Readiness Redefined: Now What?

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In 2021, in a widely read article in these virtual pages, two service chiefs argued that the Department of Defense’s traditional approach to military readiness has left it woefully underprepared for the immense challenges it faces. As a way forward, the authors (one of whom has co-authored this article) called for a rigorous, analytical readiness framework that could better balance near-term demands with future modernization goals. It was a bold proposal, requiring a massive shift in the department’s culture. It asked senior leaders to take risk — on our watch — to give our successors more decision space to meet the challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China and Russia.

In the time since “Redefine Readiness or Lose” was published, the Department of Defense landscape has changed significantly. As a department, we emerged from a global pandemic that disrupted supply chains and fundamentally challenged our nation as well as those of our allies, partners, and competitors. After 20 years of war, our last troops left Afghanistan in August 2021. And less than six months later, Russia initiated the most brutal phase of its war in Ukraine since its initial invasion in 2014. 

“Redefine Readiness or Lose” publicly captured deep concern that previously existed as whispered anecdotes throughout the department: if the Department of Defense continues to do business as usual and prioritize near-term requirements over long-term priorities, we risk being unprepared to compete with, deter, or defeat China and Russia. While this problem is not new, the argument was timely. After the United States withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, the country faced the imperative to find a better balance between near-term requirements and our long-term strategic goals and modernization priorities. The department began to formally and fully shift to a “data-centric organization,” creating opportunities to leverage the power of the department’s data to drive decision-making. We are now undertaking an arduous, but fundamentally necessary, effort across civilian and military organizations to redefine readiness in a meaningful, measurable and lasting way. 

 

 

The 2022 National Defense Strategy supported our effort by establishing the need for “a new framework for strategic readiness, enabling a more comprehensive, data-driven assessment and reporting of readiness to ensure greater alignment with [National Defense Strategy] priorities.” We responded to this call by working to define strategic readiness as the ability to build, maintain and balance warfighting capabilities and competitive advantages to achieve strategic objectives across threat and time horizons. This definition is designed to at once broaden the concept of readiness beyond near-term availability of forces but also constrain the term so that it has a specific meaning. It deliberately focuses on the principle of balance. The department must ensure that the ultimate goal is not balance alone, but rather to seek balance among inevitably competing priorities and requirements so that we can achieve and sustain strategic advantage.

It is not enough to simply be ready for readiness’ sake. Readiness alone is not enough to guarantee that the United States can compete with China and Russia, support contingencies and execute strategic deterrence, as is called for in our defense strategy. We must be clear-eyed at every juncture about the cascading impacts of our choices so that we can cultivate decision advantage at all levels and in turn harness those gains into lasting strategic advantages. In “Redefine Readiness or Lose”, we rightfully reiterated Richard Betts’ fundamental readiness questions: Ready for what? Ready for when? And what needs to be ready? While we will likely never have simple answers to those questions, what we can and must do is establish — and perhaps, most importantly, adhere to — a strategic readiness framework that assists leaders at all levels to weigh requirements against risk in a fully informed way.  

Our success to date has depended on significant collaboration with our partners across the office of the secretary of defense, the military departments and services, and the joint staff. While these efforts are welcomed by many, others still resist new ideas and change. After all, seeing ourselves and our ability to be ready — or not — requires a level of effort and introspection that makes many uncomfortable. Further, while the department can build the most insightful measurement tools, develop perfectly predictive models, and write superlatively eloquent policies and strategic guidance on readiness, without a cultural shift that challenges the bureaucratic “way it’s always been,” Department of Defense leaders will continue to make decisions without understanding the true consequences. 

Executing the Mission While Changing Our Culture 

The department has made tremendous strides over the past two years to develop the policies, tools, and assessments that form the strategic readiness framework. These efforts will allow us to start looking across our disparate processes, understanding the cumulative impacts of a wide range of decisions on readiness, and identifying potential actions we can take now to mitigate such impacts in the future. And while dozens of offices across the department have already invested significant time and effort in building this new framework, we are still just at the start. Any changes to the way we create, utilize and measure readiness must address two key challenges: executing our mission and changing our culture.   

