The Military’s ‘Readiness’ Scam Worked Again

The Pentagon always complains for more money – and politicians always eventually give in.

US Secretary for Defense James Mattis in Brussels on February 14, 2018. (VIRGINIA MAYO/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary for Defense James Mattis in Brussels on February 14, 2018. (VIRGINIA MAYO/AFP/Getty Images)

For the next two years, at least, the American public should be spared the U.S. Defense Department’s wailing about “readiness.” After seven years of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending, the military is finally getting what it wants: more money than ever.

The Donald Trump administration’s defense budget request for fiscal year 2019 is out, less than a week after Congress cut an overall deal on spending levels for 2018 and 2019. Unlike the domestic spending part of the administration’s budget request, the defense numbers aren’t dead on arrival — in fact, the military can count on getting every cent. The congressional deal set new levels for defense, agreeing to $700 billion for national defense in 2018 and $716 billion in 2019. That’s nearly $165 billion more than the military had anticipated prior to this year. The United States is back to defense spending, in constant dollars, that is higher than the peak spending levels under Ronald Reagan. Only in 2010, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was defense spending higher.

It’s worth thinking about why defense spending is about to explode. It’s not because of some revolutionary change in the global security environment — aside from those pesky North Koreans and their nukes, America has never been so secure. It’s not because the U.S. military’s effectiveness has declined; it remains the most powerful force in the world, highly capable and very ready.

The reason the Pentagon’s budget is now on a long-term upswing is because the military has spent years loudly lobbying for such an increase while complaining about an alleged “readiness crisis.” Complaining works, at least when the military does it, because politicians in both parties fear the military’s wrath. Partisan gridlock can still impede efforts to bump up the military’s resources, but now that Republicans are in control of Congress and the White House, there are no more hurdles standing in the way.

None of this is to suggest, however, that the congressional generosity will buy Americans more security or a better force than the one they have today.

Every military leader in history has wanted more resources at his or her disposal. U.S. secretaries of defense have been especially adamant since 2011, when the Budget Control Act first set limits on both defense and domestic spending. The tears shed by the Pentagon went beyond complaining about those pesky budget caps. They also touched on declining military readiness, units that weren’t combat ready, Chinese military expansion, and just about anything else that defense officials thought might put the spending train back on the tracks.

All the Pentagon’s complaints ignored the reality that since 2001 the military has been receiving tens, and sometimes even hundreds, of billions of dollars in additional funding — above and beyond the budget caps — thanks to a special slush fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations account. That money is supposed to be designated for emergencies, but both the Pentagon and the Congress have routinely used this budget for nonemergency purposes, such as paying, training, and supporting existing troops (all normally in the Pentagon’s base budget) and buying equipment already in the long-term defense plan.

Nevertheless, the military has complained that its readiness is in tatters. And after all those years of deployments, military officials testifying to Congress could always come up with a sad anecdote about planes being cross-decked to an outgoing carrier, fighters not ready to fly, or missing pilots.

U.S. policymakers have seen this movie many times before. I experienced it myself in the 1990s, when the brass was displeased with the budget levels set by the Bill Clinton administration and whined about readiness problems to the Office of Management and Budget, where I worked. My follow-up with the Pentagon’s civil servants made it clear that the measures they were using were rigged to show low levels of readiness; they set standards that called units “ready” only if they had every capability imaginable to fight a major ground war, and they counted as “unready” units that were back from deployments and had missed a training slot for that big war, one they would soon be scheduled to receive.

We knew the Pentagon was using manipulated numbers to bludgeon us with demands for more funding. Nevertheless, we caved: In 1994, we added more than $20 billion to the defense budget, not really to fix readiness but to try to make the issue go away before the midterm elections that year. (It didn’t work, by the way.) Four years later, we did it again, busting previous budget commitments to add billions of dollars more. (For an excellent analysis of that fight, read This War Really Matters: Inside the Fight for Defense Dollars by the late George C. Wilson, once the premier Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post.)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same — as military parade leaders in France might say. Today, once again, the U.S. military stands on the brink of an alleged readiness crisis, and more money is needed, pronto. The trail of tears became so deep that it caught up Republicans and Democrats (always eager to portray themselves as “tough on national security”). It caught up in the lachrymose flow virtually all of the think tank preachers at the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Center for a New American Security, and large panels of bipartisan heavyweights reviewing the Pentagon’s four-year defense studies.

Everyone in Washington seems to have been swept up in the tide; even some of the most careful, independent analysts are on board. As Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted, “We are stretched too thin.… We are trying to do too much with the size force that we have all around the world.”

All this hand-wringing is happening about a ground force that, after nearly two decades of war, is highly experienced and primed — and largely back at home; a Navy that is larger than any other navy in the world and the only one with global reach; an Air Force that is larger and more technologically advanced than any other, flying, bombing, tanking, airlifting globally. America’s is the only military that has global basing, logistics, communications, transportation, and intelligence; nobody else, not the Chinese and certainly not the Russians, comes even close. But this is Washington, where the policy and analytical sheep gather under one tree to be safe from the storm of political criticism. The British novelist Lawrence Durrell comes to mind: “How nugatory and how glum / The endomorphs of scholarship / Like hippos on a sinking ship / Stand bum to silly bum.” (Just replace scholarship with politics and the comparison is apt.)

So, on what will the Pentagon spend this largesse? The last time the Pentagon got this kind of fiscal bump-up — in 1981-1982 under Reagan — bureaucrats and military officers were reaching into desk drawers to dust off plans they never thought would be funded. As Reagan might have said, “There they go again.”

There is now a lot of discussion of funding going into training, equipment maintenance, and repair personnel. But the big bucks, according to the Pentagon’s own briefing, will go into conventional military equipment. That means more F-35s and F-18s than planned, a new presidential helicopter, Navy surveillance planes and destroyers, Marine helicopters, space launch rockets, tank modifications, another Army multipurpose vehicle, and a joint tactical vehicle the Army, Marines, and Air Force can all use. Basically, the services will soon have shiny new hardware.

There will also be a push to modernize the country’s nuclear arsenal. This will be done under the guise of “enhanced deterrence,” but really this amounts to a game of maintaining appearances and “keeping up with the Joneses” — or the Russians, Chinese, and North Koreans. The strategic reasons for this effort are meager; the reality is that the United States has more than enough deterrent force today and all the additional nuclear forces in the world will only undermine deterrence and stimulate even more arms racing. All this will be combined with accelerated investments in sea- and ground-based missile defense systems, which have yet to prove themselves, despite decades of testing and billions of dollars invested.

The contribution of all this spending to solve an alleged “readiness crisis” is not obvious. It’s worth heeding what Defense Secretary James Mattis promised after the deal was signed: “I am very confident that what the Congress has now done, and the president is going to allocate to us in the budget, is what we need to bring us back to a position of primacy.” An unobtainable primacy, of course, is not the same thing as readiness.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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