June 13, 2015

Military Readiness

I was recently asked to pen a short piece for GIS on ‘readiness’ so here’s my simplified take on the matter...and enjoy the European spelling imposed by the publisher!

June 9, 2015
Cutting US defence spending raises stakes in world’s hotspots

Some argue America is spending too much on defence. Others say it is not enough. But US defence spending cuts mean its state of ‘readiness’ is compromised. This has meant US allies feel their security is threatened as the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Europe become geopolitical hotspots as America could be perceived to be over-stretched in its ability to control aggressor nations, writes GIS guest expert Dakota Wood.

America’s military is only marginally ready to serve the country’s national interests (photo: dpa)
AMERICA is spending nearly US$500 billion to sustain normal daily running costs for its defence department and the military services during 2015.

This includes salaries, weapons procurement, training and exercises, and healthcare, and a further US$80 billion or so on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) to fund ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

The US will spend roughly the same amount during 2016. This is an enormous amount of money which should reasonably cause people to wonder what they get for it in real-world capability and whether what it buys is relevant to US national security needs.

Critics of this level of spending come from opposite directions - too much or too little. Those who say it is too much view nearly US$600 billion as sustaining a militarised foreign policy which prefers intervention
Spending levels

The too little crowd cites the high demand for military forces to respond to proliferating destabilisation, while US forces are ageing and shrinking in size due to sustained use since 2001, and spending limits placed on defence by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Those defending the current spending level - mostly advocates within, and supportive of, the current presidential administration - emphasise that although the force funded at this level is arguably smaller than is desirable, it is nevertheless more capable.

This is due to investments in readiness, focussed on those units preparing to deploy, and selected modernisation of the most critical systems.

Whether it is too much, too little, or just right, the current level of US spending on defence has resulted in the military services trading capacity for capability in the bet that a more technologically advanced force will offset its reduced size.

Force size

The US has historically made such bets on technological overmatch to compensate for disparities in force size. This is the focal-point of the defence department’s ‘Defence Innovation Initiative’ and its ‘Third Offset Strategy’.

Nato forces, for example, were arrayed along the inner-German border throughout the Cold War (1947-1991) opposite much more numerous Soviet formations.

The US and its allies, realising the Soviets could not be matched in scale, invested in forces which were better equipped, trained, and organised - particularly with regard to employment concepts.

This approach deterred Soviet expansion into Western Europe and kept hot wars confined to surrogate battlefields like Vietnam or insurgencies in Latin America.

Complex requirements

But conditions have changed.

Then, the West could concentrate its efforts in the well-defined and geographically limited European theatre.

Today, US forces are deployed globally to protect national interests against a wide array of real and potential challengers to include Russia in Europe; the Islamic State, Iran, al-Qaeda, and others in the Middle East and Central Asia; and North Korea and China in Asia-West Pacific.

Each potential theatre of operations differs geographically, with the characteristics of opponent, and conditions which enable or inhibit the positioning of forces. This results in a more complex set of requirements and, arguably, a higher and more expanded expectation for readiness.
Military readiness

In today's world, trade-offs between capacity, modernisation, and force readiness carry the risk that a numerically smaller, even if technologically advanced, force might not be able to cover all the requirements associated with the global interests of the US or, that it will be not be good enough relative to an enemy force to avoid losses in combat long enough to win.

With this in mind, limiting the idea of ‘readiness’ to the material and training condition of a military unit is unhelpful and can be quite misleading.

Readiness is viewed typically as referring to a military force’s equipment, whether that equipment is in good repair, whether a unit has the materials and funding necessary to maintain proficiency in their primary tasks, and whether its ranks are filled with the proper number and array of well-trained people.

Problematic conditions

But ‘readiness’ should also include whether a country has the right forces to begin with which are relevant to the sorts of battles it is likely to wage, whether they are properly dispersed close to likely areas of conflict, and whether the country has sufficient numbers of combat-relevant forces to win a war.

It can easily be the case that even though individual units might be ready for battle, a country's collective military force might be unready for war.

America’s military is only marginally ready to serve the country’s national interests as conditions now stand in the US, with consequences for the US and for the security interests of key regions around the world.

Each of the military service chiefs - army, navy, air force, and marines - have testified before the US Congress the problematic conditions leading to an ageing, shrinking, and less-ready military.
Numbers cut

General Raymond Odierno, Chief of Staff of the US Army, says the army needs at least 450,000 active duty soldiers to support the current defence strategy. Its current end-strength is falling below 490,000. This provides 32 brigade combat teams (BCTs), two-thirds of the 48 BCTs the army was previously building towards.

Continued funding restrictions will mean the army will fall below 450,000, at which point it will be unable to fulfill its role.

The Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, General Mark Walsh, said the air force ‘is the smallest and oldest it has ever been’. If it were to stop all flying for two years, it would only buy-back one year of sequestered funding.

The US Navy keeps approximately one-third of its fleet deployed - approximately 95 ships - but those ships are spread globally, meaning only some are available for use in any one theatre.
Lacking manpower

Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, said the cumulative effect of budget shortfalls has forced the navy to accept significant risk, meaning that ‘ships will arrive late to a combat zone…without the benefit of markedly superior combat systems, sensors and networks, or desired levels of munitions inventories. In real terms, this means longer timelines to achieve victory, more military and civilian lives lost, and potentially less credibility to deter adversaries and assure allies in the future’.