We cannot fail to provide ready forces to give the president and the secretary of defense options in the face of crises and an ever-evolving geopolitical landscape.  As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, recently testified, the military “must balance current operations’ readiness with future modernization and must not allow ourselves to create the false trap that we can either modernize or focus only on today: We must do both.” We agree. The challenge is ensuring that the tradeoffs inherent in balancing those imperatives are clear and comprehensive. Only by taking a holistic view of strategic readiness across the entire department can we understand the true impact of our decisions on future readiness and propose necessary actions and mitigations accordingly. 

 

 

Seeking such a balance in an organization that is so strongly incentivized to prioritize near-term crises to protect U.S. interests over longer-term investments will certainly require culture change. But complicating such a shift is the fact that at our core, the military faces a paradox: That very thing that is our greatest strength is also our greatest vulnerability. The U.S. military is in the business of answering our nation’s call; a natural bias toward near-term action is inherent in the department’s processes, culture, and decision-making. These are not design flaws or inherent weaknesses in our department but rather features of our culture that must be acknowledged, occasionally challenged and intentionally integrated to achieve our strategic objectives.

Due to the military’s culture, we are predisposed to taking immediate action with the understanding that any negative consequences incurred by a given policy, operation, or resourcing decision can be sustained or alleviated after the crisis at hand is addressed. The dark side of this otherwise positive cultural hallmark is that the department often turns to the next pressing issue without capturing the follow-on impacts and tradeoffs incurred from action taken. The result is an inadvertent mortgaging of the readiness we need to fight and win in the future. The reason that it is so easy for the military to collectively fall into that trap is simple: It’s easy to see the consequences of our actions (or lack thereof) in the near term. It’s much harder to capture and comprehend the cumulative effects of our decisions. It can be extremely difficult to fully understand the total impact of an action, such as reassigning forces from one combatant command to another or routinely extending the deployment of a highly stressed unit.

Further, risks incurred by potential courses of action are sometimes inadvertently lost as information flows up the chain of command. Given the intensity and punishing pace of the department’s work, there is a cultural tendency to focus on our particular areas of responsibility. This often precludes sharing key information across decision-making processes that could illuminate opportunities, redundancies, and threats to readiness. Inevitably, this means that sometimes senior leaders are unaware of the full complement of impacts — whether positive, negative, or neutral — that result from the decisions they face until it’s too late to reconsider or develop mitigation options.  Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks has directed a number of changes to address the specific challenge of data sharing within the department. This is a foundational step to shifting our culture to think of sharing information as essential to, not detracting from, task accomplishment. But this, too, is a cultural shift that will take time and substantial effort to fully implement. 

Historically, the department has defined readiness by measuring personnel, training, equipment, and maintenance at the unit level to ensure each is ready for its assigned missions. This definition is useful but not entirely sufficient to fully understanding the military’s preparedness to execute its missions. We must expand our concept of what it means to be ready to capture broader measures that directly and indirectly contribute to mission preparedness. Of course, incorporating assessments of those types necessarily means that we have to become more comfortable not only with sharing data more widely, but also with collecting difficult-to-measure data such as opportunity costs and finding ways to prove that our actions prevented negative consequences.

This mindset does not suggest that we need to maintain the highest levels of readiness across every unit in the military at all times. Not only is that unaffordable and unsustainable, but it would also be counterproductive to the department’s modernization goals. For example, by definition, a unit cannot be fully ready if it is in the process of training on a new platform. Moreover, readiness is intended to be built and then deliberately and thoughtfully expended as the nation requires. Balancing that expenditure with the slow build of recapitalization and modernization is where true strategic readiness lies.

