Speaking at the Association of the United States Army’s Institute of Land Warfare Global Force Symposium and Exposition, Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno bemoaned the Army’s current state of readiness. According to Kathleen Curthoys of Military Times, Odierno claimed, “Even today we only have 33 percent of our brigades ready, when our sustained rate should be closer to 70 percent.” While those sound worrisome, there is little indication why 33 percent is too low and 70 percent is just right. And what do those numbers describe?
Readiness is not an easy thing to measure. Columbia University political scientist Richard Betts has previously described it in a way akin to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 description of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” In the case of readiness though, it may be that it is most recognizable by its absence. That even a leading scholar of military affairs would define it with such ambiguity suggests there is a great deal of subjectivity in determining readiness.
Given his lengthy service to his country, and the fact that he rose to Chief of Staff of the Army, Odierno is likely a pretty good judge of when he does or does not see a ready force. Still, with hundreds of billions of dollars at stake, metrics are needed beyond the judgment of one man—particularly one with a vested interest in increasing his organization’s budget, as the chief of any armed service is. Unfortunately, the legal requirements that the Department of Defense provide Congress with data showing the military’s readiness levels say very little about what the military needs to be ready.
As discussed previously, Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments recently published a study demonstrating the flaws in the military’s metrics for determining readiness. The current system uses inputs such as flying hours completed or training events conducted and assumes that the military knows the optimum number of each necessary for readiness. Because those inputs are a product of budgetary resources, any reduction in the budget, so the story goes, necessarily means a reduction in readiness. The current system says nothing, however, about the actual ability of the military to perform a wide variety of missions. Moreover, it says nothing about the balance between near-term readiness and long-term preparation for an unknowable future.
Four decades ago, political scientist Aaron Wildavsky noted that when central planners failed to achieve measurable results, they would shift focus from outcome to process. Absent victory or defeat in war, militaries must shift the focus to the inputs that supposedly produce readiness when war does occur. Harrison points to then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s evidence of an impending readiness crisis as an example of this tendency. Carter argued that because of sequestration, the Army would need to cancel five “full-spectrum rotations,” the Air Force would need to reduce flying hours, and the Navy and Marine Corps would cut back “fleet operations.” But there is little indication of how these changes affect readiness, or along what dimension.
Harrison has proposed an alternative system that uses metrics to determine how inputs affect outputs in pursuit of a chosen strategy. It uses current methods of determining readiness to identify what the military sees as key tasks and proposes that those tasks be measured through controlled experiments to continually update readiness models. These new models will allow the military services to better test their hypotheses about how to produce readiness. In turn, better feedback mechanisms on what produces readiness will lead to more efficient resource allocation at a variety of budget levels.
In his recent comments, Odierno pinned the blame for the perceived loss of readiness on sequestration. Other critics of the across the board reduction in defense dollars echo that point. The truth is, they are probably correct that the $37 billion taken from the Pentagon’s budget on March 1, 2013 likely did negatively affect military readiness. The problem, however, is no one can really say how. Nor can anyone say how or whether increased defense spending will improve the military’s ability to perform its tasks. Even the strongest defense hawks should be wary of throwing more money at the Pentagon given the military’s inability to provide solid measures of what practical effect additional funding would achieve.