Project on Defense Alternatives

The Armed Forces "used too much and supported too little"?

Project on Defense Alternatives
September 2000

Adopting a line of argument and a complaint frequently heard of late both in Congress and in the armed services, George W. Bush has been campaigning for the presidency saying the "military suffers from back-to-back deployments, poor pay, shortages of spare parts and equipment, and rapidly declining readiness." According to Governor Bush the "armed forces of the United States are used too much and supported too little." [San Diego, September 15, 2000].

In evaluating this claim it is worth examining each of the four specifics that George W. Bush offers as evidence. The following provides a guide to the pertinent evidence as collected, organized, and analyzed by the Project on Defense Alternatives in a 1999 study of readiness issues in the Air Force. Why focus on the Air Force? Because during the decade of 1990s the Air Force stands out among the services with the most demanding burden of frequent operations, the greatest growth in the number of personnel on temporary duty assignment, and other prima facie indicators of readiness problems.

1. Back-to-back Deployments

There have been many more instances of US military deployment in the post-Cold War period than before. In terms of overall quantity in recent years the United States has had an average of more than 40,000 military personnel continuously deployed in contingency operations -- a level several times greater than the average for the late-1980s. Nonetheless, most deployments are quite small and the aggregate average involves less than 3% of the total active military. Allowing for a generous rotation base of three to one, on average less than 12% of the active military at any one time is required to meet the demand for operational deployments. This is not too demanding a rate of deployment for armed forces when structured and prepared for such roles.

Certain units such as military police and electronic warfare squadrons have experienced increased temporary duty demand during the recent period. Resulting readiness problems in these units can be addressed by substituting other less-stressed assets to meet the demand or by increases in selective assets, both adjustments serving to increase effective supply to meet demand [see "Uneven Burdens: Selective Systems Under Stress" in The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force].

Taking all forms of overseas presence into account, a smaller proportion of the U.S. military is kept in foreign areas today than during the late-1980s. During the years 1984-1989, 22% of the U.S. military was deployed or stationed overseas; During the years 1994-1997, by comparison, only 17% was foreign stationed or deployed.

2. Poor Pay

It has been argued that the armed services are having trouble meeting recruitment goals and retaining senior personnel because pay is "sub-standard", with that standard set by civilian market rates which supposedly draw away those with the aptitude for or proficiency in the technical skills increasingly required by the modern military. There is no doubt a kernel of truth in this, but advancing the argument in late 2000 ignores several important considerations. First, military pay rates and retirement benefits increased significantly in 1999 and the recruitment and retention indicators in 2000 suggest the sufficiency of those increases. Second, studies have shown that military pay rates have kept up with those in the civilian sector for a majority of military personnel [see Beth J. Asch and James R. Hosek, "Military Compensation: Trends and Policy Options", RAND Corp. (DB-273-OSD), 1999].

A "pay gap" emerged in the late 1990s for officers and senior enlisted personnel. In particular there is problem competing with the civilian sector to fill the minority of high-skill specialty billets. This confronts the nation with a social policy dilemma. An attractive characteristic of the military sector has been its greater equity of pay than in the civilian society. Do we as a nation want to selectively increase pay in military specialties for purposes of recruitment and retention and thereby lose the sense of social solidarity within the ranks that results from equity of pay? Already substantial pilot bonuses cause resentment amongst those in the Air Force who are not pilots, but nevertheless perform highly responsible and critical functions [see "The Pilot Retention Problem" and "Ending the Pilot Shortage/Surplus Cycle" in The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force].

3. Shortages of Spare Parts and Equipment

A convergence of unexpected demand for spare parts in 1996 and an understatement by Air Force managers of the requirements for parts in 1997 left insufficient parts in the pipeline for 1998. To correct this shortfall funding of spare parts was increased to 100% in the Air Force's FY1999 budget. Given the lag time between funding, delivery, and utilization of spare parts, remediation of falling aircraft mission capable rates due to the shortage of spare parts could not be expected until 2000 [see "Mission Capable Rates and Unit Readiness" in The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force].

As events unfolded, however, the Air Force fought a medium-size war with Serbia in 1999. Wars always have a temporary negative impact on readiness as weapon and transport systems suffer wear and tear, parts and ordnance are consumed, and personnel work long hours and miss peacetime training routines. This kind of readiness effect is an expected consequence of utilizing armed force in anything but the most minor contingency. Any spare parts shortages appearing in 2000 and 2001 should not be conflated with the shortages of 1996 and 1997. Neither case indicates an endemic problem, both are explained by particular circumstances and will be remedied within a year or two.

Regarding "shortages of equipment," Governor Bush does not specify his concern. It is true that increased use of some types of units in overseas operations has resulted in heightened demand for certain categories of specialized equipment that, nevertheless, remain in short supply. It would require only rather modest investments to provide more of these types of equipment to our forces . Yet, so far procurement of these items has not been a priority for the services.

