The Chickens Are Ready to Eat: The Fatal Ambiguity of “Readiness”


Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series on defense reform in the next administration. Please read parts one and two here at War on the Rocks.


What is the purpose of the Department of Defense? What is, to put it only slightly differently, its reason for being? Such existential questions can be clarifying. For our part, we believe that the purpose of the Department of Defense is to provide ready and sustainable military forces to protect the nation’s vital interests. But such a glib and obvious statement elides substantial controversies, foremost among which is the definition of “ready.” Ready for what? Ready for whom? Ready by when? These omitted prepositional phrases — for what, for whom, and by when — are the lost map of the territory. Indeed, you don’t exactly have to be Noam Chomsky (although it famously was) to recognize that the word “ready” is both vague and ambiguous, significant only when clarified by those additional terms. The Pentagon’s inability to agree upon the objects of these prepositions has left military “readiness” a notion more mystical than scientific. Our national security suffers as a result.

Historically, concerns about military readiness scarcely registered. The stopping power of water, a distaste for foreign entanglements, and a suspicion of standing armies conspired to make the idea of a military constantly poised for major conflict seem profligate, if not downright dangerous. The Cold War changed all of that with its possibility of intercontinental nuclear strike and the collapse of the European balance of power. Since World War II, American leaders have had to decide between the costly desire to have forces spring-loaded for possible conflict today and the often-compelling need to modernize those forces to better address the less immediate but perhaps graver challenges of tomorrow. Alas, it is not feasible to locally optimize both the present and the future. Intertemporal choices must be made to avoid pauperizing the citizenry. And there is no single right answer, no technocratic solution to this choice between the now and the later. Multiple answers, all of them “right,” must be permitted to the question of how to balance current wants against future needs. Smart people will disagree about the national security goals to be served, the merits of various means to achieve those ends, the shape of the future, the impact on that future of the means under consideration, and the risks willing to be entertained. As Glenn Snyder and Warner Schilling pointed out eloquently almost 60 years ago:

Uncertainties and differences of this order can have but one result. Good, intelligent, and dedicated men will be found on all sides of the question….They will disagree on the answer to this question and they will dispute it with a passion appropriate to the seriousness of the choices involved.

The most recent interventions about the state of military readiness prove this point. Gen. David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon faced off against Gen. Carter Ham, Justin Johnson, Tim Connors, and the service chiefs in arguing whether the military readiness “crisis” is a myth. These debates, as we have noted before, sometimes devolve to derping. But that’s not necessarily a criticism. Rather, it is a necessary restatement of a neglected truth. The desirable state of military readiness is not, as is usually thought, a mathematical matter, but is instead a value question that inevitably comes down to personal preference.

Even if the appropriate amount of military readiness cannot be objectively determined, how the Pentagon talks about readiness contributes mightily to the general confusion about the subject and requires serious change. The threshold problem is definitional. At the Department of Defense, readiness can mean everything from evaluating the joint force’s ability to execute the national military strategy to such prosaic matters as reflector belt policy. As the seminal work on the subject has stated:

Many of those engaged in disputes about readiness do not just disagree with each other about how to get it, but often are not sure themselves about what they are after.

Specifically, three distinct meanings of readiness are routinely conflated. The first is quite capacious: readiness is “those things that contribute to a healthy and effective force.” This is the approach to readiness often used by military service organizations and many personnel experts at the Department of Defense. Its embrace spans from morale, welfare, and recreation programs to dependent access in TRICARE. Competing with this is a second and more limited meaning that might be called “strategic readiness”: the ability of the military to accomplish the tasks demanded by the national command authority. This is the implicit definition used regularly in congressional testimony and public commentary. It essentially asks:

If war occurs tonight, how ready are we to fight and win, and what options can we offer the president? How well do we understand these options, the political end-states they envision, and the comparative risk between and among them?