A Strategic Readiness Framework

To achieve that crucial balance, we have made significant strides to develop and implement the strategic readiness framework: a flexible and mutually reinforcing set of tools, policies and assessments that allow us to understand how close or far we are from achieving our objectives. The ultimate goal of this framework is to ensure the decisions our leaders make are data- and risk-informed so they understand the tradeoffs necessary to choose one course of action over another. 

At the center of the framework is an effort to define and expand the way the department measures and assesses strategic readiness. We measure readiness today based on how the joint force is organized at the unit level. Yet there is more to warfighting than the unit. Does the department have the basing, the equipment, and the talent pipeline to shape the force of the future? Strategic readiness is not the totality of the joint force’s unit readiness; it is a holistic view of the factors — including operational readiness — that influence our ability to fight across time and threats. 

The department’s efforts to create a strategic readiness framework and formalize a standardized, repeatable process to better assess a variety of yet unmeasured readiness metrics are incredibly important to properly shape and posture the joint force. Our goal is neither semantic changes nor short-lived reforms. We are striving for a common understanding of the impacts of all our readiness-related decisions. The strategic readiness framework is a dynamic, resilient approach that forces the department to integrate across our decision-making processes to clearly articulate our goals, take account of the risks we’re incurring in our decisions and understand how close or far we are from achieving those goals. This approach will not completely eliminate problems or provide total certainty about the future. However, when applied, the strategic readiness framework will help to reduce blind spots and ensure that — even if there is disagreement — the military is basing assessments on a common, consistent set of data sources and analytic methods.

By linking the department’s many major processes, such as those that govern force management, budget formulation and review and the provision of security assistance to Ukraine, we intend to illuminate the details of problems with better clarity. This approach will inevitably provide a better understanding of the long-term impact of senior leader decisions for military readiness. Later this summer, the department, led by the undersecretary for personnel and readiness, will conduct its inaugural strategic readiness assessment. This assessment is designed to engender transparency across the Department of Defense and aid senior leader decision-making.  But organizations across the Department of Defense already produce hundreds of analytical products every year to address our most pressing problems. 

The Value of Another Assessment 

Even our most insightful assessments are generally limited to specific audiences or focus on particular processes and, due to differing timelines, governance structures and organizational equities, are not meaningfully linked to one another. Further, fewer still inform the department’s larger task of providing resource-informed guidance to the military services to develop a joint force capable of meeting the National Defense Strategy‘s objectives or measure whether the actions taken in response to that guidance yielded strategic fruit. The annual strategic readiness assessment will integrate existing analytical efforts through the prism of the ten dimensions of strategic readiness: sustainment, modernization, allies and partners, business systems and organizational effectiveness, human capital, global posture, force structure, resilience, operational readiness and mobilization. The assessment will then not only identify the progress made toward the department’s objectives in each of those dimensions and across the processes that govern them but also recommend levers the secretary of defense can use to bring us closer to our strategic readiness goals.

Such integration of assessments and processes also directly supports our ability to provide effective oversight of readiness-related decisions. Caitlin Lee argued in these pages for the need for transparency and oversight to help instill strategic discipline in the department’s Global Force Management process. We agree that disciplined decision-making is paramount to more efficiently using our forces in the present while modernizing for the future and Global Force Management is only one of many processes that influence the readiness of the department. The department therefore must be able to broaden the context of a single decision and consider it among other related decisions made in a range of processes to determine strategic readiness impacts. 

For example, a combatant commander submits a request for additional fighter aircraft support in their area of responsibility for the next six months in response to an emerging crisis. The secretary of defense is presented with courses of action to meet this request for forces. He then decides to extend the deployment of a Marine Corps F/A-18 squadron already deployed to that combatant command. Currently, the department can provide the secretary of defense with an analysis of the impacts to future fighter squadron availability. And for the first time, we can also capture the enterprise-wide impacts around sustainment, recruiting and retention, and fighter recapitalization writ large. 

