sent to the front and fairly easily routed by the North Koreans during the initial days of the Korean War, is often cited as the worst case. “No More Task Force Smiths” has become a mantra for the Army. However, critics of Task Force Smith fail to point out that U.S. commanders made the most basic of military mistakes—including grossly underestimating the enemy and sending TFS to an exposed position. When such blunders occur, the end result will be the same whether it is an ill-trained Task Force Smith in Korea or well-trained Marines in Beirut or elite Rangers in Somalia. Moreover, critics also fail to mention that barely a month later the United States stabilized the situation in South Korea, and in another month the Marines conducted their famous Inchon Landing. In fact, without the Chinese intervention, the United States would have won the Korean War a few months after it began. Not bad for a U.S. force that was supposedly ill-prepared.

Similarly, the Hollow Force of the late 1970s was not primarily a readiness problem but a combination of many factors—including a military characterized by low morale after Vietnam, serious drug and racial problems, the erroneous induction of too many mentally substandard recruits and low pay eroded further by high inflation. At the same time, major structural changes were transforming the U.S. military, including the introduction of women into the regular forces, the switch from a draft to an all-volunteer force and the initiation of the Total Force Concept that placed more reliance on the Reserves. Given all of that turbulence, no wonder we had a Hollow Force.

Often overlooked, however, is how quickly those problems were solved. In some cases, solutions were found without spending a dime. For example, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Thomas Hayward instituted his “Not in my Navy” program of zero tolerance for drugs. The drug problem was solved almost overnight. The induction of too many mentally substandard recruits by mistake which had lowered standards, was identified and corrected. That correction solved most other personnel problems (and should be a warning to people who want to lower standards today).

Some members of Congress are now using the crisis in Yugoslavia to get more funds for readiness by arguing that the military is now stretched “too thin.” (Congress doubled President Clinton’s request for $6 billion in emergency spending for the war.) In fact, the situation is quite the opposite. Leaving aside the question of whether the United States should even be involved in Yugoslavia, the new Clinton Doctrine, which does not plan to use ground troops ( a position that is supported by many Republicans), limits the stress placed on the military. Those decisions are all deliberate political actions that have absolutely nothing to do with readiness. Under a well-conceived strategy, even a modestly capable force will probably perform well; but under a poorly conceived strategy, even a force with the highest degree of readiness will probably have serious problems.

The experiences of Task Force Smith and the Hollow Force, as well as the invocation of a Clinton Doctrine that eschews the use of ground forces, have major implications. More forces, for example, could be placed in the reserves and scarce funds spent elsewhere. In addition, the military could switch to what Sen. John McCain (R- Ariz.) has called “Tiered Readiness:” a few forces would be kept on expensive ready status and be augmented by reserve forces that could be mobilized if a substantial threat to U.S. security arose. Military readiness is certainly important, and no one is suggesting a return to the truly shallow force of the late 1940s or the Hollow Force of the 1970s. But a close look at those forces shows that their difficulties involved much more than just poor readiness.

James L. George, currently a freelance writer, is a former congressional professional staff member for national security affairs and the author of Cato Policy Analysis No. 342, “Is Readiness Overrated? Implications for a Tiered Readiness Force Structure.”