Redefine Readiness or Lose

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To remain economically and militarily competitive, and to ensure American leadership into the next century, policy makers and the Pentagon must navigate a major course correction in how we invest in national security.

Future of Defense Task Force Report 2020, House Armed Services Committee


In the halls of the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, military, civilian, and congressional leaders regularly discuss the “readiness” of our armed forces. Department of Defense leadership, including service secretaries and service chiefs, testify annually to Congress about the readiness of their forces. We commit resources to building it, develop metrics to measure it, and strive to create and maintain more of it — but what exactly is readiness? As the chiefs of services increasingly pulled in multiple directions in both time and space, we have had an increasing number of both formal and informal discussions on what readiness really means, and what it should mean. This article is a continuation of those discussions and, while there are only two service chiefs on the byline, we have had likeminded conversations with our fellow service chiefs — the chief of staff of the Army, chief of naval operations, and chief of space operations.

Our argument is simple: The joint force requires a holistic, rigorous, and analytical framework to assess readiness properly. Over past decades, readiness has become synonymous with “availability” — largely a measure of military units available for immediate deployment and ready to “fight tonight” — while “capability” took on a lesser role in the calculation. Perhaps appropriate for an earlier era, this framework for readiness is poorly suited to an environment characterized by great-power competition. It largely ignores the capabilities of these “ready” forces and begs the question, ready for what? As the recently released, bipartisan Future of Defense Task Force Report 2020 states, “The national security challenges the United States faces today are existential, and they cannot be met by simply doubling down on old models of policy and investment” [emphasis added]. Our current readiness model strongly biases spending on legacy capabilities for yesterday’s missions, at the expense of building readiness in the arena of great-power competition and investing in modern capabilities for the missions of both today and tomorrow.



We propose a broader framework for readiness to better integrate elements of current availability, effects across combatant commands, future availability and readiness, and modernization efforts. There is a natural tension between combatant commander and service chief requirements. To most effectively address this tension, we, as members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should embrace a framework for readiness that manages the relationship between today’s combatant command requirements with the modernization imperatives required to enable tomorrow’s combatant commanders. Without a fundamental reexamination of the concept of readiness, we will continue to spend limited resources on maintaining legacy capabilities, at the expense of investing in the modern capabilities the United States needs to compete with the People’s Republic of China and Russia. Finally, part of this discussion ought to include a more precise understanding of risk — to what, for how long, and probability. Used in many different ways today, accurate risk statements must always account for these factors. If not, the risk assessment is incomplete. While not the subject of the article, much has been written on risk from the business and financial sectors that should inform our thinking on the topic.

The Current Force May Be Available, but It’s Not Ready

While some readers may have reservations, understand the conclusions articulated above are not new. Consider just two examples, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joe Dunford. In the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the former secretary notes, “we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding.” He continued by identifying the absence of combat credibility and combat-credible forces as one of the main shortfalls, and closed by noting, “a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners” is our objective. Despite the presence and availability of our current capabilities and forces, the former secretary rightly concluded the U.S. military was failing to deter adversary hybrid activities, losing the gray zone competition, and losing its warfighting advantage. If the U.S. advantage is eroding as articulated in the last National Defense Strategy, it seriously begs the question of whether our current readiness approach and force structure can reverse the trend.

In May 2019, then-Chairman Joseph Dunford discussed the readiness of the force in relation to Chinese threats during a discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution. There, Gen. Dunford noted the continued militarization of the South China Sea, including “10,000-foot runways, ammunition storage facilities, [and] routine deployments of missile defense capabilities.” He went on to comment, “if the militarization of the islands has plateaued, it’s because the islands have now been developed to the point that they provide the military capability China required.” Accepting Gen. Dunford’s assessment, we are left with a question: How did, and does, U.S. joint force readiness contribute to competing and deterring China from achieving their operational and strategic objectives in the South China Sea? Based on what occurred, one could submit our joint force readiness — whether in availability or capability — clearly fell short.

How did a ready, combat-credible force built to compete, deter, and win fail to prevent China from achieving their operational and strategic objectives to-date in the South China Sea? The answer is obvious. The capability of the forces present were not ready — despite their availability — to compete, deter, and win against peer adversaries like China.