A third definition of readiness, still more parsimonious, might be called “force readiness”: the resource ratings of units, their ability to perform generic combat tasks, and, to a lesser extent, the ability of combatant commands (COCOMS) to execute set-piece operational plans (OPLANs). In the “strategic” definition, readiness is holistic, including elements of force structure, posture, planning, indications and warning, strategic mobility, munitions, and fuel, among many other things. The “force readiness” definition excludes these factors, focusing instead on the comparative resourcing of force providers and allocation of forces to COCOMs.

The problem with these competing definitions of readiness is that they become entangled with one another in unhelpful ways. For example, in discussing readiness, it is not unusual to hear service chiefs mention the number of “C-1” units in the same breath as they offer a sobering assessment about the military’s ability to confront Russia or China. But these are really two very different notions. The former is driven by the current budget and concerns the amount of resources, personnel, and equipment that a military service can provide to its deployable units. The latter is a subjective assessment driven by strategy in which the meaning of readiness is neutered by being made coterminous with general military capability. It is beyond dispute that both of these concepts often bearing the name “readiness” are important. But to treat them as only slight variations on a harmonious theme disregards the nuance and unique issues associated with each. Indeed, they can often be contradictory. For instance, confronting a near-peer enemy over the next 20 years could sensibly require sacrificing the training and maintenance of today’s forces in exchange for the funds necessary to buy better equipment and more force structure for future conflicts.

These definitional problems are further compounded by the Pentagon’s current readiness reporting methodology, wherein it becomes far too easy to blur the distinction between force readiness and strategic readiness. The military services select a few unit types as proxies for readiness writ large, measure the ratings of those select units for sufficiency against a given set of OPLANs, and then the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the Joint Staff use this as an approximation of the Pentagon’s ability to fulfill the current global strategy. Even if these composite analytics were reliable, the current methodology is strikingly reductionist and incomplete.

Natural and social sciences have long explored the relationships between levels of analysis, demonstrating that as one moves to higher levels of organization, sums often prove distinct from the addition of constituent parts. Biologists refer to this phenomenon as “emergent properties.” Something new emerges when a collection of atoms becomes a molecule, a collection of molecules, a neuron, and a collection of neurons — a brain. This process defies explanation via a simple accounting of the individual parts. Joint warfare is similar. Yet the Pentagon’s current approach cuts in exactly the opposite direction by assessing each level in the chain based on an incomplete summation of the parts of each previous level. At root, the extant assessment methodology remains an incomplete accounting of tactical readiness, and with each subsequent level of analysis, important issues are obscured, distorted, or wholly lost. At the strategic level, there is little remaining coherence. For example, imagine ten Air Force fighter squadrons, each with 60 percent of their fighters ready for combat. Using the current metrics, this would typically read as zero out of ten fighter squadrons ready for combat. Despite 60 percent of combat aircraft ready to deploy, this assessment would be largely indistinguishable from one considering ten fighter squadrons with no fighter planes whatsoever ready to fly missions.

As this example shows, the arbitrary nature of service-level “C-ratings” and their associated Pentagon business rules inadvertently obscure a question fundamental to strategic option development and risk management: how much combat power does the president authority actually have at his disposal? C-ratings were never intended as a readiness measurement, but were meant to be a resourcing tool to help service budgeteers determine which units were under-resourced. They remain valuable in this role today, but they have come to be the primary metric by which overall military readiness is assessed. This presents two major problems. First, C-ratings represent a measure of resource input, not readiness output, and assume a linear relationship between the two. Such a relationship is unlikely. Economics theory instead suggests that return on investment changes, with inflections and increasing or decreasing returns on investment depending on where in the cost curve one is located. Second, the Department of Defense measures readiness with shockingly simplistic business rules; the difference between a unit at 79 percent of its training, for example, and 81 percent is essentially the difference between “ready” and “unready.” What constitutes “trained” is, of course, a moveable feast, and changes in the amount of training needed to be “ready” occur regularly based on evolving requirements and service chief priorities.

