What do the Battle of Savo Island, Kasserine Pass, Task Force Smith and Operation Eagle Claw have in common? They were all U.S. military disasters that were the result, broadly speaking, of inadequate readiness. In the first example, an allied naval force of some 22 surface warships was trounced by a Japanese flotilla one third its size in a night engagement that demonstrated the Imperial Navy’s superior training, coordination and weapons. Kasserine Pass witnessed the mauling of the green U.S. II Corps by a numerically inferior German force from General Erwin Rommel’s battle hardened Afrika Korps. Task Force Smith was a hastily-assembled, poorly equipped force from the U.S. 24th Division (which had been on garrison duty in Japan for more than five years) that was sent to South Korea in 1950 only to be overrun by a North Korean armored column. Finally, Operation Eagle Claw is better known as the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt in 1979 during which eight American servicemen died as a result of poor planning, inadequate coordination and a lack of prior training.
You may remember the movie Top Gun which was loosely based on the training regime at the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School. The school was set up in 1969 in response to the inadequate performance of Navy fighters in the skies over North Vietnam. Navy analyses concluded that the core reason for the inability of U.S. fighters to dominate their adversary was inadequate training in air combat maneuvering skills. With proper training, the ratio of kills to losses against the North Vietnamese Air Force went from 3.7:1 to 13:1.
Many factors contribute to military readiness which I would define as the ability of individuals and units to effectively perform their assigned missions. Arguably, the most important of these is training. There is basic readiness: a rifleman needs to know how to fire his weapon, a pilot how to fly his plane and a sailor how to drive his ship. These individuals also need to know how to operate in a unit such as the infantry squad and every unit needs to know how to be part of still larger formations all the way up to divisions and corps, squadrons and fleets and wings and air divisions. Even more challenging are the complex joint and coalition operations such as those that conducted Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.
In the modern U.S military it isn’t enough any longer just to be proficient in a single service’s disciplines. One also has to be proficient in working with the other services. U.S. Air Force aerial refueling tankers provide gas for Navy and Marine Corps aircraft too. Marine Corps EA-6Bs and EA-18Gs provide electronic support for Army forces in Afghanistan. Army missile defense units work with the Navy’s Aegis missile defense system to protect forward deployed forces.
The success of U.S. forces across a wide spectrum of missions over the past several decades is due in large part to an enormous investment in readiness. The secret to our military’s rather stellar performance from Desert Storm to the raid that got Osama bin Laden was its high readiness level and the key to that can be found in three words: training, training, and training. Yes, it doesn’t hurt to have the best equipment in the world with the proper maintenance. But anyone with a military background will tell you that good equipment manned by poorly equipped personnel is a recipe for disaster. Of course, if there are no spare parts or maintenance then even the best weapons in the hands of well-trained personnel means nothing. But it is the investment made in training most particularly that has resulted in the U.S. military’s high level of performance.
The current defense budget debacle does particular harm to readiness. The Navy announced that one consequence of sequestration will be the forced grounding of at least four carrier air wings with two more reduced to operating at just a sufficient number of flying hours to ensure they meet minimum safety standards. There is no more complex and challenging activity than conducting flight operations from an aircraft carrier and it requires continual practice by all the players from pilots and deck personnel to maintainers and operational support personnel. In addition, the Navy will halt basic flight training in March. The Air Force is facing similar decisions which, according to the Chief of Staff, General Welsh, if extended for the rest of the fiscal year will render two-thirds of all fighter squadrons non-combat ready. All the services are foregoing scheduled maintenance on critical platforms which will render the ships, planes and vehicles unready to be sent in harm’s way.
Readiness, once lost, is not easily recovered. An aircraft squadron that is not allowed to practice its combat missions for three months may require six to regain its prior level of proficiency. The irony is that reducing current readiness in order to save money will cost more in the long run because inevitably it will have to be “bought back” in a crisis when it is more expensive.
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