Reshaping a Key Baseline: The Readiness of US Military Forces

By Robbin Laird

As the Trump Administration comes to power with a pledge to strengthen the US military a key challenge will be to address the relatively low state of readiness of US forces.

One way to rebuild readiness is to reduce the scope and length of engagement of US forces by making strategic decisions about where, when and why to deploy US forces.

In other words, as a colleague has clearly put it: “Ready to do what?” is a key part of any readiness equation.

As this colleague added: “One could argue that the Army’s lack of “readiness” could be traced back to maintaining a huge armored force that is obsolete in a world where terrorism, technology, cyber, and airpower are dominant and increasing.”

As Col. Bill Buckey, a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot has put it: “We have many folks engaged in drawing up the Xs and Os on the playing field, but we seem not to know where to find the goal line.”

Clearly, this is one key element of enhancing the readiness of forces, but not deploying them without proper support.

In discussions with senior US Navy officials, it is clear that repairing readiness will not be done quickly but is the key priority to getting the fleet healthy. This is perceived to be crucial to shape a way ahead.

A discussion with a recently retired foreign air force chief of staff commented on visiting USAF facilitates last year, that he was very worried with what he saw with regard to the state of USAF readiness.

Clearly, sequestration and the Obama Administration policies have taken their toll.

As a GAO report last Fall described the situation:

After more than a decade of conflict, recent budget uncertainty, and decreases in force structure, U.S. forces are facing significant challenges in rebuilding readiness.

DOD officials noted that it will take a significant amount of time to realize improvements in readiness as the department works to address identified challenges.

In addition, the individual military services, which train and equip forces used by the combatant commands, report persistently low readiness levels.

The services attribute the low readiness levels to various factors. Specifically,

The Army

The Army attributes its persistently low readiness level to emerging demands, lack of proficiency in core competencies, and end strength reductions.

Even as the Army has brought forces back from Afghanistan, the Army faces increasing emergent demands that strain existing capacity, such as the deployment of the 101st Airborne Division in Africa to respond to the Ebola crisis.

In addition, other factors contribute to readiness challenges, including a lack of familiarity among leaders and units with the ability to conduct collective training towards core competencies because the Army focused on counterinsurgency for many years.

Finally, the Army is downsizing to an end strength of 980,000—about a 12 percent reduction in size. Army leadership testified in March 2015 that any end strength reductions below this level would reduce the Army’s capability to support missions identified in defense guidance.

The Navy

The Navy attributes its persistently low readiness level to increased lengths of deployments for aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious ships, which has created significant maintenance challenges.

The Navy currently has 272 ships, a decrease from 333 ships in 1998—an 18 percent decrease.

Even as the number of Navy ships has decreased, the number of ships deployed overseas has remained roughly constant at about 100 ships.

Consequently, each ship is being deployed more to maintain the same level of presence. In addition, the Navy has had to shorten, eliminate, or defer training and maintenance periods to support high deployment rates.

The Air Force

The Air Force attributes its decline in readiness to continued demands and a reduced force structure.

For example, in 1991 the Air Force had 154 fighter and bomber squadrons, and as of December 2015 the Air Force had 64 fighter and bomber squadrons—a 58 percent decrease from 1991 levels.

Further, its readiness level has declined because of persistent demand for forces, a decline in equipment availability and in experienced maintenance personnel, and the impact of high deployment rates on units’ ability to conduct needed training.


The Marine Corps attributes its readiness levels to an increased frequency of deployments to support the sustained high demand for the force; gaps in the number of unit leaders with the right grade, experience, and technical and leadership qualifications; and training shortfalls, including a lack of sufficiently available aircraft to train to standards, resulting from over a decade of war.


Obviously, repairing readiness needs to be calibrated against priority tasks and rebuilding the force with strategic goals in terms of force structure up against key tasks in mind.

It is not just about finding yesterday’s force to fight yesterday’s wars.

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