Even as service C-ratings fail to adequately address the strategic readiness of individual units or branches of the military, so too do the Pentagon’s current OPLAN assessments fail to aggregate into a meaningful picture that illustrates options for senior leaders. To start, the Department of Defense doesn’t measure readiness in the same units and formations with which it fights. Even before 2001, joint force packages were the order of the day, yet the Pentagon continues to assess by individual unit types (e.g., fighter squadrons and carrier strike groups), losing any sense of jointness or the related (and necessary) combat support. For example, the Government Accountability Office recently called attention to the deficit of critical enablers like military police and transportation units that the Army is required to supply to the joint force; the Army’s plans require greater utilization of these scarce units than will be permitted by Department of Defense policy. But since the readiness of most of these support units is not reported to OSD, shortfalls of critical unit types or contributing factors can be obscured or ignored. As a result, although the military services may be measuring these deficiencies on their own, those evaluations are not linked in a meaningful way to overall readiness assessments produced by OSD or the Joint Staff.

Varied definitions and proxy evaluations confuse in other ways, too. Often, reports like the Quarterly Readiness Report, which are delivered to Congress and the national command authority, are little more than binary force sufficiency analyses of the ability to fulfill top-tier OPLANS, with no meaningful prioritization among them. While valuable as a measure of force sufficiency, the utility of these reports for OPLAN execution and broader strategic military options in the event of crisis remains unclear. Real conflicts historically occur in unexpected areas and rarely conform to the timing, warning, and assumptions of the OPLAN in question. Real conflicts present strategic choices; political ambitions must be scaled to the availability, capability, and timeliness of forces and the likely military and political outcomes of armed conflict. This perspective is wholly absent in a binary set of OPLAN sufficiency assessments, which cannot tell senior leaders what is possible but only what cannot be done, all couched in cryptic statements like “cannot fight the OPLAN as designed.” While such a statement eliminates one option, it does little to expound upon what other options may exist. Further, the current national security strategy calls for an ability to answer simultaneous contingencies. Individual OPLAN analyses fails to clarify what will be stressed during simultaneity. The Pentagon ends up relying on a handful of operational-level assessments to approximate strategic readiness. It asks the secretary of defense and president to make choices with incomplete information and implicitly trusts in its own ability to conduct hasty planning during moments of crisis. Even as the current methodologies for approximating military readiness fail, it is this last point that should serve as the strongest possible impetus for change.

In spite of an untethered readiness reporting system, unclear institutional authorities, and inconsistent definitions of readiness, we think the next secretary of defense can achieve meaningful change that brings order out of the current chaos. The first change has to do with definitions, ensuring that we agree on basic terms. The Pentagon also needs to establish an independent  civilian arm capable of robust readiness analysis and reform its current readiness metrics to make clear and useful delineations between what we have called force readiness and strategic readiness. Further, the next secretary of defense will need to approach questions of military readiness more thoughtfully and directly than any leader has done since Robert McNamara.

Readiness is a concept distinct from, although a contributor to, force capability. Indeed, during the Cold War, official definitions broke down military capability into the four pillars of force structure (the number and type of units), modernization (the replacement of obsolete equipment), sustainability (the ability to perform missions for long period of time), and readiness (the ability to immediately execute a mission). This remains an insightful approach, even if it has little traction today. The pillars are related to one another of course, they but are not identical, and, in defense budgets, each pillar competes against other for funds. For its part, readiness, if the term is to be made meaningful in discussing planning trade-offs, must be limited to its strict meaning, which relates available time to needed capability and represents the variance of deployable assets with possible mobilization and alert time. Using such a definition, readiness can be discussed more meaningfully than current debates have allowed. So, for example, when Gen. Carter Ham criticizes Gen. David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon about the readiness “myth,” he explicitly states that the readiness is fine today but that this “ may not be true tomorrow,” largely due to inadequate force structure. Justin Johnson focuses on an inadequate defense budget, while noting the perilous state of military aviation. We believe that most of the disagreements among these extraordinary leaders and analysts stem from a basic category error. The end-strength of the Army is not really a “readiness” issue, but invokes another pillar of capability that actually competes with readiness for today’s dollars. The total Pentagon budget is also only marginally related to readiness, as readiness is about what percentage of any budget should be devoted to “fight tonight.” It may be that the current defense budget is not enough to support any of the pillars of capability. But it not illogical to argue for more budget and less of it devoted to readiness (in favor of, say, modernization). And to the extent that readiness and the size of the defense budget are made coextensive, that just confuses the part for the whole.

