The unreadiness iceberg

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Joseph Harwood

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle receives early morning maintenance on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Jan. 28, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military is at a tipping point in the face of future budgetary reductions.

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  • Think the “hollow force” is only something that could happen if policymakers plow ahead with sequestration? Think again.

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  • Once readiness has fallen, it is much more expensive and takes significantly longer to fix.

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The members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have penned a 28-star letter to Congress warning that the U.S. military is at a “tipping point” in the face of future budgetary reductions and uncertainty. The chiefs paint a grim picture of a post-sequestration military, arguing that they will have to “ground aircraft, return ships to port, and stop driving combat vehicles in training.”

While that is supposedly a consequence of the future, today’s outlook doesn’t sound any better: 

Not enough people, not enough parts, not enough training, not enough everything.

Those were the blunt words of the admiral in charge of the surface fleet this week. He went on to note how demand has only grown while resources have gone down even though the new defense strategy, issued just last year, indicated otherwise.

Think the “hollow force” is only something that could happen if policymakers plow ahead with sequestration? Not according to the admiral:

When a combatant commander says a ship’s supposed to leave on deployment and it doesn’t leave on time for whatever reason, then we know we’ve probably gotten there [a hollow force]. And there’s ships right now that aren’t doing it.

Unfortunately, this is no surprise. By the time a problem this deep bubbles up to the Joint Chiefs, it is often beyond obvious to the military’s daily operators. Problems plaguing reduced readiness levels for sustained periods of time are typically masked or in hibernation due to Band-Aid fixes before they show real and clear consequences.

Even when it appears as if the force is healthy on paper, maintainers and operators using equipment on a daily basis often cannibalize parts to patch up ships, vehicles or aircraft to let them last another day or, worse, get notice of deferred or cancelled maintenance after leaders perpetually underfund regular upkeep to make up for shortfalls elsewhere.

Former Army chief of staff George Casey previously referred to an invisible “red line” of readiness that is often not detected by senior leaders until much later (or, in some cases, too late). Retired general Casey said that leaders like the chiefs — he was one from 2007 to 2011 — don’t often know that they’ve crossed the line until after the fact. For example, he noted that in 1972, after combat forces fully left Vietnam, some were saying the Army was broken: “But it took eight years for the chief of staff to come out and say it’s hollow.”

Once readiness has fallen to this point, it is much more expensive and takes significantly longer to fix because in order for these problems to be visible, there is usually much more hidden. Think of it as the unreadiness iceberg.

The chiefs had largely signed on to the many defense-budget cuts to date, saying the force could absorb more risk, and the strategy had meant troops will do less. The fact that they’re sounding the five-alarm bell now should worry our elected officials. Reality across the force is surely even worse.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

 

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