Newsflash to the New Congress: Tiered Readiness Is Here Now
The modern day version of “tiered readiness” has arrived for the U.S. military. While the news has yet to sink in the minds of Washington leaders, the state of affairs across the force speaks for itself.
During the defense drawdown in the 1990s, this concept was instituted with units preparing to deploy at peak readiness while the majority of the remaining forces stateside, especially those in the Reserve Component, were not. This was sanctioned by Pentagon leaders as a way to produce savings while (supposedly) preserving force structure and modernization where possible. While the idea was eventually rejected, budget cuts combined with a relentless pace of operations have resurrected “tiered readiness” for those in uniform.
What does today’s tiered readiness look like? For many Navy F/A-18 fighter pilots currently not flying given aircraft equipment shortages, it is a situation described as one of “haves” and “have nots.” Pilots in a conflict zone or high-tension area are getting the staff and parts needed to keep jets in the sky. But those not deploying anytime soon are forced to sit idle alongside their parked aircraft and wait.
Naval aviation is not alone in its suffering. The same challenge of AARP-eligible fleets and maintenance shortages applies acutely to the U.S. Air Force. Just last month, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said “Airplanes are falling apart…They’re just flat too old.”
In the Air Force, maintenance of older fighters like F-15s and F-16s being used more heavily than planned in Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and against the Islamic State is now causing work to be deferred on the next-generation Joint Strike Fighter given the lack of skilled maintainers. These critical personnel have had their transfer delayed because there are not enough people to both keep the older jets flying at such an accelerated pace overseas and prepare the newest fighter to enter the fleet.
This is little surprise since portions of the F-16D fighter fleet have been grounded for over a month now due to cracks in the canopies. The same thing happened to older models of F-15s at the height of the wars in 2007.
But the military’s readiness problems are not limited to the motor pool and repair yards. Sailors aboard Navy ships are seeing similar deleterious trends creep toward becoming the “new normal.” Crew shortfalls, maintenance backlogs and unrelenting demand mean the U.S. Navy is increasingly becoming what one commander labeled a “two-tiered fleet divided between manned and trained ships—and everyone else.”
Unfortunately, much of this information is not new but rather growing in scope and reach. What were mostly worrisome anecdotes years ago that could be dismissed as one-offs are now trends.
A recent news story outlined the generally reduced readiness the Navy’s fleet, noting that “After years of conflict in the Middle East, its aging fleet of warships has been overtasked and under-cared for, leading to a growing maintenance backlog that threatens its ability to respond to future threats.” Unfortunately, this dim diagnosis could apply to any of the service branches today.
Each service is facing distinct and compounding readiness challenges, which are already having tangible consequences for America’s men and women in uniform.
According to the Army’s Vice Chief of Staff, the Army’s limited training is putting soldiers at greater risk of direct harm. General John Campbell has told policymakers, “In the event of a crisis, we’ll deploy these units at a significantly lower readiness level but our soldiers are adaptive and agile, and over time, they will accomplish their mission. But their success will come with a greater cost of higher casualties.”
Recently departed Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos warned Congress earlier this year, “The primary concern with out-of-balance readiness of our non-deployed operating forces is an increased risk in the timely response to unexpected crises or large-scale contingencies.”
Similarly, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Larry Spencer’s testimony piled on alongside his colleagues. According to General Spencer, “This is not going to be a quick fix, and it will take us years to recover. If we are not able to train for scenarios across the full range of military operations, we may not get there in time and it may take the joint team longer to win.”
The danger of being unready or unable to respond to contingencies is a problem now—not tomorrow. America’s military leaders have already told elected officials of the consequences of reduced budgets, increased risk and lower readiness.
Those costs include the inability to execute core missions, slower response times to unexpected crises, longer duration of conflict and higher numbers of killed or wounded in action. These outcomes should not be acceptable to anyone.
The new Congress should recognize that tiered readiness is here now, and it will be their job to fix it. With fresh energy and ideas, the 114th Congress can and should begin to make progress reversing America’s declining military readiness.