Cancelled training. Deferred maintenance. Grounded aircraft. That’s been the damage to military readiness from the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration in 2013. Now the Vice-Chief of Staff of the Army says the service may have to keep many units at lower levels of readiness for years. This is not a short-term expedient but new policy.
“We’re looking at having certain number of brigades at a higher level of readiness,” Gen. John Campbell told me last week. “Many of our units will go down much lower.”
“Some people would call that tiered readiness, where we said we never were going to go again,” the Vice-Chief went on, referring to the Cold War practice where units not in West Germany or South Korea sometimes never received their full allotment of troops, equipment, and training dollars. “I’d call it progressive readiness.”
A preliminary plan may be ready for public discussion within weeks, Campbell said. “We’re working through that now,” he said, as the service builds its 2015-2019 budget plan, the Program Objective Memorandum.
Campbell’s remarks suggest new willingness on the Army leadership’s part to shift it position on readiness, one that’s been urged by many thinktanks.
“While Army leaders have avoided cutting readiness to every extent possible, it is no longer feasible under current budget plans – even before sequestration moves into year two,” argues Mackenzie Eaglen, one of the think tank experts who recommended cutting readiness levels to guarantee the military’s ability to develop and buy new weapons.
“There is already a readiness shortfall this year that is being funded through war spending and additional untold readiness gaps based on all the services receiving fewer resources than expected when Congress finally passed a defense appropriations bill for 2013,” she said.
Eaglen, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors and a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the “only silver lining is that some Army leaders have said the service is today the most ready it’s been in four decades. This means that readiness reductions will start from an historic high point and be more easily reversible, if desired, at some point in the future.”
As our Defense News colleague Paul McLeary reported last week, the Army is already rushing through a massive cost-cutting exercise whose recommendations are due, ironically, on September 11th; but the August 14 memo launching that effort instructs participants “to determine how best to allocate these cuts while maintaining readiness.” (Emphasis mine). Now it looks like readiness is on the table too.
Before slamming the Army, it’s crucial to remember that no military force in human history has ever been 100 percent ready, with every finger on every trigger all the time (or on every arrow, spear, or sharpened rock). In fact, “unreadiness is the natural condition of all forces,” wrote Army officer and military iconoclast Robert Leonhard.
For generations, Navy and Marine forces have set sail, conducted operations, and then come home again to refit the ships and rest the men. In the Army, for over a decade of war, the service has run its brigades through a regular cycle called “Army Force Generation,” ARFORGEN: a “reset” period on coming home from war to rest, reorganize, and absorb new personnel; a training period during which readiness steadily climbed; and finally a period of full readiness and deployment.
But ARFORGEN as we know it is changing. Each unit’s level of readiness will still cycle up and down over time, but some active-duty brigades will no longer reach maximum readiness at any point in their cycle.
Eaglen believes Campbell is being realistic in changing ARFORGEN.
“The Vice Chief is appropriately focused on setting realistic expectations now for those currently serving. He’ll have to do the same for future enlistees soon and talk about how the Army is going to have to change its contract with soldiers going forward if sequestration sticks for the remainder of the decade,” she says.
Units bound for high-risk areas – such as Afghanistan or South Korea – will always be fully ready, Campbell emphasized, as will the “Global Response Force” of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. Beyond that, he said, the service will maintain “a certain amount of armor, infantry, Stryker, combat aviation, [etc.] at a different tier of readiness” for (relatively) rapid response to contingencies. The rest of the Army will have fewer resources, although it’s not clear whether that means less training, less equipment, fewer personnel, or a combination of all three. Nor has the Army decided how much of each type of unit will be at each level.
“We’re going to adjust how we look at readiness,” Campbell said. “We know that we’re going to have issues here for a couple of years.”
Keeping some units at a lower – and therefore less expensive – level of units probably strikes Army leaders as better than not keeping those units at all. The Army is already shrinking by 80,000 troops and eliminating 13 brigade headquarters, though the remaining brigades will be bigger, and Campbell is counting on further cuts. How far? “I fear… that we’re also going to downsize to levels we’ve never seen before,” Campbell said. “There’s talk about bringing the Army down to levels that are pre-World War II.”
Those cuts would come to both the regular active-duty Army – the full-time troops – and the “reserve component,” the Army Reserve and National Guard personnel who have full-time civilian jobs but train a minimum of 39 days a year. Army leaders have preserved the Reserve and Guard from personnel cuts so far but warn full sequestration would force reserve component to shrink too. That’s another set of tradeoffs Army leaders are looking at, and a particularly tricky one: The balance between active and reserve has been a bitterly contested question in the past and looks likely to flare up again as budget pressures mount.
“Progressive” readiness further complicates the active-reserve question. Army leaders argue that only the full time, active-duty force, with a few select reserve “enablers,” can respond rapidly to crises – meeting what Campbell calls “early-on requirements” – while National Guard combat brigades provide “strategic depth” for prolonged conflicts but take longer to spin up. If some active-duty units are kept at relatively low readiness, however, that blurs the old distinction between active brigades and Guard.
A nuanced answer could be a continuum: the 82nd Airborne and units in combat zones ready to go at all times; a second echelon of the active-duty Army and select reserve component forces ready to go in days or weeks; a third echelon ready to go in weeks or months; and the big Guard brigades coming in last but hardly least. Nuanced answers, however, rarely win out in Washington.
Nor are the nuances easy to convey to Army soldiers in the field and at bases around the country. “With this unprecedented level of uncertainty out there, I’ve got to make sure they understand that we do have a plan,” Campbell told me. “Otherwise it’s all doom and gloom.”
“What I try to tell people is you’re part of the best army in the world,” he said. “It’s going to be smaller, but it’s still going to be the best.”
Dan Goure, a defense expert at the Lexington Institute here, says Campbell’s remarks make it clear the Army had no choice but to adopt tiered readiness. “We have essentially priced ourselves out of the ability to field an all-volunteer force with modern equipment. On the current trajectory, fixed personnel costs will consume the entire procurement portion of the defense budget within a decade. Tiered readiness is just the first step toward a return to the pre-WWII mobilization-based Army,” he said in an email.
Nevertheless, many analysts and soldiers are deeply skeptical that the era of large standing armies is over, no matter what the administration’s 2012 defense strategic guidance says. A conference is convening this week at Fort Belvoir, south of Washington, to discuss “strategic landpower,” Gen. Odierno’s effort to enlist the Marine Corps and Special Operations Command in a united intellectual (and budgetary) front against the idea that air, sea, space, and cyber warfare can do it all. (I’ll be attending). One young enlisted soldier, though, has already put the argument in blunt terms, Gen. Campbell said.
“My son’s a specialist in the 101st [Airborne Division], getting ready to do another deployment to Afghanistan,” Campbell told me. When the general talked with his son about maybe getting out of the Army and going back to school now that the war is winding down, the son replied (as Gen. Campbell recounts it), “Dad, I think there’s going to be plenty of work in the future. Look at the world we live in.”