For this type of analysis, our two teams are developing the Readiness Decision Impact Model. This predictive analytics framework brings together and analyzes many extant, but previously disparate, readiness data streams.  In the F/A-18 example, the model will allow the department to look deeper into the consequences of the extension, such as the impact on future readiness or the Marine Corps’ plan to recapitalize fourth-generation fighters (F/A-18s) with F-35s or whether the extension would cause pilots or maintainers to delay previously planned F-35 conversion training. Our analysis might also find that this decision will lead to a decrease in fighter squadron availability for global taskings two years into the future. The model also predicts the unit will incur a delay in its planned conversion to F-35s, which would cause the Marine Corps to significantly adjust its F-35 training and basing plan. As the model evolves, these kinds of data will lead to a broader picture of our readiness in the form of being able to see the resulting effects on joint force fighter readiness for several years into the future.

In the same way that we must train in the way we fight, we must model in the way we make decisions. By incorporating each military service’s planned supply of ready forces into one coherent model-of-models, the Readiness Decision Impact Model will enable defense leaders at all levels to visualize and compare the impacts of deviating from those plans. In this scenario, we might be able to see that deploying a Navy fighter squadron incurs fewer detrimental impacts to readiness than other comparable units from another service. This modeling effort can also aid us in uncovering previously hidden readiness impacts, such as the consequences of pulling personnel or equipment from less-ready units to make other units deployable faster. This information might not change the decision, but we will be armed with full knowledge of potential consequences and clarity on what can be done to start mitigating these impacts going forward. 

Of course, none of these tools is a panacea for our readiness challenges. We must have the discipline to look across all aspects and dimensions of strategic readiness and acknowledge impacts our decisions have across the department. While the Readiness Decision Impact Model offers a powerful predictive capability, we also know that human-centered judgment and analysis of past and current readiness-related decisions and initiatives are necessary to ensure we are shaping and posturing the force to meet the challenges of the future. Further, central to every aspect of the strategic readiness framework is agility. We know that our first strategic readiness assessment won’t be perfect — but we didn’t design it to be. Almost as important as the assessment of our ability to meet our strategic objectives is the identification of gaps in our assessments that highlight where additional exploration and understanding are required. Similarly, full operating capability of the Readiness Decision Impact Model is not mission accomplished. We will continue to refine the scope of predictive analysis that the Readiness Decision Impact Model can provide as we develop new models and ingest additional metrics. The department cannot wait for a gold-plated solution and, as such, we’ve designed the strategic readiness framework so that it can adapt and evolve as we learn more and as the environment changes. 

Call to Action

The work is far from easy. Changing culture never is, particularly in an organization so large and so culturally rooted as the Department of Defense. This is why, despite widespread agreement that these changes must happen, they never have. The department has accomplished much over the past two years in shifting to a strategic readiness approach — and we see more progress on the horizon. As our policies are formalized and our assessments are tested, we move closer to implementing a holistic, analytic, and rigorous means to address the ensuing impacts of decisions on our near- and long-term readiness and across our strategic objectives. By achieving decision advantage over our adversaries, we plan to outpace their ability to act now and in the future.

However, decision advantage is not decision certainty. Our tools should provide us clarity, improving what we know and challenging things that we think we know, but we can’t rely on them entirely. We still must develop the analysis and judgment that are central tenets of the department’s military and civilian talent management models. Decision-making is an art, not a science. We rely on the science to inform the art. We can only find balance through the risk-informed and clear-eyed decisions of our senior leaders. We must arm our senior leaders with a better understanding of the risk incurred tomorrow by decisions made today so our next steps can be more precise, deliberate, and ultimately successful in posturing ourselves to win. 

The development of a strategic readiness framework is not the sole answer to striking the balance between readiness today and the ability to modernize the joint force. The next step will be creating the long-needed demand signal by which we design the joint force of the future. Without that marker, we cannot fully understand how close — or how far — we are from being strategically ready.  

 

 

Kimberly Jackson is the deputy assistant secretary of defense for force readiness.

Gen. David Berger is the commandant of the Marine Corps.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael Singley

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