ESB Professional / Shutterstock

Want to Redefine Readiness? Here’s Where to Start

Two Joint Chiefs are on the right track.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Brown Jr. and Marine Corps Commandant David Berger argued that a “fixation” on military readiness had prevented the U.S. defense enterprise from shifting resources towards great power competition, as prescribed by the 2018 National Defense Strategy. To move ahead, they want to redefine readiness from the “short-term and narrow view” that dominates thinking in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. This is a welcome development from two of the military’s senior-most leaders, and a chance to think more deeply about the topic. 

Among policymakers, readiness is most commonly thought of as the military’s short-term preparedness for operations. From a strategic perspective, defense leaders consider tradeoffs among readiness, force structure, and modernization. As Brown and Berger observe, readiness is too often conflated with the availability of forces for “immediate deployment.” Investing in, or “rebuilding,” readiness has similarly become a panacea for solving all of the military’s issues. But the challenges additional readiness funding alleviates are opaque. Is it for training? Maintenance for equipment? Funds for ongoing operations?

Readiness doesn’t exclusively refer to the military’s status in terms of current availability and health. In a broad sense, it can refer to military preparedness from the tactical level to the strategic for different types and sizes of units over different timeframes. As Columbia’s Richard Betts succinctly articulated a quarter-century ago, readiness boils down to three questions: readiness for what? For when? And of what? 

At their core, discussions of readiness are a matter of balancing risk and one’s strategic objectives. If the military prioritizes near-term readiness and addressing today’s threats, it risks being unprepared for the future fight. If developing new capabilities is the priority, forces may be unprepared for near-term conflicts. For policymakers, the readiness question is not quite so black-and-white. The United States must be able to respond to gray-zone threats from China and Russia and unexpected contingencies even as it prioritizes modernization and being prepared for high-end conflict. But the U.S. defense enterprise―including DoD, the military services, and Congress―must be clear-eyed in its objectives and the risks it takes to achieve them, particularly if they require significant shifts in budget and force structure.

Brown and Berger’s conception of readiness is a longer-term view that prioritizes future capability and re-establishing the United States’ comparative advantage over its adversaries. They propose a readiness framework based on rigorous, artificial intelligence-driven data analysis to inform tradeoffs between current and future investments. This framework would allow the military to balance responding to today’s threats with creating the force of tomorrow. Implicitly, this means the United States would incur more risks in the short term in order to reduce risks in the future. Getting rid of outdated force structure means there would be fewer available forces to address challenges from U.S. competitors. But as defense budgets flatten and potentially fall, difficult choices must be made if the military is to prepare itself to deal with future threats.

This shift towards a longer-term conceptualization of readiness is a positive step in an era of strategic competition, as is the development of an objective, data-driven approach to measuring readiness. Setting aside obvious concerns over the Department’s current ability to capture and use the entirety of the data available to it, a new framework for assessing readiness could improve DoD’s process for allocating resources between competing priorities―provided DoD is looking at the right metrics. As CSIS’ Todd Harrison has written extensively, current readiness metrics tend to measure the inputs to the readiness system (resources) rather than the outputs of the readiness system (performance). Focusing on things like the hours of training a unit receives or the numbers of munitions available to it does not actually tell you how well that unit performs. If DoD is serious about more efficiently allocating resources for today’s challenges, it must learn how it can maintain the same level of output (performance) with fewer inputs (resources). Brown and Berger’s efforts to avoid conflating readiness with availability indicate they’re headed in the right direction.

But embracing new definitions and metrics alone won’t solve the military’s fixation on short-term readiness. DoD must capably manage the high demand signal from the combatant commands that oversee the United States’ presence and operations abroad. Granting all COCOM requests for personnel and equipment degrades short-term readiness and eats up funding that could go towards the modernization that will drive long-term readiness. As AEI’s Mackenzie Eaglen bluntly puts it, the services need to “say no” to COCOM requests more often. Another means of addressing COCOM demands would be to use partners and allies more effectively where possible and to hire commercial firms to provide support services like airlift, ISR, and aerial refueling to reduce the day-to-day burden on U.S. forces. The Global Posture Review that President Biden just assigned to the Department, as well as the strategic review it will conduct over the coming year, will hopefully align the COCOMs’ demands with strategic priorities and alleviate this long standing challenge.

DoD doesn’t get the only say, however. Congress has long guarded legacy equipment that the Department has sought to eliminate, out of concern for near-term threats both to America and to constituents’ interests. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, for example, restricts the military’s ability to retire aircraft. If DoD expects the Hill to buy into a more holistic conception of readiness, it must show that it is managing and mitigating risks to short-term readiness as it directs resources towards modernization. To do this, the services must be willing to share data and plans with the committees that oversee them. One place to start is by revising budget documentation for operation and maintenance funds that are the most analogous to investments in readiness. DoD should provide the Hill with more detailed documentation for O&M accounts, enough to allow policymakers to see funding by type of unit, not just at an aggregated level. For greater transparency, the Department could also publish the five-year projections for O&M funds, which are currently in the classified portion of its budget submission―as it does for procurement and research, development, test and evaluation programs―to show its public commitment to managing present threats and the near-term readiness of the force. 

Embracing a long-term view of readiness will put DoD on the right trajectory for competition with China and Russia. Convincing all parts of the U.S. defense enterprise may present challenges, but if the Department can adequately demonstrate and communicate how it will mitigate risks from competitors today, it will be better placed fiscally and strategically to prepare for the threats of tomorrow.

Seamus P. Daniels is an associate fellow and associate director for Defense Budget Analysis in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.