Redefine Readiness or Lose

15 Mar 2021 | General David H. Berger & General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. Commandant of the Marine Corps

In the halls of the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, military, civilian, and congressional leaders regularly discuss the “readiness” of our armed forces. Department of Defense leadership, including service secretaries and service chiefs, testify annually to Congress about the readiness of their forces. We commit resources to building it, develop metrics to measure it, and strive to create and maintain more of it — but what exactly is readiness? As the chiefs of services increasingly pulled in multiple directions in both time and space, we have had an increasing number of both formal and informal discussions on what readiness really means, and what it should mean. This article is a continuation of those discussions and, while there are only two service chiefs on the byline, we have had likeminded conversations with our fellow service chiefs — the chief of staff of the Army, chief of naval operations, and chief of space operations.

Our argument is simple: The joint force requires a holistic, rigorous, and analytical framework to assess readiness properly. Over past decades, readiness has become synonymous with “availability” — largely a measure of military units available for immediate deployment and ready to “fight tonight” — while “capability” took on a lesser role in the calculation. Perhaps appropriate for an earlier era, this framework for readiness is poorly suited to an environment characterized by great-power competition. It largely ignores the capabilities of these “ready” forces and begs the question, ready for what? As the recently released, bipartisan Future of Defense Task Force Report 2020 states, “The national security challenges the United States faces today are existential, and they cannot be met by simply doubling down on old models of policy and investment” [emphasis added]. Our current readiness model strongly biases spending on legacy capabilities for yesterday’s missions, at the expense of building readiness in the arena of great-power competition and investing in modern capabilities for the missions of both today and tomorrow.

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