Soldiers from U.S. Army Europe’s Charlie Company demonstrate tactics to Ukrainian Marines and National Guard soldiers in 2014.

Soldiers from U.S. Army Europe’s Charlie Company demonstrate tactics to Ukrainian Marines and National Guard soldiers in 2014. U.S. Army / Spc. Joshua Leonard

It's Getting Harder to Define Military Readiness. Here's What to Do About It.

Planners and evaluators must try to anticipate how threats and operating environments will change during a deployment.

Accurately defining expected threats and resourcing the military to counter them is the sine qua non of military readiness. As threats and operational environments rapidly evolve, they make it harder to define, measure, and produce the desired levels of military readiness.

For instance, if the U.S. military is fully resourced and adequately trained to fight a modern mechanized military in relatively open terrain, it will be regarded as ready to conduct this particular kind of warfare against this type of adversary. But if a similarly resourced and trained force is instead called upon to fight a prolonged insurgency in an urban environment—as happened in Iraq following the 2003 invasion—it will be somewhat less than ready for this mission, since fighting an urban insurgency stresses a different set of skills, equipment and capabilities than does fighting a mechanized force. Preparing for both types of adversaries, or some combination of the two, is a challenge, as indicated by recent comments and testimony on the subject of military readiness.

On a recent trip to Africa, Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley indicated that the U.S. military’s emphasis on fighting terrorists and insurgents over the last 15 years has eroded its capacity to counter more traditional, high-end threats. His statement echoes that of former Army Chief of Staff George Casey, who made the case in the 2008 U.S. Army Posture Statement that a combination of a high operational tempo and focus on counterinsurgency operations, to the exclusion of other necessary capabilities, had resulted in an Army that was out of balance. This erosion of capability and lack of balance in the midst of budget cuts has helped lead to a less-than-prepared military, according to recent congressional testimony on military readiness levels across the services.

But many of the threats that the United States is presently facing are increasingly hybrid in nature—meaning that adversaries are capable of conducting elements of conventional and unconventional warfare—and many contemporary conflicts are now being described as taking place in the “gray zone,” or somewhere between peace and war. Focusing on one type of threat or another—whether state or non-state in its general nature—in an effort to improve military readiness is not quite as useful a template as it once might have been.

Implicit in the observations by Gen. Milley and others is that there is a notable distinction between violent non-state actors (ISIS, Boko Haram and al-Qaida, for example) and more traditional state-based threats (such as Russia, China and Iran) especially when it concerns their capabilities and the proper means for training and equipping the U.S. military to deter or defeat them.

It is still true that “state” and “non-state” actors are distinct, but only to a point. Many foreign militaries, insurgent groups and terrorist organizations have learned from the United States’ successes and failures in Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In various ways, adversaries of the United States have taken deliberate steps to blunt or minimize its dominance in military affairs and attenuate its ability to influence the course of various conflicts. Two unfortunate outcomes have resulted. First, the threats that the United States faces, while once quite divergent, are becoming progressively adaptive and now increasingly share military capabilities and methods. Second, focusing on one type of threat or the other is becoming a less tenable option as the United States considers how to assess and improve its military readiness.

Current approaches to measuring military readiness allow units to capture both their preparedness to execute core functions—what units are designed to do—and their ability to perform assigned missions—what units are asked to do—based on the measurement of defined readiness inputs, including various personnel, equipment, equipment serviceability, and training statuses. Allowing for variability between design and assigned mission permits units to adjust their readiness assessments based on anticipated threats and the operational environments they expect to encounter when deployed.

But as threats and operational environments become increasingly dynamic, it will be difficult to evaluate in advance how any particular adversary—whether state or non-state in nature—will manifest and evolve once engaged militarily. As adversaries adapt and expand their capacity to conduct various forms of warfare, they increasingly can—and very likely will—vary their operational methods in response to changes in battlefield circumstances. Assigned mission readiness will thus be correspondingly more difficult to capture before any given mission.

Future readiness assessments should therefore describe how changes in the threats and operational environment could affect unit readiness over the course of a mission. While such changes will be difficult to anticipate, attempts to evaluate them will help to further clarify what is meant by military readiness, insofar as it is an accurate reflection of what the military is prepared to do, and against whom it is prepared to perform these actions.