For those who still disagree and conclude the U.S. joint force possesses the lethality and combat credibility required for great-power competition, please consider the following examples: Between 2004 and 2007, more than a dozen advanced attack helicopters were shot down in Iraq, not by advanced air defense systems, but by ground fire from insurgent groups in Iraq. While the services continue to procure the latest version of those exact same platforms, they remain just as vulnerable today and consume billions of dollars in limited resources. In 2010, a North Korean submarine sunk an advanced South Korean warship. If a similar attack were launched today on a large U.S. surface combatant, would the outcome be any different? In 2018, a Syrian S-200 air defense system dating back to the 1960s shot down an Israeli 4th generation F-16 operating at high altitude. In 2019, swarming drones and cruise missiles were employed by Iran to attack Saudi Aramco facilities. During the most recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian ground forces that we would have labeled “ready” based on their availability, were easily targeted and destroyed by Azerbaijani forces employing a mature precision strike regime to include swarms of loitering munitions and lethal unmanned systems. In just 20 days, hundreds of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and other pieces of traditional ground combat equipment that were ready, were also destroyed by a more sophisticated modern adversary employing capabilities that were both available and providing advantage. While we could provide dozens of recent examples to further reinforce the point that a force with substantial and obvious capability deficits cannot be a ready force, it is unnecessary. We have either reached, or are fast approaching, a point whereby many of our legacy systems can never be made ready — available and capable — for a great-power adversary.

What Is a Ready Force From 2021 to 2035?

In his 1995 book Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, Consequences, Richard Betts articulates a framework for thinking about readiness that remains highly applicable today. Betts argues that decision-makers need to ask three key questions about readiness: Ready for what? Ready for when? And what needs to be ready? The first question is straightforward: What missions or operations do you expect the force to perform? Betts’ second question is temporal, highlighting the complex tradeoffs between short- and longer-term elements of structural readiness, such as modernization. The answer to the first two questions largely shapes the last. Based on the missions and timelines prioritized, it suggests some capabilities must be prepared for immediate employment, while others can be mobilized more gradually. Viewed through this framework, it is clear our approach to readiness today inappropriately weights near-term availability far greater than any other aforementioned elements of readiness.

Ready for What?

Strategic guidance documents help us answer Betts’ first question: America needs a joint force for great-power competition, with emphasis on China and Russia. The Defense Department and joint force have undoubtedly shifted toward a focus on all-domain conflict with a peer adversary over the previous four years. Unfortunately, the release of these documents as well as new operating concepts did not properly recalibrate the discussion on readiness. Readiness remains inappropriately weighted in favor of what is available to fight a narrow range of scenarios today with what we currently have on hand. As a result, over time we have generated significant inertia pursuing capabilities and platforms based on previous commitments and requirements — many of which existed over a decade ago and well prior to the release of existing strategic guidance. While we understand we cannot simply hit reset and make a clean break from today’s force to our future force design, we ought to work to “break the chain” of program inertia and reevaluate our readiness efforts based on the current strategic context. The Department of Defense currently has no mechanism to assess current combatant command requirements, risk over time, and progress toward readiness for a “pacing threat” conflict in 2030 or 2035.

Based on assessments conducted by senior military and civilian leaders over the past several years, to include multiple wargaming iterations, the prevailing wisdom is that the readiness and modernization trend lines indicate the joint force is not ready to satisfy the demands of great-power competition in the Indo-Pacific. Rather, we have directed significant resources to ensure they are ready for dozens of other lesser requirements predicated upon an ability to project power across strategic distances in permissive environments. Both of our services have been pulled in directions far from our roots and respective core missions — air superiority and naval expeditionary operations.

Ready for When?

The “fight tonight” perspective is a handcuff the joint force needs to break. Our most stressing contingency plans require months of force deployment, so costly efforts to keep our forces prepared to meet them “tonight” risks future readiness and modernization imperatives necessary for a high-end fight. This points again to the tension between service and combatant command requirements. Who owns the risk and when should they own it? Betts’ work is again a useful guide. He distinguishes between operational readiness — the efficiency and combat effectiveness of individual elements of the force — and structural readiness, essentially the capacity or “mass” of the force, but considered relative to what is required to achieve victory against a given real-world adversary. In Betts’ terms, our present approach to readiness places far too much weight upon near-term operational and structural readiness.

What Needs to Be Ready?

We cannot reasonably answer this question until we answer the first two. Under the current readiness paradigm, our answer to “what needs to be ready?” is “the stuff we have today.” However, as we observed earlier, the Defense Department in general has not followed a path to make itself truly ready for the tomorrow’s priority challenges (e.g., ready for what?). Were we to do so, we would find that our understanding of both operational and structural readiness ought to place far more weight on factors related to service modernization. The availability of obsolescent or otherwise unsuitable equipment (for example, old, increasingly expensive-to-operate, vulnerable aircraft unsuited for a high-end fight) is of marginal relevance at best to a strategy that prioritizes readiness for conflict with revisionist great powers. We would also find ourselves confronting the relationships among the different types of readiness and the time horizons (“ready for when”) during which we want to maximize readiness. “Immediately” is certainly an answer to “ready for when,” but it is a myopic answer with harsh tradeoffs. All else being equal — notably budget top lines — maximizing our readiness to fight now with the equipment and personnel we currently have necessarily forecloses opportunities to invest in the equipment and personnel we need in the future.