More than anything, the Department of Defense requires a robust civilian entity responsible for interrogative readiness analytics and consolidated oversight of the currently disparate readiness reporting functions. Such an organization should possess a top-down strategic perspective that models and supports the perspective of the national command authority. Where it lives in the Pentagon is not nearly as important as what it does. The reason the nation has a Federal Reserve and Department of Defense has a Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) directorate is that we face problems that are complex, politically charged, divided among stakeholders, and carry serious budgetary impact. Readiness is no different. Like the function that CAPE performs for the secretary and deputy secretary during the annual program review, the Pentagon needs an independent, objective, enterprise-level perspective that can compare readiness arguments among the military services, provide oversight and enforce analytic standards, and offer an authoritative joint perspective to the president, secretary of defense, and Congress.

The Pentagon also needs to reform its current force readiness reporting system and develop better quantitative metrics to assess strategic readiness. The C-ratings upon which military service assessments are based reside within the Status of Readiness and Training System (SORTS). After congressional calls for reform more than 15 years ago, SORTS was augmented by the Defense Readiness Reporting System (DRRS), which added a commander’s subjective assessment of whether the unit could perform its wartime mission. Both systems, even when operating together, are woefully unable to articulate force readiness for the secretaries of the military departments and service chiefs, who must ultimately make resourcing decisions based on this data. These systems  struggle to add value to conversations and military options related to strategic readiness. Although DRRS is now the official system of record for the Department of Defense, it remains incomplete, and its ambitions have stalled. Much of the data in DRRS is only voluntarily contributed by the military services, leaving incomplete pictures of even force readiness metrics for OSD and Joint Staff analysts.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the next secretary of defense must get personally engaged in discussions related to strategic readiness. After all, this is the product the Department of Defense is responsible for generating above all others. Like all change, top-down leadership will be required, and only a clear vision with constant reinforcement that progress is both expected and necessary will suffice to see it through. Such emphasis will require bold management and a massive paradigm shift wherein it will be as vital to avoid discussions about brigade combat team C-ratings as it will be necessary to engage in recurring conversations about contingency operations in the Middle East. The secretary of defense will need to ask harder questions of the readiness system and cease being satisfied with half answers. Constant pressure to answer his or her needs will create a demand signal to orient change.

The Department of Defense and the nation face an international environment that is becoming more challenging to prepare for and understand. China and Russia continue to grow in assertiveness and capability, rogue states remain rogue, and instability appears likely to endure or spread in the greater Middle East. In the face of this, the defense budget is not growing, even as operating costs inflate and our strategic commitments remain firm. Like previous generations, we must wrestle with the question of whether our resources are sufficient to our strategic commitments or whether we are facing a strategy-resource gap. Such gaps are usually exposed by strategic surprise, as the world changes faster than our understanding of it and old concepts prove more inelastic than the new strategic environment. Robust readiness assessments would help hedge against such surprise. Done correctly, an analytically rigorous, independent, enterprise-level readiness system would serve as a leading indicator of a strategy-resource gap, telling senior leadership soberly what they can and cannot expect to accomplish. Without reform to the current military readiness system, we multiply the fog and friction in which we are already forced to operate and risk failure in answering with incoherence that all-important question: “What are my options?”


Brad Carson served as acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness from 2015-2016. Previously, he was Under Secretary of the Army and General Counsel of the Army. He also was a U.S. Congressman. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He can be contacted at

Morgan Plummer departed the Obama administration after serving on the immediate staffs of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Under Secretary of the Army, and Deputy Secretary of Defense. Prior to that, he served more than ten years on active duty in the U.S. Army. He can be contacted at

Image: U.S. Army, Staff Sgt. Leah Kilpatrick