Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Is readiness overrated? I suspect so. And by the way, keeping it is hugely expensive

I know, everyone unquestioningly worships at the altar of readiness. It rates up there with Mom, apple pie, and being nice to dogs. But what if force-wide readiness for imminent combat is strategically the wrong goal to pursue? That heretical thought was spurred in part by my reading a transcript of Defense Secretary Hagel’s talk ...

VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images

I know, everyone unquestioningly worships at the altar of readiness. It rates up there with Mom, apple pie, and being nice to dogs.

But what if force-wide readiness for imminent combat is strategically the wrong goal to pursue? That heretical thought was spurred in part by my reading a transcript of Defense Secretary Hagel's talk given last weekend in California. Among other things, he lamented thusly:

The Navy's average global presence is now down more than 10 percent, with particularly sharp reductions in regions like South America. The Army has had to cancel final training rotations for seven brigade combat teams. That's more than 15 percent of the entire force, and it now has just two of the 43 active-duty brigade combat teams fully ready and available to execute a major combat operation. Air Force units lost 25 percent of the annual training events that keep them qualified for their assigned missions, and Marine Corps units not going to Afghanistan are getting 30 percent less funding just as the service is facing more demands for more embassy security and more Marines around the world.

I know, everyone unquestioningly worships at the altar of readiness. It rates up there with Mom, apple pie, and being nice to dogs.

But what if force-wide readiness for imminent combat is strategically the wrong goal to pursue? That heretical thought was spurred in part by my reading a transcript of Defense Secretary Hagel’s talk given last weekend in California. Among other things, he lamented thusly:

The Navy’s average global presence is now down more than 10 percent, with particularly sharp reductions in regions like South America. The Army has had to cancel final training rotations for seven brigade combat teams. That’s more than 15 percent of the entire force, and it now has just two of the 43 active-duty brigade combat teams fully ready and available to execute a major combat operation. Air Force units lost 25 percent of the annual training events that keep them qualified for their assigned missions, and Marine Corps units not going to Afghanistan are getting 30 percent less funding just as the service is facing more demands for more embassy security and more Marines around the world.

As I read his remarks, I kept wondering: Do we really need a military primed to go to war? I don’t think so. Rather, what we need to do is preserve essential skills and personnel. That might mean going to a cadre-like military, with only two Army divisions kept at high readiness, likely one light infantry and one armored, and the other eight active-duty divisions shrunk down but preserving their skills. That is, with fewer soldiers, but with good training for that smaller force. That might mean squads entirely of NCOs, trained to expand if and when necessary.

It also should mean not spending $12 billion on something like an old-school aircraft carrier. That piece of change would have paid for an awful lot of training. But no, we now have an entire generation of flag officers untrained in making hard choices and accustomed to gamboling about under a never-ending fountain of money. Time to stop spending and start thinking. If you don’t, I bet it will be done for you. So it is really your choice.

And keep in mind the cautionary example of the Royal Navy in World War II: It was the world’s biggest and most powerful navy, but because of bad choices made by its leaders, was largely irrelevant to much of the war.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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