The military services have made some progress toward restoring the fighting capabilities that were set back when sequestration led the Pentagon to what officials deemed a “readiness crisis” in 2013. But those limited gains will quickly go out the window if the budget is sliced back again next year, the Defense Department’s number-two official said Wednesday.
Thanks in part to a two-year sequestration reprieve DoD got from the Ryan- Murray budget agreement, military readiness has begun to rebound from the significant drop it underwent in 2013, when the automatic budget cuts took $30 billion out of the budget midway through the fiscal year, grounding a third of the Air Force’s combat fleet, canceling Navy ship deployments and leaving the Army with only two fully- trained brigade combat teams.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said the two-year budget deal, which expires at the end of this year, has let DoD apply more money to training and equipping its troops. But the department still is digging out of the readiness trough the 2013 cuts created, and the trough will get much deeper if the budget caps that were originally laid out in the Budget Control Act go back into effect in fiscal 2016.
“We’re constantly being accused of crying wolf. But we’re still recovering from the incomprehensibly destructive way that sequestration was implemented,” Work told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Wednesday. “There is no strategic planner on the planet that can succeed in this type of environment.”
Work said the military’s readiness problems still are serious, partially because of the 2013 cuts, and partially because of previous force structure decisions that yielded a smaller force that’s still charged with performing essentially the same missions. For example, before the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force had a fleet of 88 combat fighter squadrons, compared to 54 now.
“So because of the unrelenting pace on this smaller force over the past 13 years, all of the pressures have just started to compound,” Work said. “All of the training events such as our Red Flag exercises and getting ready for suppression of enemy air defenses have been cut back. So our fighter and bomber squadrons have suffered skill atrophy. It’s also impacted our career maintenance professionals. That’s a real problem, and it’s not seen — it’s kind of a hidden disease. It creates an Air Forcewide shortage of highly-skilled maintainers, and that impacts the availability of aircraft, and it also means less flight training.”
Troubling shortage of people, ships
The Navy faces a similar issue — a smaller fleet that’s being asked to perform more missions. Navy officials say they are able to keep up with the demands of current operations, but there is a troubling shortage of trained personnel and ships that are ready to sail if they were needed on short notice.
It also means the Navy’s most ready forces, those who are already out at sea, are staying there for a very long time, because the Navy faces a deficit of trained forces that would relieve them during a normal deployment cycle.
For example, the USS Vincent and the USS Makin Island have been away from their home ports for close to nine months, a situation that that Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations, described as “unsustainable” in a speech at the Brookings Institution last week.
“The Navy was putting out 105 ships on deployments around the world when they had a 400-ship fleet, and they’re putting 105 right now with a fleet of 287. Do the math,” Work said Wednesday. “Ship maintenance is having a very hard time keeping up. The material conditions of our carriers is not good. Generally, a carrier would go into an 11-month standard drydock maintenance period, but it’s taking about 16 months right now because we’ve been using them so hard. The sea services also face a very severe strike fighter shortfall. It’s partially a result of the fact that the F-35 hasn’t gotten here as fast as we wanted, but it’s also because we’re flying the wings off of our older airplanes. We have an awful lot of airplanes that are just waiting to get through the depot for maintenance, and we can’t get them through fast enough.”
Work said the Army has done a “remarkable” job in building back its readiness from the serious dip its formations suffered during 2013. That service has stopped its decline in readiness, but it’s still struggling to move its soldiers through the full spectrum training exercises that it believes are necessary to perform missions besides counterinsurgency.
“It’s simply not possible to buy a seasoned infantry platoon sergeant or a tank platoon leader or an aviation company commander off the shelf. The Army has to make them, and that takes time,” Work said. “Before 2001, soldiers who had been in the Army for 10 years would have completed numerous combat training center rotations before they assumed key leadership roles. But the junior leaders of today, in many cases, have only experienced one decisive action training rotation, and some haven’t experienced any. The Army’s goal is to have sufficient full-spectrum- ready forces by fiscal 2020, and that assumes we get the President’s budget request, not the Budget Control Act level. A return to BCA funding would push that goal out by at least 3-to-5 years. All of the services are talking about recovering their readiness — under the best of circumstances — in the early 2020s. This should be a big concern.”
Work said DoD leaders are consigned to the notion that they’re going to be living with lower top line budgets than they’d like. But he says many of the military’s current problems stem not just from budget cuts, but from budget instability. The federal government has operated under continuing resolutions for significant periods during each of the past five years. It was also subject to a sudden cutback under sequestration, and a government shutdown that furloughed 800,000 DoD employees.
An unwilling Congress
And for the fiscal year that started six weeks ago, Congress still has not passed a DoD appropriations bill nor an authorization bill.
“We have to stop the madness,” Work said. “I’m supremely proud of the professionals in the Department of Defense who continue to press on despite the unprecedented uncertainty and disruption to their missions, their programs and their lives. But make no mistake-constructing a coherent defense budget in this type of uncertainty is beyond the capability of the most capable men and women.”
Work also lamented that Congress appears unwilling to go along with DoD’s own proposals to save money in certain areas of its budget so that it can fund readiness and modernization. By the department’s tallies, lawmakers are poised to reject up to $70 billion of the department’s own proposals to cut its own costs by retiring legacy weapons systems, consolidating underutilized bases and reforming personnel spending.
Besides a pay freeze on the salaries of generals and admirals, congressional committees have delayed virtually all of DoD’s personnel spending reforms until a special compensation committee delivers its final recommendations early next year. They have also been unwilling to go along with another round of base realignments and closures, which the Pentagon believes would save another $2 billion per year, based on internal estimates that show that 24 percent of the military services’ existing facilities are not being used.
“Imagine a large private sector company being forced to maintain 24 percent of excess overhead. They’d be out of business in a heartbeat,” Work said. “I know nobody wants to lose a base in their district, but maintaining that extra capacity is a big problem for us. It is wasteful spending, period. It is the worst type of bloat.”
Innovation initiative kicks off
Work said DoD leaders are determined to make sure the military services don’t return to the low readiness levels of the 1970s that analysts now reflect on as a “hollow force,” but to pull that off under today’s budget numbers would require less spending on new weapons programs.
Realizing that it won’t be able to modernize as quickly as it would like to even under the rosiest of possible budget scenarios, DoD will release a new innovation initiative later this week.
Based on officials’ previous descriptions of the program, the aim is to make sure the U.S. at least the blueprints for new cutting-edge systems on its shelves, even if it can’t afford to start producing them at the moment.
“We’re underinvesting is new weapons. We simply are, given the investments of our closest competitors,” Work said. “Everybody knows and sees this, everybody laments this, and I’m waiting for Congress to say, ‘Yeah, let’s get at this.’ In the meantime, part of the innovation initiative is going to be a long-range research and development planning program like the one we built in 1975. Back then, we said that if we go after stealth, guided munitions and information technology, we will have an offset strategy that will allow us to rule the battlefield for the foreseeable future. And we were right.”
Work did not offer any detailed descriptions of DoD’s new innovation initiative — but he made clear that it would be tougher to pull off if the department returns to sequestration next year.
Research and development has already borne a disproportionate share of the budget cuts of the last two years. And a return to sequestration would cut DoD’s existing R&D program by another $23 billion.