No Myth, Petraeus & O'Hanlon Miss The Mark On Military Readiness

By Tim Connors

David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon, both accomplished professionals, have reached the pinnacle of their respective career fields. General Petraeus led the “Surge” in Iraq, one of America’s greatest military achievements, while Dr. O’Hanlon was among the first scholars to recognize, against the judgment of his peers, that the “Surge” had changed the facts on the ground in Iraq. That's why their calling talk of a crisis in U.S. military readiness a “myth” is a head-scratching disappointment.          

Their assessment is based on four seemingly reasonable points. First, in aggregate terms, America now spends more on defense than it did on average during the Cold War and more than it did in the year prior to 9/11. Second, there is a sustainable $100 billion available in the Defense budget for capital investment, which is backed by the most innovative defense technical industry in the world. Third, while some equipment is aging, most of what the military has is in good shape. And finally, we have the best people of any military in the world. While each of these assertions may be correct, they provide only half the story.          

To be sure, America spends more now on defense than it has in historical comparison, more than the next eight countries in the world currently. Yet, one-third of this figure is consumed paying greater compensation and benefits to a smaller number of uniformed personnel. Along with civilian employee compensation (including the 100,000 personnel added to the payroll since 9-11) that totals half the Pentagon’s budget. Particularly concerning, health care costs have expanded exponentially over the last 15 years and will consume an ever-expanding piece of the pie if left unchecked. When these costs are normalized against historical and near-peer defense spending, today’s aggregate budget expenditures are not so intimidating. Without exception, near-peer competitors such as China and Russia allocate far less of their budgets to compensate and take care of soldiers, leaving a greater share for equipment and operations.          

Additionally, our spending advantage must be evaluated in conjunction with the size and scope of our commitments. America is the world’s only superpower, with global security commitments ensuring stability in Europe, Asia and elsewhere. Naturally, we have to spend more than our competitors to maintain this advantage. What’s more, the U.S. Defense budget is relatively transparent vis-à-vis our near-peer competitors. It’s a safe bet they are spending more than officially reported. Benchmarking relative readiness to aggregate defense spending, therefore, simply misses the point.  

In terms of our technological advantage, it is true that we have the most innovative economy in the world that has provided a discernable edge since World War II. However, the Pentagon’s overly bureaucratic procurement system is more reminiscent of World War II than the fast-paced complexities of today. And we no longer control the dissemination of technological innovation as we did during the Cold War. In fact, high-tech gadgets are readily available in today’s global marketplace. Unmanned aerial vehicles, night vision goggles, and missile technology, to name but a few, can be easily acquired for the right price. Technological proliferation further complicates the issue, as we cannot safely assume that American forces will maintain technological superiority, preserved since World War II.           

Similarly, we have repaired the equipment that was worn down in fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many of these platforms are entering a third decade of service, built for a different time and a different challenge. Having the Soviet Union as our sole and a well-known opponent is not a luxury we now enjoy. Today’s threat environment includes a complex, volatile mix of state and non-state actors, megatrends, and accelerated events. Our lack of investment in material solutions over the last decade plus has presented a vulnerability that risks exploitation. Capital investments are needed to close the gap. When made in an uncertain environment, it is better to have a level of investment above that which is deemed merely adequate. That is why many professional military leaders have raised doubts whether the current margin for error is wide enough.          

Successive Army Chiefs of Staff have expressed concerns regarding the level of risk associated with the reduced size of today’s land forces—the Army is smaller than it has been since the 1930’s. Retired General Carter Ham, who heads the Association of the United States Army, has cogently argued this point. The Navy’s leadership has also raised the alarm that today’s fleet is some 50 ships smaller than is needed to meet the Navy’s existing requirements, and the Air Force Chief of Staff recently warned that our pilots are getting about half the training time they used to get. While pilots operating forward are trained adequately, home station training is inadequate, which creates risks if other contingencies arise.           

The professionalism and dedication of our uniformed service members can paper over these inadequacies, but there is a limit to that resource as well. We have placed a great burden on our warriors and their families. While they continue to carry the load, we should never take that for granted. Additionally, we rely on part-time, Reserve forces more than ever to meet our global commitments, creating pressure on families and employers, which could lead to a breaking point. This explains the skyrocketing costs of military compensation and benefits over the last decade plus.       

Attributing these concerns to political maneuvering, as Petraeus and O’Hanlon suggest, lands well off the mark. We are but one crisis away from discovering just how thinly stretched today’s Force really is. The potential flashpoints canvass the globe—from the Korean Peninsula, through the South China Sea, into the Middle East, and onto the Ukraine. Given that uncertain environment, Petraeus and O’Hanlon would have done better to leverage their credibility to help Congress and the next President make the necessary, tough choices needed to marshal resources for the challenges to come. Addressing personnel and healthcare costs and fixing procurement are certain to stir up the very political posturing Petraeus and O’Hanlon decry. But why change if there is no reason to? Unfortunately, in arguing that a crisis in military readiness is a myth, these gentlemen have made the case for change more difficult.

Tim Connors is a contributor to Real Clear Defense and a Colonel serving in the Army Reserves. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.

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