As the global security environment becomes more complex and unpredictable, the U.S. military’s state of preparedness has become a central focus for policymakers on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon. Military readiness is the metric commonly used to discuss whether the military is prepared to confront a multitude of threats. Top defense leaders have sounded the alarm over the current state of military readiness, especially when speaking about the military’s ability to succeed in a conflict against a near-peer or high-end adversary.
Before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September 2016, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, “Nothing is more important to us than readiness, which is why it was the highest priority we had in preparing the 2017 defense budget?partly to rebuild full-spectrum readiness after 15 years of counterinsurgency operations and partly to restore damage done over the last several years that was caused by the effects of sequestration cuts.” Discussions around readiness levels most often revolve around resources (whether the military is adequately funded) and operational tempo, or “OPTEMPO” (whether the pace of military operations is too high or too low). Often missing from this discussion is how readiness levels are impacted by the military personnel system.
Despite this relationship between readiness and personnel, there is little attention paid to the system that manages the people who fight the nation’s wars. The U.S. armed forces face constantly evolving missions, yet the personnel system that serves them is uniform and stagnant. The up-or-out nature of military careers force service members to miss out on key training activities, while the inflexibility of the system leaves service members and their families particularly vulnerable to budgetary instability. Meanwhile, as the military continues to shrink, current personnel procedure places ever-higher demand on the smaller number of troops who remain?particularly those small number of troops who operate at the “tip of the spear” of U.S. combat capability. As the Pentagon tries to mount a concerted readiness recovery, the system that manages service-member careers impedes progress.
In an era where OPTEMPO demands are unlikely to fall and the defense budget is unlikely to significantly rise, Pentagon leaders should view personnel reform as the most important opportunity to improve long-term military-readiness levels. People are the heart of a ready force. The Pentagon explicitly recognizes this truism by housing both personnel and readiness policy in the same office: the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. The two concepts are inextricably linked. Current military personnel policies exacerbate today’s readiness challenges by amplifying the impact of low funding and high OPTEMPO to create a recruiting and retention death spiral. Low readiness leads to low morale and vice versa; which is why readiness, once lost, is so difficult to recover. Falling readiness levels negatively impact recruiting and retention, as service members lose confidence in their ability to succeed in their missions, which in turn increases the geostrategic risks facing the nation.
If the brave men and women who work for the Defense Department are not fully prepared to face emerging threats, then no amount of money or other incentive will be enough to recruit and retain the highly talented workforce the military needs to succeed in the future. This paper will analyze readiness in the context of its impact on service members and their families.
In early 2017, BPC’s Task Force on Defense Personnel will make recommendations to boost readiness levels by increasing the flexibility of the personnel system and by making military service more attractive to the next generation of Americans.