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The Military’s Real Readiness Crisis; Petraeus & O’Hanlon Are Wrong

Posted by Justin Johnson on


Abrams tank loaded onto C-17

It’s no news to Breaking Defense readers that the U.S. military faces a readiness crisis. But retired Gen. David Petraeus apparently disagrees.

Yes, the military’s budget has been cut by 25 percent in real terms since 2011—much of it coming from accounts used to maintain and build combat readiness. Yes, leaders from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have all publicly expressed their deep concerns about readiness levels. And, yes, top brass are publicly discussing “Carter-era” readiness problems and even the prospect of a hollow military.

Still, Petraeus and the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal last week to bust the “myth” of a military readiness crisis. I deeply respect both men, but they got this one wrong.

Pentagon leaders—both civilian and military—as well as their overseers in Congress concur that the readiness crisis is real. Many of the details regarding the problems remain (rightly) classified, but enough facts have been made public to remove any doubt that readiness is a wide-spread problem in the military today.

David Petreaus

David Petreaus

Petraeus and O’Hanlon completely ignore readiness statements from recent and current military leaders. Consider the assessment of Gen. Raymond Odierno, Petraeus’ right-hand man during the Iraq Surge. Before leaving his post as Army Chief of Staff last year, Odierno said Army readiness was at “historically low levels.” Current Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley echoed that conclusion. He recently told Congress that he has “grave concerns about the readiness of our force” to deal with a serious challenger like Russia or China.

Instead of responding to current military leaders, Petraeus and O’Hanlon offer “reassuring facts” that are worth further consideration.

First, they point out that today’s defense budget is higher than the Cold War average in inflation-adjusted dollars. This is true, but it offers a very incomplete picture. Petraeus and O’Hanlon would surely agree that our military today is far different than what we had in the Cold War. Adjusting for inflation does not account for the higher cost of better equipment.

Justin Johnson

Justin Johnson

Adjusting for inflation, a standard Ford F-150 costs 40 percent more today than it did in 1986. Why? Because today’s F-150 is far more technologically advanced and capable. The same is true for military equipment.

A more complete picture of defense spending appears when we look at defense spending in terms of its percentage of GDP and percentage of total federal budget. By both of these measures, the current defense budget is at historic lows.

Perhaps more significantly, today’s defense budget is well below the minimums agreed to by bipartisan experts. The National Defense Panel, for example, agreed that former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’ last budget (in fiscal year 2012) represented the bare minimum. For 2017, that budget would be $100 billion more than President Obama’s current request.

Second, Petraeus and O’Hanlon point out that the military is on track to spend $100 billion per year to buy new equipment. A nice round number, it bears no relation to what the military truly needs. A strong military is not built by investing an arbitrary number, but by a clear analysis of what threats the nation faces and what equipment the military needs and how big it must be to defend against those threats. The Secretary of Defense has been clear that the military needs significantly more funding over the next few years, particularly to replace equipment that is past its useful life.

Third, they argue that “most [military] equipment remains in fairly good shape.” They admit that Marine Corps aviation is not, but recent testimony shows that aircraft across all four services are in similarly rough shape. And as seen in the 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength, all the services are laden with equipment that is decades old and difficult to maintain. Across the military, the maintenance and modernization challenges are serious and seem to be growing.

Marine F-18 being maintained

Marine F-18 being maintained

Fourth, Petraeus and O’Hanlon argue that training is improving. This appears to be true, but once again they ignore concerning statements about where our military stands today.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James has repeatedly stated that less than half of all Air Force squadrons are ready for combat and that the Air Force faces serious shortages of both pilots and mechanics. At the same time, pilot flying hours (i.e. training) have fallen dramatically.

Army units are rotating through training centers, but only one-third of this historically small force are considered ready for high-end combat. Training may be improving in some quarters, but the lack of combat-ready units across the services points to serious underlying problems.

Petraeus and O’Hanlon are right on one point. The U.S. military remains an incredible fighting force. But its readiness for combat has declined precipitously in the last five years.

Today’s men and women in uniform put their lives on the line for our country, but they are doing so with less training, worn out equipment, and fewer brothers and sisters in arms to back them up. With threats rising across the globe, all Americans should be concerned about the troubling state of the U.S. military.

Justin T. Johnson is senior policy analyst for defense budgeting at The Heritage Foundation.

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