A big appetite for armed forces around the world might be hurting military readiness

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Every year the Pentagon develops a global force management plan to determine how it will deploy assets around the world. But the Defense Department’s regional combatant commanders are allowed to ask for more, and they often do. A bipartisan group of House members is now concerned those additional requests for forces have become so routine that are hurting military readiness by stretching the forces too thin. In a new letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, they asked several questions about whether it’s time to rethink DoD’s force management practices. Virginia Republican Rob Wittman, who signed the letter, discussed it with Federal News Network’s Jared Serbu on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Jared Serbu: I don’t know how much you can say about this without getting into sensitive and classified stuff but I’m curious if you can give us some sense of the scale of the problem that you’re identifying here in terms of how often the department is deviating from the global force management plan with these RFS that you’re talking about, and whether or not that’s waxed and waned over the years?

Rob Wittman: Well we have seen cycles where there’s been a higher than average number of requests for forces. The challenge has been, how do we make sure that the global force management plan is more reflective of the reality that we have to deal with? That is the demand to generate readiness today to counter the risks that we see before us than in the past. And when you see this, and you see it continued, then I think the question has to be asked about what are the risks that we are facing today? And if we have so many requests for forces, that are in addition to the global force management plan, then are the global force management plans really reflective of where we are today? And shouldn’t we be asking the questions of the risk that we are trying to address today, versus the risk that we will have to address in the future, and the resources it takes to generate readiness today, and the resources it takes to modernize the force for the readiness we have to generate a year from now, five years now, 10 years now. Those are the fundamental questions that have to be asked. There’s always a tension between the combatant commanders and the service branch chiefs about generating readiness today versus readiness in the future. And the Joint Staff is sort of an adjudicator to say, “OK, we understand what comes in today, and what we need to do for the future.” But I think the question becomes, how do we address the issues that appear today to be increasing based upon requests for forces in relation to the global force management plans, and the continued effort to modernize? And there is a little bit of creative tension there so our intention was to ask that fundamental question – are we doing everything in the right way to address the challenges and risks we have today, and what we’re doing to address the risks of a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now?

Jared Serbu: Yeah, and I get all those points and I think everybody kind of intuitively understands that if you’re routinely using your forces more than you planned over and over again, every year that creates lots of different kinds of problems. But what I’m really trying to get after is, do you have a sense that you can share with us whether those requests for forces exceed the the programmed management plan by 5%, by 50% – I’m trying to get a sense of the scale here.

Rob Wittman: Well, I don’t know that you can necessarily elaborate on it by scale. But I think where you can elaborate on it is with the pure numbers. Because each of the requests are different in its scope. But I would say if you combined all of them, the number of requests for forces and this scale of each individual one, that at least in my mind, and I want to emphasize this is anecdotally because I’m looking at things in relation to what we have seen in the past. I would say anecdotally, it does appear as though the demand signal coming from the [combatant commands] today is significantly greater than it has been in any time in recent history.

Jared Serbu: I’m wondering if you have a sense of, sort of the service chiefs’ culpability here. We all remember after the McCain and Fitzgerald incidents, a lot of the after action commentary was, “Well, look, the Navy just needs to learn how to say ‘no.'” Are the services saying “no” and being overruled by the secretary of Defense, or do they have a part to play in this?

