FPI Bulletin: Avoiding a Military Readiness Catastrophe

November 13, 2013

In recent months, the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have held a series of hearings and briefings on how sequestration has harmed U.S. military readiness. Perhaps the most important of these is scheduled for Thursday, November 14, when Chairman Rob Wittman (R-VA) and Ranking Member Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU) of the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee will host a classified, all-member briefing.

Tomorrow’s session should be of particular value because it will examine the interaction between the four military services’ ability to train units and the demands of the combatant commanders who employ them in operations.  This cross-walk will be essential for Members of Congress to have a full understanding of the harm that sequestration-level budget cuts are doing our military.

Although the details of individual unit readiness and risk will be classified, the public record indicates how serious a topic this is.

The Service Chiefs have repeatedly described how their inability to train and maintain forces could prevent them from supporting combat operations.  The Army now has only two brigades – out of 42—that are combat ready.  The Navy cancelled five ship deployments this year and postponed the deployment of the USS Harry S. Truman Strike Group.  The Air Force grounded 31 squadrons this year, including 13 combat-coded squadrons. The Marines are shifting readiness funds from other units in order to fully man, train, and equip those specific units bound for Afghanistan.

This degradation of readiness is shocking at face value, but it cannot be fully understood without reference to the operational requirements of the combatant commanders who would employ them in a conflict.

When planners at U.S. Central Command and U.S. Pacific Command look at options to defeat aggression or project power against countries like Iran and North Korea, they have to match up U.S. forces against missiles that can strike our bases in the region, air defenses that will not easily yield, and the types conventional units that American troops have not faced off against since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.   Defeating this combination of threats requires U.S. forces that are trained for full spectrum operations – precisely the type of training that has been canceled as a result of forced cuts to defense spending.

Although the Pentagon has spared training funds for forces deploying to Afghanistan and other ongoing operations, these forces are generally neither available nor trained for the other threats that we face.  Army units in Afghanistan are providing security assistance to their Afghan partners, while airmen and naval aviators are providing close air support to our forces on the ground.  These forces are not conducting the types of high-intensity operations that would mark future military campaigns against the most dangerous threats.

In recent testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno noted that not only had the service cancelled Combat Training Center rotations for seven brigade combat teams, but that each of these brigades was intended to begin rebuilding core warfighting skills that had atrophied after a decade of counter-insurgency focused operations. Instead, those skills will continue to atrophy.

The Combat Training Centers cancellations are particularly unfortunate because these institutions are the bedrock of the Army’s ability to claim that its soldiers will “train like you fight and fight like you train.”   This is an idea that is not just a slogan, but a commitment to the young men and women who wear our nation’s uniform and which may now be broken.

Falling readiness rates also undermine America’s global leadership. The USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group’s postponed deployment cut the total number of carriers in the Persian Gulf from two to one.  In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert elaborated that because of sequestration, the Navy will be able to provide “only one non-deployed carrier strike group and one amphibious ready group trained and ready for surge operations” when there would normally be three available.

In sum, the United States has not only halved its day-to-day carrier presence in the Persian Gulf, but has further reduced its ability to respond to a crisis in the region, compared to when six carrier strike groups were deployed in support of the Iraq War in 2003.  The Iranian regime has, of course, had access to this information since negotiations commenced with newly elected President Hassan Rouhani this fall, which may help explain Tehran’s continued intransigence and Rouhani’s mocking claim that “for us, red lines are not crossable.”

The emerging readiness crisis will also leave scars that long affect our military. With enough money and time, it will be possible to conduct maintenance on the aircraft and ships that have been ignored, but the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine officers and personnel who have missed critical training opportunities this year – and who may miss them in the years to come – may never get that training time back.

Congressman Wittman recently described the matter succinctly:  “If Congress allows sequestration to continue, our forces will be unprepared to deploy, they will face increased risk, their safety will be jeopardized, their missions compromised, and there will be an increased likelihood that more Americans will be killed carrying out their Constitutional duty, both on the battle field and in training.”  As a first step to avoiding such a catastrophe, Members of Congress would do well to attend the HASC Readiness briefing and assess the gravity of this danger themselves.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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