Get Real on Military Readiness


With summer over and the leaves about to turn brown, debates over military readiness haunt Washington at every step. Infighting over Secretary Hagel’s Strategic Choices and Management Review, the next Quadrennial Defense Review, another potential round of sequestration in fiscal year 2014, and the continued decline in defense budgets, have all effectively put the force structure cart before the strategic objectives horse.

We have seen an ocean of ink spilled over such weighty questions as how big (or small) the Army should be, how many ships (and what type) the Navy should have, should the Air Force divest itself of entire fleets of current aircraft to make room for new procurement, etc. It’s a pretty long and impressive list containing most of the things we like to argue with each other about. And, in this town, things (aircraft, ships tanks, vehicles and missiles) have powerful advocates—things are built in congressional districts and building things provides jobs and helps drive economic development.

However, coming up with the why we need to develop, build and deploy these various things is a much more challenging task and one that this town does not do very well at all. But the why is all-important, for without it, the chances of building and deploying the right things, things that come at great expense and with very high opportunity costs attached, is virtually non-existent.

As Frank Hoffman wrote in his 18 September War on the Rocks piece:

The White House needs to frame our national security interests with some clarity, and Congress needs to weigh in.  Some have called the choices framed in the SCMR an illusion.  But the real illusion is to think that serious strategic planning is simply hoping the Pentagon gets more money or that choices about major programs and force structure do not have to be made.  To think that we can stand still, preserve the rigid Service shares, sustain our costly overhead structure, stand pat on rising personnel costs, or maintain our Cold War forward basing posture – those are the illusions.

Real strategic thinking and planning that drives real choices has to occur to have any chance of getting the force structure piece remotely right. And part of that strategic thinking is the need for a far more nuanced understanding of military readiness. Too often, readiness is seen and discussed as a simply binary issue completely lacking a temporal and objective basis – the question is asked, “Ready…, or not?”

I’d like to expand the readiness discussion and offer some thoughts based on my recent experience as Commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, the Navy’s force provider, and the readiness construct developed by Richard K. Betts in his remarkable book, Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices and Consequences.

Military readiness is a measure that pertains to the relationship between the military objective to be achieved and the available time required to generate the appropriate capability. Readiness represents, essentially, the variance of required deployable capability with the length of the alertment and mobilization time periods necessary to generate that capability.

A nation is militarily ready as long as the time needed to convert potential capability into the required actual capability is not longer than the time between the decision to convert and the onset of conflict. Thus, readiness exists when there is a match between the military capability a nation could have, given enough time, the capability it needs to prevail in conflict, and the capability it does have whenever it suddenly needs it. Conversely, a nation proves not to be ready when a gap between its actual and potential capability causes a gap between the available supply of capability and the immediate demand for it.

Readiness then depends on the impact of time on two ratios: first, the relation between the actual supply of combat capability and the current demand for it; and second, the relationship between actual and potential capability.The first ratio concerns requirements: the relative military power needed to fight successfully. The second ratio concerns conversion: the difference between forces available to fight immediately and those that can be made available after significant preparation. Neither ratio alone can determine readiness.

So here are the key questions, postulated by Betts, that must be answered to have a coherent and complete discussion regarding our military readiness:

  • Readiness for what?  How much potential capability is needed to accomplish the assigned mission or set of missions?
  • Readiness of what?  What are the time requirements for deploying the various elements of our overall combat capability?
  • Readiness by when and for how long?  What can we assume about the time available to generate combat readiness for a particular mission or deployment?

Getting clear answers to those fundamental questions is a very complex, indeed byzantine, process due to our current global strategic decision-making framework.

With the end of the Cold War and the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1987, our nation’s global strategy came to be expressed as very broad goals with primacy of place given to our independent regional commanders, or geographic Combatant Commanders (CCDRs). Each CCDR developed plans and executed operations with the minimal required cooperation between them (except when operations occurred at regional boundaries). While this process made sense given the generally regional nature of security threats of the post-Soviet world, it had the (unintended?) consequence of separating the development of plans and execution of operations around the globe from the design, development, preparation, and apportionment of the necessary resources and capabilities required to support operations.

Under this system the CCDR, the “warfighter”, is king. The CCDR assesses his theater based on the broad national military goals provided to him and then requests the forces and resources necessary to execute those plans. While there is global guidance for plans and resources (Guidance for Employment of the Force (GEF)), in reality, force apportionment is developed by a negotiation among the CCDRs, the military services, the Joint Staff, and OSD leadership. CCDRs do not come to the table with resource constraints in mind, but with operational requirements to be filled. Six separate geographic plans and three separate functional plans register force requests first—that is, nine different sets of answers to Betts’ three essential questions.

The global forces apportionment “bargaining” process generates a lowest common denominator solution that reflects a series of compromises between the services, the force providers, and the CCDRs (the force employers) that results in no COCOMs’ force request being fully met, while potentially leaving each of the services over-extended—an inherently unsatisfactory, and strategically unstable, situation.

Dealing with those different, and often competing, answers to the essential readiness questions is the job of the services, the force providers. The services not only man, train, and equip the force, but are also the principle “bill-payers” for the CCDRs’ operations. Accordingly, the services must look beyond the needs of just one CCDR and ensure deploying forces are relevant to the demands of multiple theaters in terms of the type of forces (Readiness of what?), how they are postured (Readiness by when?), and what they are trained to do (Readiness for what?). The services are also responsible for looking towards the future in developing and fielding the capabilities necessary to answer the three essential readiness questions for as much as 20-25 years in the future, a very tall order indeed. Thus, a unitary assessment of needs based upon a clear sense of the nation’s strategic priorities is required.

While Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom certainly increased the demand for all forces from every service, the end of those operations does not promise a return to a more sustainable operational tempo. Indeed, the future demand for forces from the Combatant Commands looks to continue almost unchanged from recent past years’ demand signals.
To meet this sustained operational tempo challenge, the services must be resourced to meet the tasks they been given. The Navy, for example, in partnership with the Navy’s primary joint partner—the U.S. Marine Corps—will be expected to meet simultaneous demands to support multiple regional engagement plans, deal directly with small/mid-sized crises, and prepare for higher intensity conflicts in various regions of the globe.

To accomplish all the tasks that are now—and will certainly continue to be—expected of the services, requires a clear delineation of national military priorities so that coherent answers to the three essential readiness questions can be formulated.

Strategic clarity in the determination of our current readiness requirements, i.e. making real choices, and the proper resourcing of those requirements will enable the services to answer the three essential readiness questions and still deliver the force our nation needs today and will need tomorrow despite the prognosis for continued defense budget declines in the years ahead.


Admiral John C. Harvey Jr. retired as Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command. During his nearly 40 years of naval service as a commissioned officer, Harvey served in a variety of sea and shore billets. He was the Chief of Naval Personnel and he commanded USS David R. Ray (DD 971), USS Cape St. George (CG 71) and Cruiser-Destroyer Group Eight as part of the USS Theodore Roosevelt Strike Group