Is Military Readiness Overrated?

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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 withlittle 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 failto prove their case. The performance of Task Force Smith, an ill-preparedbattalion quickly sent to the front and fairly easily routed by the NorthKoreansduring the initial days of the Korean War, is often cited as the worstcase."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 themost basic of military mistakes--including grossly underestimating theenemyand sending TFS to an exposed position. When such blunders occur, the endresult will be the same whether it is an ill-trained Task Force Smith inKorea or well-trained Marines in Beirut or elite Rangers in Somalia.Moreover, critics also fail to mention that barely a month later the UnitedStates stabilized the situation in South Korea, and in another month theMarines conducted their famous Inchon Landing. In fact, without theChineseintervention, the United States would have won the Korean War a few monthsafter 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 areadinessproblem but a combination of many factors--including a militarycharacterized by low morale after Vietnam, serious drug and racialproblems,the erroneous induction of too many mentally substandard recruits and lowpay eroded further by high inflation. At the same time, major structuralchanges were transforming the U.S. military, including the introduction ofwomen into the regular forces, the switch from a draft to an all-volunteerforce and the initiation of the Total Force Concept that placed morereliance on the Reserves. Given all of that turbulence, no wonder we had aHollow Force.

Often overlooked, however, is how quickly those problems were solved. Insome cases, solutions were found without spending a dime. For example,Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Thomas Hayward instituted his "Not in myNavy" program of zero tolerance for drugs. The drug problem was solvedalmost overnight. The induction of too many mentally substandard recruitsby mistake which had lowered standards, was identified and corrected. Thatcorrection solved most other personnel problems (and should be a warning topeople who want to lower standards today).

Some members of Congress are now using the crisis in Yugoslavia to getmore funds for readiness by arguing that the military is now stretched "toothin." (Congress doubled President Clinton's request for $6 billion inemergency spending for the war.) In fact, the situation is quite theopposite. Leaving aside the question of whether the United States shouldeven be involved in Yugoslavia, the new Clinton Doctrine, which does notplan to use ground troops ( a position that is supported by manyRepublicans), limits the stress placed on the military. Those decisionsareall deliberate political actions that have absolutely nothing to do withreadiness. Under a well-conceived strategy, even a modestly capable forcewill probably perform well; but under a poorly conceived strategy, even aforce with the highest degree of readiness will probably have seriousproblems.

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

James L. George

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."