Small Wars Journal

Ready for What?

Tue, 10/27/2015 - 4:24am

Ready for What?

Robert Murphy

“… Lack of Readiness, meaning people who are trained, units that are fully manned and so forth, could translate into slower response times and ultimately greater risk, greater casualties.”

- HON Michelle Flournoy, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy,

2 DEC 2014 Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

The Department of Defense owes Congress and the Services a useful definition of readiness. The term’s strength is in its fundamental simplicity; be ready for whatever the nation asks of us. However,  since ‘readiness’ guides military budgets and our Nation’s plans to man and equip the military for all the potential crises that can be imagined, the nation’s political leadership and the forces it will commit need depth beyond simplicity. The absence of such depth is evident through any informal survey of senior Department of Defense leader testimony to Congress, the transcripts of which demonstrate a broad and often contradictory spectrum of definitions to describe readiness. The inability of the military to consistently and uniformly articulate readiness makes our political leaders less able to make the decisions necessary to secure our national interests, and has the potential to erode public confidence in our institution.  Compounding Congress’ uncertainty is the parade of military witnesses during committee sessions who articulate programs and policies with specific reference to readiness and often contradict each other on defense priorities. Given anticipated budget austerity, and the military’s inability to predict funding levels, the Defense Department must seize the narrative on how it can and ought to be employed.

“Today’s World is complex and uncertain. A Variety of political, economic and social factors contribute to its uncertainties.”

- Army Posture Statement, 1978

The strength of ‘readiness’ as a concept lies in its initial simplicity. Without the burden of, “How quickly?”, “How much?” and “For how long?”, ‘readiness’ conveys a generalized understanding of what the services must be prepared for.  But avoiding those questions is myopic and dangerous. Herein lies the opportunity to capture the concept in terms Congress and the military can make use of, and define expectations for our civilian masters. In the absence of consistent budgets or reliable foreign policy, we can get ahead of uncertainty by describing capabilities against cost.

For example, should the Army be called to a hearing of the HASC or SASC, rather than regurgitating the last decade’s lament about the world’s increasing complexity and hybridization of adversaries, and saying, “we are or aren’t ready”,  we must reframe the narrative to “We are ready to do X.” X represents the specific capacity available given current and forecasted resources. In testimony before Congress, Army leaders, in concert, could testify:

“At any given time, today’s Army is ready to field two three Star level Combined, Joint Force Land Component Commands, along with 4 brigade combat teams within 3 days to any region of the world with an accessible seaport to take on one regional challenge from a near peer adversary. Given current sustainment infrastructure and forward presence, that element is ready to conduct 3 months of high intensity conflict. We are also ready to position an additional 6 brigades to reinforce within 1 month of notification. Additional variables and capabilities to this estimate can be made regarding specific mission circumstances. This is the capability we are currently resourced to provide.”[i]

Should the engagement desire promotion of programs and funding, an Army leader could testify that:

“We are excited about several new technologies and programs that can broaden current capabilities, to include (insert details), but those resources are currently unaccounted for in projected budget estimates.”

Any such testimony to Congress establishes for our political leaders a clear expectation of the judicious application of military resources and open the discussion about what actions must take place to enhance that capability. It presents the check book ledger, clearly demonstrating how much is in the bank to be withdrawn. Perhaps most importantly, if a mechanism existed for congressional approval of such a ‘current state of readiness’, the service’s leaders could, for once, experience the stability necessary for the force to truly plan, prepare, direct and execute operations. The potential gains to true service readiness should congress agree to a framework of service utilization, tied to resources, are unlimited.

For the Services, such testimony provides the clear and focused guidance on what, exactly, we need to be ready for. Explicit guidance from each service chief can be simplified, DoD war plans adjusted and validated, and senior commanders across the service can direct the implied activities that such guidance would suggest. Rather than the small font tomes that few in congress take the time to read, a concise statement on existing capabilities, tied to resources can be reduced to an easily consumed white paper.

The challenges to such a concept are legion. Inter-service rivalry, influential political and industrial actors and the services’ own self-sacrificing obsession with wanting to be a hammer for all the Nation’s nails are among them. These challenges require a form of external and internal asymmetric conflict on a scale that few leaders have the stomach or energy for.

Service (and internal to service) parochialism and its related competition for resources makes achieving consensus for defining a service’s capability unlikely. Such an endeavor requires a level of discipline and directive senior level leadership uncommon in today’s force, and at odds with contemporary deferential, consensus based leadership models.

