“America’s fighting forces remain ready for battle,” retired Gen. David Petraeus and Mr. Michael O’Hanlon wrote in their Aug. 9 Wall Street Journal commentary, “The Myth of a U.S. Military ‘Readiness’ Crisis.” That is largely true today with respect to the current fight against ISIL and other terrorist organizations, but it may not be true tomorrow.
Fifteen years of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now in Syria, Libya and elsewhere, compounded by years of budget uncertainty, have left America’s military forces less well-prepared for operations to counter the increasing capabilities of near-peer and emerging competitors. America’s armed forces must possess the capability to prevail in an ever-expanding set of scenarios, ranging from rendering humanitarian assistance to countering terrorism to fighting a full-spectrum war against a foe like North Korea. There are already capability gaps, which are only growing as we delay investment in the military’s future.
As president of the Association of the U.S. Army and an old soldier, let me offer some comments. The future of the United States Army is challenged by the combination of ongoing operations, emerging strategic threats, and a convoluted budget process that has weakened the nation’s foundational force.
Potential adversaries have already seized the initiative in key technological areas while the United States military and its budgets shrink. Emerging rivals are modernizing their forces and tactics, and establishing long-range plans that could directly threaten our national interests. These developments are ominous warnings of a future where only a robust, technologically superior, and well-prepared Army can ensure the security of the United States, our allies and our partners.
Though we cannot and should not face these challenges alone, the U.S. will undoubtedly lead the effort to deter continued aggression in places like Eastern Europe and prevent coercive actions in regions such as the South China Sea. We cannot rely solely on our allies to provide the security necessary to preserve peace. We must continue to be at the forefront of this effort. To do so requires a strong Army capable of fighting and winning when called upon.
Today’s Army is too small to meet its national security objectives without risks, and you cannot disguise serious hurdles in trying to make things better. I recently chaired the congressionally-mandated National Commission on the Future of the Army. We concluded that a Total Army (active, Army National Guard and Army Reserve) of 980,000 would be “minimally sufficient.” Is that what we want? A minimally sufficient Army? I sure hope not.
While the Army is not in crisis today, its ability to fulfill its missions on behalf of the nation will remain challenged without sustained, predictable funding at levels that support the all-volunteer force and allow for adequate modernization to meet the increasing challenges presented by near-peer competitors.
What does this mean? In the short term, the Army can win in any foreseeable conflict, but our casualties will be greater and the cost in money and time will be higher because we’ve boxed America’s foundational military force into the corner of minimally sufficient people, equipment and resources.
Within the next five years, our Army will find it difficult to improve combat readiness because priority for training and supplies has to be given to deployed or deploying units on the front lines of today’s trouble spots. About 190,000 soldiers are away from home today in support of global requirements. That is down from deployment levels at the height of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Army’s support for worldwide operations requires large chunks of the Army’s budget.
Underfunding and overworking today’s force has long-term implications. Given the cloudy forecast for military budgets, it is hard to see when the Army might achieve overall readiness levels at acceptable risk. Unless readiness reaches sufficient levels, the Army won’t be able to address another looming crisis involving the need to modernize its weapons, communications, vehicles and aircraft to stay ahead of competitors and potential adversaries.
What Does the Army Need?
The Army needs a Total Force of about 1 million soldiers, all trained, equipped and ready. The first step is to stop cutting troops. However, maintaining or even increasing the size of the Regular Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve cannot come at the expense of training and modern equipment.
The Army doesn’t need extra soldiers if the added costs aren’t fully covered. Unfunded personnel increases would make today’s situation even worse.
The Army needs training, spare parts, maintenance and operating budgets to be funded at a level so overall readiness will improve month by month, year by year.
Most importantly, the Army and her sister services don’t need that extra funding to come as part of a partial-year funding bill that would make an already chaotic budget process even more unstable.
The Army needs to return to a robustly funded modernization program that can produce some of the much-needed advances in aircraft, ammunition, missiles, wheeled and tracked vehicles, and other items.
And the Army needs to reform its structure, programs and policies where and when it makes sense to do so. Reform for reform’s sake, “salami-slice” reductions and irresponsible calls to “do more with less” are simply unhelpful.
Constant talk of the need to trim pay and benefits, reduce personnel costs by further reducing military and civilian headquarters staffs, and cut facility costs by deferring more maintenance and upkeep are morale-sapping efforts, especially when the belt-tightening happens year after year with no end in sight.
Gen. Petraeus and Mr. O’Hanlon’s op-ed notwithstanding, these issues of military preparedness are getting insufficient attention in the current political discourse. It is past time for serious discussion from those currently serving in policy-making positions as well as by those aspiring to such national-level positions in our government.