More generally, concern about supposed readiness shortfalls provided a convenient political wedge in 1998 to win increased expenditures for the next generation of military equipment. For instance, the U.S. Marine Corps has argued that its "future readiness" is in doubt if it does not get the full complement of new equipment the service desires. Actually, the concept of "future readiness" is of little or no use in evaluating the requirement for particular modernization investments. In the case of the Marine Corps, many of its helicopters are approaching the end of their service lives. Nevertheless, the Corps can maintain roughly equivalent readiness of combat units with a variety of options: service-life-extension programs, new helicopters, or new tilt-rotor craft. Concern for future readiness does not make a convincing case for choosing the most expensive option -- tilt-rotors.

Modernization choices, as always, must be made on the basis of assessments of threats and military competition weighed against other possible investments, military and civilian. Sometimes buying the most expensive new equipment will be justified, other times it will not. It depends on the competing opportunities and demands for that public investment capital. Nonetheless, the Marine Corps has been so successful in Congress with its rhetoric of "future readiness" requirments that the other services have begun to use this dubious concept in support of their lobbying for increased modernization accounts.

Readiness only becomes a significant factor in the procurement equation if equipment is so old that it can not any longer be effectively repaired or renovated. That is not the case with most of the current stock of U.S. equipment. Although procurment accounts were lower in the 1990s than in the 1980s, a substantial amount of modernization continued throughout the last decade. And, although the overall age composition of the equipment stock has continued to get older, the drawdown in force size in the 1990s has afforded the services with a substantial inventory buffer in most categories. For instance in the Air Force, the ratio of the Total Active Inventory of fighter/interceptor aircraft (which includes backup aircraft and attrition reserves) to the Primary Mission Aircraft Inventory (providing the authorized strength of squadrons) increased from 1.44:1 in 1989 to 1.72:1 in 1997, a 20% increase [see "Cannibalization in Context" in The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force]. The services continue to be able to draw on these surplus stocks to compensate for the more frequent "down time" of older equipment.

4. Rapidly Declining Readiness

There is no credible evidence of broad-based "rapidly declining readiness" in the armed forces of the United States. Most frequently cited is anecdotal evidence; In an organization as large and varied as the U.S. military there will always be pockets of unreadiness and plenty of anecdotes. Most measures of overall readiness indicate that readiness levels are at or above levels in the mid-1980s, five years after the Carter-Reagan buildup began in 1979. Where an overall readiness decline can be demonstrated there is only a modest decrease from the levels of the late 1980s.

Yet by Governor Bush's account, the armed services of the United States are suffering from a systemic readiness crisis brought on by a combination of post-Cold War defense retrenchment and increased operational activity. PDA's examination of the Air Force's recent readiness problems and of longer-term trends in readiness and operational tempo finds little to support this view. Neither talk of crisis, nor crisis spending are warranted.

PDA's review of three recent areas of concern -- base operations support, the pilot inventory, and mission capable rates -- finds the problems in all three areas to have specific, near-term causes [for detailed review and analysis see The Readiness Crisis of the U.S. Air Force]. In all three cases, discrete policy or management decisions have played a key role in precipitating "crisis." In two of the areas -- pilot inventory and mission capable rates -- the problems are most closely tied to management errors or misjudgments. In the third area, base operations support, the source of difficulty has been the tug-of-war between the Pentagon and the Congress over the disposition of excess service infrastructure.

Turning to the operational tempo issues: PDA's review finds evidence of only a modest increase in overall activity levels since the Cold War's end. By and large, the real problem associated with operational tempo has been its distribution within the Air Force, which has been uneven across systems and commands. This has generated pockets of real stress in the service, and pockets of dissatisfaction as well. Significantly, these outcomes are not principally a product of increased operational tempo, but instead a result of how it has been managed.

PDA's review of the various activities that contribute to Air Force operational tempo found that the narrow fixation on "peace operations" in the current readiness discussion is unwarranted and impedes a practical understanding of increased operational tempo and how it might be tamed. Peace operations account for only a small portion of Air Force flying hours and are not the sole, nor often even the primary, detractor from training time. One fruitful avenue of innovation blocked by the fixation on peace operations is the redesign of training regimes to reduce their time and resource requirements -- reform that would make training more compatible with post-Cold War expedition-oriented forces.

It is not entirely surprising that the proposed solution to recent readiness problems -- large increases in defense spending -- bears no relationship to the demonstrable nature or extent of these problems. The recent boost in defense expenditures was born of unique political circumstances and a bullish financial optimism that cannot last. However, this hasty broad-brush approach saddles the nation with unnecessary financial burdens and cannot deliver policy that is stable over time.

Ten years after the Cold War there has been little transformation of the nation's armed forces toward meeting the requirements of the new era [for one innovative and detailed proposal for transformation see "The Macgregor Briefings: An Information Age Vision for the U.S. Army"]. It seems Washington's preference is to throw money at problems that result from the mismatch of forces structured for the old era to the conditions of the new. Such a course will only serve to allow policy makers to put off the time when they get serious about choices and reforms that have always made the powerful and vested interests uncomfortable, but are required when an historic era, such as the Cold War, passes. In order to make an effective transition leadership is required, but so far it has not showed in this year's presidential campaign.

Citation: The Armed Forces 'used too much and supported too little'? Project on Defense Alternatives Commentary. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, September 2000.

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