What Should We Do?

Prescribing exact answers to the balance of investments we would need to make in consideration of these complex tradeoffs is not the purpose of this article — arguing we should have a common framework for honestly surfacing and making decisions on these issues most certainly is. Leaders in the Defense Department, to include ourselves, need to put our heads together and provide the structure, discipline, and analytical rigor to properly consider these tradeoffs and balance risk. As a starting point, we recommend a readiness framework that integrates four primary elements to help us answer all three of Betts’ questions: First, how proposed allocation changes to support combatant command requirements directly affect that command and associated risk levels. Second, the direct, secondary, and tertiary effects on other combatant commands and their associated risk. We cannot properly measure the impact of readiness decisions in a strategic vacuum. It requires a global, integrated view over both space and time. Third, the effect on future force readiness and offerings — how deploying additional resources now will sacrifice both their combat readiness and availability, limiting options to address future crises and requirements. Finally, and perhaps most challenging, the impact on our ability to effectively modernize for a high-end fight. Using big-data, machine learning, and AI, we should be able to build a model that accurately reflects these elements. For instance, if a command requests an additional unit or capability now, we should immediately know exactly how it affects that command; how it would affect all other combatant commands; how it will affect future near-term readiness; and finally, what it will cost us in trying to modernize our capabilities for 2035.

Building a rigorous, analytical readiness framework incorporating these elements will help us better balance the risks and tradeoffs between immediate requirements and availability, future availability and readiness, and modernization. Freeing ourselves from the tyranny of short-term operational readiness concepts may also help us envision alternative strategies. Serious consideration of Betts’ question “ready for/with what” may remind us that the present force structure we work so hard to keep available is not the only potential set of military tools that could be applied to our current and future problems. Different answers to “ready with what” are conceivable even once we have agreed on “ready for what.” To take a perhaps extreme example, the John F. Kennedy administration’s “Flexible Response” doctrine offered a very different approach to the Cold War Soviet threat from that of the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” strategy. These radically different concepts generated equally radical differences in measuring tradeoffs and balance among the various elements of readiness.

The Consequences of Failure — and Success — Are Profound

If we maintain our target fixation on current force availability and fail to adapt and modernize fast enough, wargaming suggests mission failure as the likely outcome. Unless we accelerate the changes we need, through modernization of capabilities relevant to overcoming those of our adversaries, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, and the joint force will be ill-prepared to compete, deter, and win. Urgent actions are required now within the entire defense community — our services, industry, the Defense Department, and Congress — to facilitate the necessary changes. Those actions must provide the departments and the individual military services the authorities they need to shift funding from accounts related to sustainment of legacy programs and those programs that do not create or sustain an enduring warfighting advantage over our peer competitors, and reallocate that capital to truly transformative modernization. As the Future of Defense Task Force Report noted, we “must identify, replace and retire costly and ineffective legacy platforms.”

To be clear, this is a two-step process. We cannot simply cut resources for near-term readiness or legacy capacity in the name of savings. Rather, we must put those savings into transformative modernization as part of our larger future force design model. Likewise, the Defense Department and the services should make a compelling case, and be empowered, to reduce existing programs of record in accordance with other systemic changes across the services. Demonstrating to our primary competitors that we have the strength, adaptability, innovativeness, will, and resilience to meet current and future challenges is an essential element of competition. It is vitally necessary if we are to deter unimaginably destructive future armed conflict and establish a steady-state of vigorous but largely non-violent great-power competition. Should deterrence fail, we must be prepared to fight in defense of America’s interests — and win. Our nation has rightly come to expect much from its Air Force and Marine Corps, and we cannot disappoint.

We have done this before, and together we can do it again while avoiding perceptions of creating winners and losers. Today’s Air Force and Marine Corps, and our assumed dominance of the air and littorals, were shaped by innovative and courageous individuals throughout our storied histories. Seeing the need for change when others did not, our forebears overcame the traditionalist opposition of their day, forged new technologically advanced capabilities, and developed novel operational concepts that paved the way for the many successes to which our shared history bears witness. We can do it again. If we are bold enough and committed to providing the military advice needed to overcome our present orientation, we can shape our future proactively. The alternative, as various military institutions have discovered to their sorrow in the past, is being forced to re-shape ourselves reactively, after experiencing catastrophic loss and potential defeat. To do this, we cannot let our focus on near-term availability consume the resources necessary to generate truly relevant future readiness through adaptive modernization. We have a unique, but limited, window of opportunity. The time to act is now.



Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. is the chief of staff of the Air Force.

Gen. David H. Berger is the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz)