Column: Is the military’s unpredictable budget leading to a readiness crisis?

The United States spends more money on its military than any other country in the world. The American defense budget of almost $600 billion is more than four times that of China’s. In fact, the International Institute for Strategic Studies notes the U.S. spends almost as much as the next 14 countries — combined.

But rather than simply leave the interpretation of this data to readers, the institute warns this large budget does not necessarily buy sustainable U.S. military superiority. In February of this year, John Chipman, director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, noted that the proliferation of military-relevant technologies has large strategic consequences that appear to be undermining Western might.

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This point was driven home during a recent talk at the Harvard Kennedy School by former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy. She explicitly stated “our military technological edge … is no longer a given, because many of the technologies we rely on are becoming ubiquitous.”

These concerns are being raised at a time when global instability appears to be accelerating. For much of the past 15 years, military efforts shifted to focus on fluid non-state actors, such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and al-Nusra, that emerged as the primary adversaries.

More recently, however, we’ve seen an acceleration of state-sponsored military activity. Consider three events that have happened in the past five years: Russia annexed Crimea, China built islands and military airfields in the South China Sea, and Iran has embarked on a plan to subdue parts of Arabia. Here’s another data point: Saudi Arabia now has the third largest defense budget in the world, behind the U.S. and China.

And it’s not just the threat environment that has been uncertain. The Pentagon’s budget has also suffered from a lack of predictability. Flournoy’s advice to the next president was to “reach out to Congress and try to get a four-year budget deal as a national security issue.” She went on to note that “the Defense Department has not had a predictable budget top line for a long time … they’ve been living from continuing resolution to continuing resolution, the threat of sequestration hanging over their heads.”

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One impact of budgetary uncertainty is that current operations are regularly prioritized over maintenance and training. Charles Peña of the conservative Cato Institute notes that only 443 out of 1,040 Marine aircraft are ready to fly, half of the Navy’s F18s are out of circulation, and Army Aviation is only able to provide around 11.5 out of 14.5 required training hours per month to its soldiers.

The result is a meaningful degradation of the U.S. military’s ability to fight a major overseas war. While the prospect of a major overseas war appeared remote a mere five years ago, recent Chinese and Russian activities make the possibility seem less distant today. And the focus on non-state actors has transformed the American military in ways that may make it less equipped to take on another country. The active-duty Army has fallen from around 780,000 soldiers in 1991 to 470,000 today — the lowest level since World War II. Similar dynamics are affecting the other services.

In March, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asked Marine General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Do you agree that we have a significant readiness problem across the services, especially for the wide variety of contingencies that we’ve got to face?”

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General Dunford’s response was equally direct: “Chairman, I do, and I think those are accurate reflections of the force as a whole.”

General David Petraeus, who retired from the Army after commanding coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, disagrees with this sentiment, penning an op-ed with Michael O’Hanlon, titled “The Myth of a US Military ‘Readiness’ Crisis.” They argue that today’s overall budget of around $600 billion exceeds the Cold War average budget of around $525 billion, that more than 90 percent of equipment is mission capable, that training for “full-spectrum” operations is resuming and that today’s military is battle-tested and experienced. They also note that “Pentagon budgets to buy equipment now exceed $100 billion a year, a healthy and sustainable level.” The bottom line, Petraeus and O’Hanlon note, is that “while there are areas of concern, there is no crisis in military readiness.”

Readiness crisis or not, most analysts and policymakers agree that the U.S. military is today the most capable armed force in the world. As General Dunford made clear: “It’s about the standards we’ve set for ourselves, which are incredibly high.”

Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley assured lawmakers earlier this year that the military’s ability to fight against terrorist groups is not in question, noting “you can take it to the bank.” But he went on to emphasize the material risks emanating from a potential great-power war against Russia, China, Iran or North Korea. “We can collectively roll the dice and say those days will never come and that’s a course of action; that is not a course of action I would advise.”

While General Milley’s comment may seem alarmist, it’s worth pondering the scenarios that may not be in our immediate field of consideration. We may not see a great-power conflict in the near future, but what might transpire if we did? Perhaps the U.S. military budget is too large today, but could it be too small for our future needs? Sure, force levels are shrinking, but could that be a strategic advantage? Yes, the Middle East seems particularly unstable, but might Saudi Arabia’s escalating military expenditures — despite its economic difficulties — point to even greater forthcoming instability?

In a world of massive uncertainty, we need to think creatively about possible scenarios, because in the wise words of baseball legend Yogi Berra, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”