The US Navy can only surge one-third of the force required by US combatant commanders in the event of a major contingency.

As for the US Marine Corps, General Joseph Dunford, commandant of the Marine Corps, views the permanent 1:2 deployment-to-dwell cycle as emblematic of the Corps’ readiness problem. It lacks sufficient resources and manpower and the demand for marines is as high as it has ever been.
Size matters

The Corps must maintain a continuous prepare-deploy-recover cycle which is wearing out marines and their equipment. This leads to increased costs to maintain the force in war-fighting condition.

The inability of Congress and the White House to resolve the problems caused by sequestration - the spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act - has forced the military services to sacrifice size as measured in manpower end-strength, military units, and the number of major combat platforms they can field, to preserve funding for limited operational readiness and the most important acquisition programmes.

The size of the services - their capacity for conducting operations in practical terms - matters a great deal.

It means the US being able to address major security challenges in more than once place at a time. Inability to do this would relegate the US to a regional power with implications for the ability to shape events and conditions favourable to its national interests.
Competitive advantage

Senior leadership in the Department of Defence, unable to solve the larger funding issue, has sought other means to compensate for a smaller force. Most notably, it has pursued technological advances to preserve a competitive advantage for US forces.

This was illustrated in November 2014 with the release of the Defence Innovation Initiative and related discussions about following a ‘third offset strategy’ for the US military to stay a step ahead of rivals.

The argument here is that increased investment in militarily-relevant technologies will preserve the ability of US forces to maintain a competitive advantage.

But this focus on technology arguably masks the more important issue of comprehensive 'readiness' of the force as a whole. This would cover its modern technological condition and its capacity to sustain protracted operations, or simultaneous operations in more than one place, and its ability to ensure the force is properly trained and maintained to be effective when it is called up.
Effective responses

US allies and major competitors track such issues every bit as closely as US observers do, assessing how well or poorly the US is able to meet its security obligations or respond to challenges to its security interests.

Even the actions of terror groups like the Islamic State or Boko Haram, which are not explicitly focussed on the US or its interests, reveal the readiness condition of US forces because their actions impact US-interests directly or indirectly via their effect on America’s friends and allies.

This then leads the US to determine whether it has the ability to effectively respond.

A less-ready force removes available options from the US president regardless of an administration’s particular policy preferences.

So, how could the readiness status of its forces impact the interests of the US, its allies, and its competitors?

Consider the following potential scenarios:

The Asia-Pacific. China has been aggressively pursuing its interests in the Asia-Pacific region, both rhetorically and in physical activities.

It is methodically constructing islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea; has worked to intimidate or coerce competitors such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam; attempted to assert control of international airspace by announcing an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea; and published a new military strategy which explicitly announces a more robust, expansionist agenda extending China’s military activities far beyond its traditional boundaries.

A reduced US ability to maintain a military presence sufficient to meet treaty or mutual security obligations with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan would be likely to embolden China to be more aggressive, increase doubt among America’s friends, allies, and ‘fence-sitters’ regarding US assurances, and lead to a realignment of power-postures and relationships within the region.
China's threat

Japan is already reinterpreting its constitution in ways to make it more outward looking in defence matters. The Philippines recognises its weak position relative to China, and is seeking a larger US presence. South Korea is exploring more robust missile defence capabilities, and Taiwan is exploring enhanced defence capabilities more aggressively.

A less capable and ready America could encourage China’s expansionist tendencies and inadvertently spur a much more militarised set of relationships among Asian powers.

The Middle East. The Islamic State is relentlessly carving out a wide swathe of the Middle East for its caliphate. Iran is extending its reach into Iraq and Yemen, threatening Saudi Arabia’s regional interests. Syria is being dismembered in a brutal civil war enabled by Iran and Russia and exacerbated by Turkey. Israel fears for its existence, perhaps more so than at any time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
More violence

Hezbollah is reportedly armed to the teeth with 100,000 rockets and missiles, readying itself for another go at Israel. And Saudi Arabia is making plans to acquire nuclear capabilities to match any developed by Iran.

The US was able to influence conditions prior to its departure from Iraq in 2011. Its absence has created opportunities for other actors to pursue their explicitly destructive and inherently destabilising agendas.

Once again, take away America’s ability to reassure friends and allies or push-back against the violence of IS and similar entities, and countries in the region will further militarise their interactions with each other. ‘Rogue’ actors will be able to act without restraint and the region would have great potential to slip into more violence.

Fragile Nato

Europe. Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea, invasion of Ukraine, intimidation of the Baltic States, intrusions in the air-and-sea spaces of the Nordic countries, and generally provocative behaviour towards Europe’s security, has revealed Nato’s rather fragile condition and Europe’s inability to respond because of its economic troubles.

A weakened US military posture has again emboldened opportunists like Russia and is causing long-time allies to question their security situation. A US which is unable to respond effectively in a timely manner with credible forces, leads countries which have incorporated such assurances into their security framework to reconsider their relationships.

This opens avenues for Russia to have a greater influence on European affairs than would otherwise be the case.

Military readiness is much more than the material state of a force or its level of skill in carrying out a task. It is also the relevance of that force to meeting the security needs of its country and the impact its condition has on the foreign policies, defence spending, security conditions, and the power relationships of countries and regions affected by its status.

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