Rob Wittman: I think the service branch chiefs have a part to play in this. So the Joint Staff is normally pretty good at parsing through these things and adjudicating the tensions between the demand for readiness today and the demand for modernization for the future. I do think though, that what they are seeing is, is a greater element of risks that we face today and in probably we have in recent history, because remember, historically, the risks have been dominated by one country like Russia. And then today, we see ourselves facing threats from Russia, from China, from Iran, from North Korea. So the number of threats build, and the nature and complexity of the threats I think are different and greater than they ever have been in the past. So I think that that’s where the current force availability is causing the service branch chiefs to look at, how do we adapt to what we see today in the demand signal? And then how do we make sure that we have the readiness that we need in the future? I think they’re all looking at this pretty creatively. I know that as I look at Gen. [David] Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps looking at this, and with his planning guidance changing, essentially, how the Marine Corps is going to operate, I think that’s an effort to say we’re gonna operate a little bit differently, because we know we can’t continue to have the same demand signal today while we modernize for the future. And we can’t use the old paradigm on how we counter the threats from China, like we have during the previous efforts on conventional warfare doctrine. So I think that they’re, I think they’re looking at it outside the box and looking at it in creative ways. And as I have stated, the biggest thing that I believe that they all have to address is that the reality of the challenge ahead is not just in how do we counter the Chinese. But we have to be able to do more with our resources than the Chinese do with theirs or the Russians do with theirs. So we have to get more per our dollar than the Chinese get per their yuan or the Russians get for their ruble. Because we are not going to be able to do like we did in the Cold War and just out resource our opponents. We have multiple opponents on different fronts. So it means we have to be smarter with the resources that we have. We have to do much more in partnering with other nations, and looking at operating jointly, not just within the forces of the United States, but also with other nations. And I think those are some of the questions that this request for forces will beg. So when you have a request for forces, instead of continuing to come back to the Pentagon, I think the question should naturally take you – okay, if we have need more forces, let’s say in the Indo-Pacific, what are we doing to go to our allies and say, “Hey, by the way, the demand signal that’s coming here is significantly greater. What can you do as partners or as allies to help us with that? Because we can’t meet the entire demand signal ourselves?” And by the way, as we modernize, how are we modernizing in a way that leverages the force structure, not only from the United States, but for other nations? Because we will not have the resources to do this all by ourselves?

Jared Serbu: I guess the last thing I wonder in our last couple minutes here is that the letter makes an interesting point that there’s there’s kind of an incentives problem here, and that the combatant commanders themselves, really have no incentive to suppress their appetites and decline the opportunity to request forces for relatively low priority problems. Is that a problem that needs to be fixed by Congress or anyone else? Or should we just accept that they’re always going to want more, and it’s up to the building to deal with that?

Rob Wittman: I think they’re always going to be faced with the challenges today. Their daily intelligence reports tells them about the threats, and then they have to look at the forces that they need to generate to do that. And that’s a natural part of their job. I think they know intuitively what they need to do to counter that threat into the future. So I think the question for the Pentagon becomes, do we require that the cocoms do a little more in forward thinking, as they confer with the service branch chiefs than they have in the past? And maybe that’ll inform a little bit more about the global force management plans? I don’t know that you necessarily need to change how they develop those plans because we want them to be candid about what they think the threats are today and what we need to counter those threats. But I do think that they have to be part of the discussion to say, okay, we understand what you need to do to counter the threats today. But where do you think that the United States can take on reasonable risk in order to devote the resources necessary for the future of the force? And I think that they will give some pretty thoughtful and intuitive insights as to where they believe that balance can take place, because that’s what it’s going to be. It’s going to have to be a balance, and they’re going to have to accelerate the changes that are needed to modernize our capabilities, to make sure that we’re going to be relevant and overcoming the abilities and threats from our adversaries. If not, we’re not going to be prepared to compete to deter and to win in that future battlespace. So, I do think that the combatant commanders do need to be engaged in a way that’s a little more forward thinking and to get their thoughts on, how do we strike that proper balance?

Jared Serbu: Sorry, I lied – one more question. I just wanted to ask quickly about the timing of this letter. Should we read anything into that? Is it just a matter of a new administration coming in and getting ready to do a new [quadrennial defense review]? Or are things especially bad right now, in terms of these RFSs?

Rob Wittman: I think that this has been something that’s been developing over time. I don’t think it’s unique to this administration. But I do think there’s an opportunity as this administration comes in to be able to ask these questions. And that’s why we believe, again, a bipartisan group of us believe that the questions needed to be asked now. So as the folks in the Pentagon are doing their evaluation, as every new secretary of Defense does, that they look at all of these particular issues, in how they balance the modernization efforts with force generation and readiness generation today. And now’s the time to ask that because as you put forward your strategy, you’re going to have to make sure you reflect both of those elements in what your strategy is going forward.

Tom Temin: Virginia Congressman Rob Wittman is ranking member of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, speaking with Federal News Network’s Jared Serbu. We’ll post this interview and a link to the letter at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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