While deployed U.S. military forces continue to perform superbly in ongoing combat operations against the Islamic State, training and assisting Afghan forces, providing humanitarian support in West Africa and conducting forward presence in Asia, Europe and Latin America, the non-deployed force is experiencing a severe decline in readiness. This is before sequestration hit the defense budget like an F-5 tornado.
Each of the Services is reporting the same trend: fewer flying hours and training opportunities, reduced supplies of spare parts, and experienced personnel leaving or being forced out. As a result, aircraft are sitting on the ramp, ships are tied up at the docks and vehicles are parked. According to recent reports, some Navy F/A-18 squadrons have only a couple of aircraft in airworthy condition. The USS Truman carrier strike group will have to deploy six months earlier than planned due to unanticipated additional maintenance that must be performed on the USS Eisenhower. The Air Force is experiencing similar challenges with its fighter, refueler and bomber fleets. At least a third of the Army’s active combat brigades are not considered fully capable of going to war.
An aging force needs more, not less maintenance. More complex systems require more, not less training. A few months ago, half the F-16 fleet was grounded when cracks were found in a critical structural element. Electronic warfare and anti-submarine patrol units that spent the last decade flying in Southwest Asia looking for insurgents and jamming IEDs now have to work on the skills necessary to deal with prospective high-end adversaries.
Current readiness difficulties are the result of a too small force being stretched too thin and starved of resources. Since the Obama Administration came to office, defense spending has declined from levels planned in 2009 by nearly $1 trillion. This is before sequestration returns in 2016 with nearly $500 billion more in budget cuts out to 2023. If these reductions are imposed on the military the effect will be to hamstring the force.
The examples cited above are like a flock of canaries in the coal mine, harbingers of even more serious problems to come. The military is a complex, living system. At some point, probably very soon, the combination of overuse and abuse will result in that force being incapable of meeting its essential responsibilities to defend the nation and provide the President with credible options for the use of force.
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