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Readiness Gap? What Readiness Gap?

Over the past few months, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), chair of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), has consistently raised the specter of a “readiness gap” in the U.S. military stemming from shortfalls in equipment, training, and general funding brought about by the mandatory 2013 budget cuts known as sequestration. Commenting on a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, Thornberry noted that “it is now impossible for senior DOD [Department of Defense] officials or their surrogates to argue that we are not approaching a severe readiness crisis…As it stands, we cannot meet combatant commander requirements, reliably maintain our equipment, or fully train and care for our troops.”

Image courtesy of SRA Greg L. Davis, USAF, © 1999

Image courtesy of SRA Greg L. Davis, USAF, © 1999

Still, despite the constant drumbeat from Thornberry and his Republican allies on HASC regarding this apparent crisis, not all observers are convinced of the seriousness of the supposed threat. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, retired General David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, instead argue that “While Congress’s sequestration-mandated cuts to military spending have hurt preparedness, America’s fighting forces remain ready for battle” due to a combination of on-the-ground experience earned in Afghanistan and Iraq, high defense spending, and enduring technological advantages over potential adversaries.

The problem with adjudicating between these competing opinions, however, is the lack of agreed-upon metrics for assessing military readiness. Too often observers let their personal and organizational interests cloud their analyses, leading to reliance on irrelevant, inconsequential, or impossible to verify evidence. Although the DOD does possess standardized readiness reporting metrics, the current debate is not being conducted on those terms. For instance, in criticizing Petraeus and O’Hanlon’s argument, Army Reserve Colonel Tim Connors states that the increased scope of the challenges that the United States faces—including a diverse geographic set of conventional and irregular threats—has rendered any edge in spending moot. The United States is therefore “but one crisis away from discovering just how thinly stretched today’s Force really is.” Connors provides nothing in the way of detailed evidence, though, to support this hypothetical. Thus, his criticisms can be easily dismissed since he deals solely in the realm of generalities.

Thornberry and his Republican HASC allies similarly have had to reach deep into the bag in order to pull out evidence to support their assertions. For instance, readiness pessimists have highlighted shortfalls in aircraft maintenance, spare parts, and training. Although obviously not desirable circumstances, these anecdotes do not clearly aggregate to form anything approaching a crisis. More importantly, they don’t answer the critical question underlying military readiness: can the United States adequately fulfill its mission objectives around the world given its current level of capability and funding? If Thornberry and his supporters want to truly argue that the military is facing a readiness gap, then they must do so by making specific arguments about current mission requirements that can’t be realized. While decreased maintenance and training certainly indirectly impact mission effectiveness, the connection is far more tenuous than observers believe. Furthermore, the dire predictions being made about training shortfalls are generally vague and lack the numerical heft necessary to make them credible.

In response, the readiness pessimists might point out that optimists like Petraeus and O’Hanlon oftentimes lack substantive analysis as well. Still, the fact of the matter is that given the tremendous investment the United States has made in its military, the onus is on critics of current funding levels to provide the stronger case. Ultimately, it is quite clear that the supposed “readiness gap” has as much to do with partisan politics and domestic interests as it does with the military itself.

As the chairman of HASC, Thornberry occupies one of the principal bully pulpits that a legislative majority can use to hit back against a president of the opposite party. The seriousness with which the general public treats the military means appeals to support them are generally treated favorably. In addition, the sometime shakiness of President Obama’s foreign policy allows criticisms of his relationship to the military to easily play into an already established narrative.

Beyond the partisan benefits of readiness alarmism, there are also more cynical electoral benefits at stake. As demonstrated by recent defense funding fights such as the ongoing saga surrounding the A-10 Warthog, military spending oftentimes has profound domestic distributional benefits. Although “pork barrel” spending has become increasingly hard to come by in Washington, shuttling procurement dollars to a particular district remains one of the few ways to bring home the bacon.

Noting the ulterior motives that exist for inflating the size of any military readiness issue is not meant to directly accuse Rep. Thornberry of misdeeds. Nevertheless, it shows the seriousness of the stakes at play and the reason why better evidence is required before elevating discussion of any supposed “gap” too high. While the aphorism that one should “never let a good crisis go to waste” is often attributed to Winston Churchill, the sentiment rings equally true far too often for politicians on this side of the Atlantic.


Alexander Kirss

Alexander is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at George Washington University. He moonlights as a defense consultant and writes broadly about the intersection of U.S. defense policy, foreign policy, and domestic politics, with a focus on organizational and structural issues. He has previously been published in War on The Rocks, Real Clear Defense, and The National Interest. You can connect with him on Twitter @fpclickbait for far more than just clickbait.
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