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Ready to Fight Tonight? Not So Much, Some Army Troops Say

The U.S. military might not be as ready for a war with China or Russia as it lets on.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
US army soldiers arrive at Morocco's Agadir military airport on June 9, 2021 to take part in the "African Lion" military exercise.
US army soldiers arrive at Morocco's Agadir military airport on June 9, 2021 to take part in the "African Lion" military exercise. Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

It’s an age-old adage: The Pentagon has said for years that the U.S. Army forces stationed on the Korean Peninsula are ready to “fight tonight” if a war breaks out between North and South Korea—or almost anywhere else. But not everyone in the Army is so sure about that, according to an internal survey obtained by Foreign Policy, especially the grunts who could be doing most of the fighting—and dying.

In a survey of more than 5,400 soldiers and civilians of different ranks conducted by the U.S. Army in July and August 2020, 14 percent of respondents said their unit would be ready to deploy, fight, and win anywhere in the world immediately. Some 13 percent of those surveyed said they would need more time, while 3 percent said they would be ready to go in a week, and 4 percent in a month. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed said the question didn’t apply to them, likely owing to the fact that the majority of respondents were civilians.

But the figures are far more striking when broken down by rank. Under 20 percent of warrant officers, highly specialized enlisted troops who have deployed to Afghanistan and other U.S. battlefields during America’s post-9/11 wars, said they were confident their unit could win today. While fewer generals responded to the survey, about 40 percent of them were confident they could immediately deploy and win.

It’s an age-old adage: The Pentagon has said for years that the U.S. Army forces stationed on the Korean Peninsula are ready to “fight tonight” if a war breaks out between North and South Korea—or almost anywhere else. But not everyone in the Army is so sure about that, according to an internal survey obtained by Foreign Policy, especially the grunts who could be doing most of the fighting—and dying.

In a survey of more than 5,400 soldiers and civilians of different ranks conducted by the U.S. Army in July and August 2020, 14 percent of respondents said their unit would be ready to deploy, fight, and win anywhere in the world immediately. Some 13 percent of those surveyed said they would need more time, while 3 percent said they would be ready to go in a week, and 4 percent in a month. Fifty-six percent of those surveyed said the question didn’t apply to them, likely owing to the fact that the majority of respondents were civilians.

But the figures are far more striking when broken down by rank. Under 20 percent of warrant officers, highly specialized enlisted troops who have deployed to Afghanistan and other U.S. battlefields during America’s post-9/11 wars, said they were confident their unit could win today. While fewer generals responded to the survey, about 40 percent of them were confident they could immediately deploy and win.

“If war was to come today I think the Army would be in a difficult position,” said Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general who heads up the conservative Heritage Foundation’s defense program. “Some of the brigade combat teams are well trained, but there’s a fair number that are not.”

Foreign Policy obtained the survey, part of the 81-page “Army COVID-19 Campaign Plan” commissioned by the service last year, as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.

In a statement, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Terence Kelley said that Army senior leaders remain confident that the service is “ready to fight and win, both today and last summer.”

Kelley emphasized that the survey was taken in mid-2020. “At that time, 61 percent of relevant respondents said they were ready to deploy, fight, and win in a reasonable amount of time, today to one month,” he said. He pointed out that the Army has resumed normal training and provided vaccines to more than 93 percent of active-duty service members, and he added that the service’s combat training centers are at full capacity.

Spoehr and other experts see the findings as reflective of a worrying downward trend in the Army’s readiness, military jargon to describe the active-duty and reserve forces’ preparedness for combat, as service leaders have complained of inflation taking a bite out of flattening budgets. In an annual assessment of U.S. military power released last week, the Heritage Foundation cited Army figures that indicated 58 percent of brigade combat teams, the service’s premier close combat force, were at the highest levels of tactical readiness, 8 percentage points below the service’s goal and a drop of 16 percentage points from last year.

“Readiness for the Army has crested and started to come down, and if the budget is approved the way they submitted it, it will go down even further, I think,” Spoehr said.

But the Defense Department’s problems with readiness haven’t just been limited to the U.S. Army. The services have struggled to keep up their training tempo with the Biden administration seeking to flatten the Pentagon’s budget and invest in modern weapons systems that would be used in a future conflict with China or Russia. The Pentagon’s newest budget proposal would cut back on rotations to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, where troops train against a dedicated unit that can simulate U.S. adversaries such as Russia and China, instead calling on units to train at home stations, in less realistic conditions.

And the Navy and Air Force are struggling to keep new recruits proficient in basic skills and their ships and planes in service. The Navy’s investigation into the fire aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard last year found that sailors had no idea how to put the fire out because they hadn’t exercised together and didn’t know their roles and responsibilities. And the Government Accountability Office found in November 2020 that only three of 46 different types of U.S. military aircraft met their “mission capable rates,” a measure of whether an aircraft can conduct its full suite of missions.

Readiness figures are seen as prized by the Army, as well as by foreign militaries training for a possible future war with the United States, such as China and Russia, which are looking for clues about how prepared American forces would be to take them on.

Army leaders have suggested that those impacts deepened as some active-duty, reserve, and National Guard units were taken away from their everyday missions to distribute vaccines, administer tests, and provide help to state and local governments during the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak. In February, Army Chief of Staff James McConville said he was prepared to sacrifice the combat readiness of his units to help defeat the pandemic, including the elite 101st Airborne Division.

“The Army is committed to making this happen, and could it affect readiness? Sure,” McConville said at an event in February. “Those units that are doing this, they are not training the way they need to, but we’ve got to defeat this enemy.”

Asked whether the virus had affected the daily operations of Army units, 37 percent said they were handling it well, and another 34 percent said they had faced some impacts but that their units were “dealing adequately” with it.

The survey, which was conducted around the time that the U.S. Navy faced the spread of COVID-19 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was forced to suspend operations and return to port in Guam, also reflects the challenges that the Army and other U.S. military services had in maintaining training in large groups during the pandemic.

Even as the U.S. military put temporary limits on large gatherings last year, in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about public events, 65 percent of soldiers surveyed by the Army said they had recently trained in groups of 35 or more troops at least four times. But the Army canceled the large-scale Defender Europe, its largest exercise on the continent, in 2020, before hosting a scaled-down version of the initiative later that year.

Experts said the findings also speak to a larger disconnect in the Army between the senior brass who are pushing a high-tech agenda for the service and enlisted troops who have been training on the same equipment for decades.

“If you go out to [the National Training Center] and you go out to the operational force and you try to ask them about multidomain operations, they’re like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. I still have the same equipment for now,’” said John Spencer, the chair of urban warfare studies at the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute.

Staff writer Amy Mackinnon contributed reporting for this story. 

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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