The Myth of a U.S. Military ‘Readiness’ Crisis

Sequestration cuts have presented challenges. But America’s fighting forces remain second to none.

By David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon
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U.S. servicemen at a joint military exercise outside Tbilisi, Georgia, May 11. Photo: AFP/Getty Images


U.S. military readiness is again a hot issue in the presidential election, but unfortunately the current debate glosses over some of the most important facts. While Congress’s sequestration-mandated cuts to military spending have hurt preparedness, America’s fighting forces remain ready for battle. They have extensive combat experience across multiple theaters since 9/11, a tremendous high-tech defense industry supplying advanced weaponry, and support from an extraordinary intelligence community.

For those concerned that America’s military is in decline or somehow not up to the next challenge, we offer a few reassuring facts:

• The current national defense budget of over $600 billion a year far exceeds the Cold War average of about $525 billion (in inflation-adjusted 2016 dollars) and the $400 billion spent in 2001, according to official Pentagon and Office of Management and Budget data. The national defense budget, which doesn’t include Veterans Affairs or the Department of Homeland Security, constitutes 35% of global military spending and is more than that of the next eight countries—including China and Russia—combined. Spending has been reduced from the levels of the late Bush and early Obama years, but that isn’t unreasonable in light of scaled-down combat operations abroad and fiscal pressures at home.

• Assuming no return to sequestration, as occurred in 2013, Pentagon budgets to buy equipment now exceed $100 billion a year, a healthy and sustainable level. The so-called “procurement holiday” of the 1990s and early 2000s is over.

• While some categories of aircraft and other key weapons are aging and will need replacement or major refurbishment soon, most equipment remains in fairly good shape. According to our sources in the military, Army equipment has, on average, mission-capable rates today exceeding 90%—a historically high level. Marine Corps aviation is an exception and urgently needs to be addressed.


• Training for full-spectrum operations is resuming after over a decade of appropriate focus on counterinsurgency. By 2017 the Army plans to rotate nearly 20 brigades—about a third of its force—through national training centers each year. The Marine Corps plans to put 12 infantry battalions—about half its force—through large training exercises. The Air Force is funding its training and readiness programs at 80%-98% of what it considers fully resourced levels. This situation isn’t perfect, but it has improved—and while the military is still engaged in combat operations across the world.

• The men and women of today’s all-volunteer military continue to be outstanding and committed to protecting America. Typical scores of new recruits on the armed forces qualification test are now significantly better than in the Reagan years or the immediate pre-9/11 period, two useful benchmarks. The average time in service, a reflection of the experience of the force, is now about 80 months in the enlisted ranks, according to Defense Department data. That is not quite as good as in the 1990s, when the average was 85-90 months, but is better than the 75-month norm of the 1980s.

While there are areas of concern, there is no crisis in military readiness. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. is good enough—especially in a world of rapidly changing technology, new threats emerging across several regions, and a constantly evolving strategic landscape. Here are some of the most pressing issues:

Should the Army and Navy, considerably reduced in size in recent years, be modestly larger?

Are the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps overemphasizing short-range tactical manned fighter jets in their aircraft modernization plans, and underemphasizing drones and bombers?

Can the Navy develop underwater robotics and unmanned systems more aggressively? How can the U.S. more effectively counter other nations’s ballistic- and cruise-missile capabilities?

What more needs to be done to structure and enhance Defense Department capabilities for operations in cyberspace? How should the military best prepare and structure forces for “advise and assist” missions to the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere?

Beyond Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s admirable initiatives, are there other ways the military can bring Silicon Valley and other innovators into the defense world? How much larger does the defense budget need to be, and how should it be structured, in base budget and supplemental funds for ongoing overseas operations? And what next steps might be needed to counter the growing assertiveness of Russia and China?

The good news is that there are reasonable answers to each of these challenges that are affordable and at least partially achievable. The bad news is that such issues are getting insufficient attention in the continuing debate. It’s time to remedy that.


Mr. Petraeus, a retired Army general, commanded coalition forces in Iraq (2007-08) and in Afghanistan (2010-11) and later served as director of the CIA (2011-12). Mr. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of “The $650 Billion Bargain: The Case for Modest Growth in America’s Defense Budget,” out this month by Brookings Institution Press.

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