How Ready Is Ready Enough?

The incoming Trump administration and the Congressional majority plan a push to repeal federal spending caps in order to boost military spending. A key talking point for this push claims that the Obama administration’s anemic military spending has caused a “readiness crisis,” where the U.S. military lacks the men, weapons, and funds to do its job. On the campaign trail, or Hannity, the claim became that the Obama is “gutting the military.” The president-elect typically went further, calling the U.S. military a “disaster” and in “shambles.”

In a recent presentation, embedded below, I raised three problems with these claims. One is that military spending remains high. The recent drawdown cut military spending by more twenty percent in real terms, but it came after buildup of nearly fifty percent. It’s now around Cold War peaks, in real terms.

Second, the military is shrinking partly because of its heightened quality. Rising personnel costs reflect the heightened professionalization of American troops. Similarly, U.S. weapons systems have grown deadlier, more complex, and costlier to maintain. The net result is forces are fewer but substantially more capable than previously possible.

Here I’ll focus on the third problem with complaints of a readiness crisis, which is that they’re mostly complaints about other issues. Overall, U.S. military readiness is alright, better when it comes to fighting current wars. Complaints about readiness mostly accompany requests for higher military spending. What readiness shortfalls exist could be solved without increasing the existing Pentagon budget. Those that complain the loudest about readiness, like the majority of the House Armed Services Committee, could improve it through reallocation, but they prefer to hype the crisis as a way to push for a higher total budget and stave off sacrifices

In the U.S. military, readiness generally refers to “the ability of forces to perform the missions and tasks assigned to them,” as Todd Harrison puts it. That metric depends on variables like whether units are adequately manned, the quality of training, equipment condition, and overall morale. The Pentagon tracks readiness through two internal tracking systems and classified reports to Congress.

With the exception of some military leaders, those complaining of a readiness crisis rarely mention these scorecards. Pentagon insiders and outside analysts largely agree that official readiness ratings are a poor guide for actual performance of military missions, especially in combat. Various unmeasured factors, like enemy capabilities, impact how those missions go. Questions of the military balance thus invade real readiness discussions. The vagueness and variability of readiness means that, as Brad Carson and Morgan Plummer note, debates occur without a shared definition, and the sides talk past each other.

For example, last summer, in two articles, David Petraeus and the Michael O’Hanlon attacked the idea of a readiness crisis by arguing that U.S. military forces remain well-trained and equipped for the fights they face. They note that readiness is far from perfect, especially in areas like Marine Corps aviation, but that ships and planes are mostly well-operated, and in good shape, especially compared to possible enemies. The torrent of responses chose to focus on other things: complaining that spending should be higher, worrying that preparation for future wars should be better, in some instances even acknowledging the absence of a readiness crisis before discussing various shortfalls.

Likewise, the service chiefs, whose cries about the dangers of sequestration (by which they mean budgets restrained by spending caps that Congress has annually increased and augmented with alleged war funds) inflame the “gutting the military” crowd, avoid the word “crisis” when pressed. They highlight areas of future risk or capabilities they would like, note problem areas, request more money, and mostly reject politicians’ contentions that U.S. forces are broken and weak.

To the extent that there is a readiness problem, it is partly the fault of those that most lament it: the Armed Services Committees, especially in the House, which has held numerous hearings on the topic. Its chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, recently blamed the Obama administration for a helicopter crash in Hawaii that killed twelve Marines. He argued that because the administration was “playing political games” and limiting operational funds needed for flight training, it bore responsibility for the crash.

It’s true that investigators believe that low readiness in terms of training and morale helped cause the crash. But Thornberry is himself guilty of using readiness as a political game. Though his committee has less say than appropriators, it could push to shift funds into the operations and maintenance accounts that fund readiness at the expense of some acquisition spending. However, acquisition is generally of greater interest to Congressmen because the money goes to their local production facilities and creates jobs in their districts. Thornberry prefers to keep the readiness issue as a lever to push for higher military spending. Meanwhile, the administration has tended to push for operations and maintenance funding at some cost to acquisition.

A review of the debate about the readiness crisis reveals not only that there’s little real crisis, but also that’s there’s no real debate about it. The debate is actually a vehicle for other issues, like how much we ought to spend and what we ought to do to meet threats. Readiness has become a kind of synonym for a strong defense—a concept so capacious and positive that everyone uses it to mean what they want. It’s best to discard the term and recognize that military spending choices are largely about what you want to be ready for, not how ready you are for everything.