All humans are victims and benefactors of their experience, and flag officers who were fighter pilots, submariners, infantrymen or artillerymen are no exception. The willingness to concur with a proposal to cut funding for a new attack submarine, fighter plane, assault rifle or howitzer makes it all the more necessary for a cadre of service secretaries and chiefs to make directive, often times unpopular, decisions that shake up the conventional wisdom about what their service absolutely needs to do to serve the nation. It also requires a cadre of senior leaders across the services to swallow bitter pills when advising their respective senior leaders in the most candid, objective manner possible.

Discouragingly, should the services somehow manage to overcome these herculean internal hurdles, there are an endless army of defense industry and constituent based lobbyist and their congressional adherents that will foist on the services billions of dollars in infrastructure, equipment and jobs that are not required to the provided capability. However, possession of a capabilities based readiness status, approved by congress, would provide superb leverage as the Department of Defense resists such extraordinary demands of its resources.

Addressing the less advantageous aspects of the military’s can do spirit requires a careful approach by defense leadership. Admitting exhaustion or an inability to perform a task is tantamount to treason for most Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen. It is also tantamount to suicide by a thousand cuts as service chiefs reluctantly cling to niche capabilities out of concern that once gone, it’ll take a funding stream with it, and the nation will ask for it again. The concept of declaring a readiness capability should not be seen as a service saying, “we can’t” and more so what we can reasonably be expected to do.

Perhaps it’s high time for the Department of Defense to regularly direct sober assessments from each service on what each can realistically provide to a joint force given their resource levels. Such an assessment would then form the foundation of a National Military Strategy that explicitly describes the roles each service must fill  in support of that strategy, extract the fundamental capabilities each service must provide to achieve security goals, and, for readiness’ sake, definitively declare what needs to stay, and what needs to go.

End Note

[i] All projections are, of course, notional.


About the Author(s)

Robert Murphy graduated from The Citadel with degrees in History and French. He graduated from the US Army’s Advanced Military Studies program, commanded an infantry company in combat, and served as the special assistant to the Commanding General, US Army Europe. He is a professional strategist.



Tue, 10/27/2015 - 9:51am

I rarely completely agree with an article on SWJ (which is good, I don't come here for an echo chamber). In this case, I completely agree. I would add emphatically though that how we measure readiness depends entirely on how we define it. How we summarize it (after all, readiness is a summary of capabilities it terms of capacity), in turn, depends entirely on how we measure it.

What readiness is not, and cannot be, is a measurement of the capacity to execute a strategic concept. Saying we are ready to conduct one major campaign and ten contingency missions isn't really saying much because 1. the context has not been defined (a campaign against China is not the same as a campaign against ISIL) 2. the strategic priorities that define the context change far more frequently than the total force's capacity to restructure capabilities (in 2006 OIF was a major campaign benchmark, in 2011 it was "pivot to pacific", one circumstantial the other deliberate, both political) 3. the total force isn't totally needed most of the time.

The only thing that the Army or any Service can say when asked about readiness is as the article points out: we are ready (means capable) of X types of units deployed in Y time to Z environment at A capacity (time on station/BOG + type of opponent). Anything more than that requires context. Unfortunately, answering "no" to a question about readiness to conduct a politically important mission often translates to "the military is not ready", or more damning, answering "yes" to a politically important mission that is itself not taxing, may make the military appear "sufficiently ready" come budget decisions. In either scenario, readiness is distorted beyond design of the force.

That is perhaps the heart of the issue, IMHO. Readiness in terms of planning and budgeting is intimately tied to force design, which itself is (should be) informed by long-term doctrine that is not tied to a short-term political priority. This is because readiness out of context is meaningless and in the absence of an explicit context (defined theater/opponent), doctrine becomes the baseline context. If our doctrine is AirLand Battle, then it should come as no surprise that our force design evolved to approximate the AirLand Battle default scenarios (Corps-level combined arms maneuver with deep strike capability). It should also come as no surprise that in terms of AirLand Battle we kicked royal butt in DS and OIF. Theoretically, our new baseline takes the ROMO and claims that force design should aim to permit the military to have the capabilities to function equally well across the ROMO. Well...ROMO (don't know what else to call it since it wasn't a neat replacement to AirLand or Full Spectrum) is pretty darn big, and while AirLand Battle mapped neatly onto a long-term political priority (Cold War), the ROMO is not so neat and thus far more vulnerable to short term needs.

In any case, in order to do what the article suggests in the last paragraph (which I agree must be done) we must first define a context, and in the absence of meaningful long-term political one, we must rely on a doctrinal answer.