U.S. military readiness may well become a major 2024 presidential campaign issue. It should be. Fielding a capable and “ready” military force is a vital national interest, for deterring war and, when necessary, fighting and winning a war.
It’s definitely on the radar of Republican primary voters when Ukraine war materiel and financial support is the subject. They’ve paid attention to Ukraine’s artillery ammunition expenditure rate and know that the rounds Washington has shipped to Ukraine come from U.S. military stockpiles. Those are now depleted. They worry U.S. forces won’t have enough ammo if a war with China erupts.
Other problems are evident. Month after month, the Pentagon misses recruiting goals, and media outlets report it. Discerning citizens know too few volunteers eventually leads to under-strength forces—and under-strength means they can’t be completely “ready.” The Biden administration’s Afghanistan withdrawal fiasco was a failure in leadership by President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The armed services got an undeserved black eye, but the chaos at Kabul International Airport left the world with the impression that U.S. forces are not thoroughly prepared for complex operations.
In a speech delivered on Aug. 28 at a Washington-area technologies conference, Pentagon acquisitions chief William LaPlante addressed the tension between supporting Ukraine and what DOD News called managing “risks to U.S. readiness.”
He said: “Every item ... taken from the U.S. stock and provided to the Ukrainians, the chairman (of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and secretary (of defense) go through it, and they look exactly at what is the effect for readiness. ... And if they think it’s any impact, negative on readiness, or increases risk ... we won’t do it. ... So, by definition, if it’s taken out of drawdown, the assessment’s been made (that) we can do it and we can manage the risk.”
OK, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a serious international threat, and every ally in Eastern Europe fears that if Russia takes Ukraine, they will be next. Ask the Balts and Poles. The Joint Chiefs and secretary of defense are attempting to balance Ukraine’s immediate needs with the United States' future needs.
But cascading U.S. equipment and ammunition from stockpiles leaves a void—perhaps temporary, but a void. Equipment and ammo aren’t on hand. In early August, the Army reported that it is ramping up artillery ammunition production to fill shortages. The DOD News story quoting Mr. LaPlante provided the figures: The U.S. now produces 24,000 artillery rounds a month. In the next few months (by early 2024?), that will increase to 80,000 rounds a month.
However, cranking out rounds doesn’t guarantee readiness. “Readiness” is a complex concept with hundreds of objective and subjective determinants. That leads to many definitions. What Washington bureaucrats mean by readiness may differ sharply from what the Army general, the Navy admiral, and the Marine drill sergeant mean when they insist on “readiness” in their services. The sergeant may disagree with the brass—and tell them they live in “echelons above reality.” But all three demand warfighting standards.
Military readiness is a dynamic state, an interplay of many factors, some definitely material (ammo), some psychological (morale). The sergeant may have a better feel for soldier morale than the senior officers. That’s why leadership matters, throughout the chain of command. Don’t think for a minute that divisive critical race theory (CRT) doesn’t damage morale. It does. Military units depend on cohesion—soldiers trusting one another. CRT and concern with “gender pronouns” may well contribute to the decline in volunteers and enlistment shortfalls.
Building, operating, and maintaining equipment is a huge factor; so is training personnel to operate and maintain it. Equipment readiness has a daily inspection burden. “Smart” vehicles can self-report operational status, but leaders have to check with their eyes.
War plans made, technology decisions made, and weapons manufactured three decades ago can play decisive roles, positively and negatively, in current combat readiness. So can decisions made 18 months ago—such as supplying Ukraine with weapons and ammo.
Once again, credit Donald Rumsfeld: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”