US Military Readiness in Decline Since 2017: Government Watchog

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The seconds-in-command of five United States military branches gave detailed updates about how their services are enhancing combat readiness during an April 19 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee.

So, when the same four generals and admiral were slated to again address readiness in a May 2 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee, expectations were the same story, just a different chamber, with a brushed-off rehash of presentations from their previous hearings.

That assumption proved right—the flag officers recounted efforts to improve training and exercises, secure supply chains, boost the Pentagon’s industrial base, and address recruiting shortfalls, safety concerns, and maintenance backlogs while focusing on two primary areas of operations, the Western Pacific in facing off against China, and in Europe in staring down Russia.

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An Air Force F-35 fighter jet takes off for a training mission at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)

But there was a twist at the end: A sixth witness, none other than Government Accountability Office (GAO) director of defense capabilities and government accountability Diana Maurer.

And Maurer, a GAO number-crunching efficiency analyst, came prepared with 37 recent reports bundled in a report that she highlighted in 48 pages of written testimony excerpted in succinct, stark testimony before the panel.

“What we have found is rather troubling. Broadly speaking, mission capability—can units execute their missions?—has declined since 2017,” she said, not wasting words.

Even Space Force Takes Hit

While the Army and Marines improved in the “ground domain,” the Navy and Air Force experienced declines in readiness across the “sea, air, and space domains,” Maurer said.

In “resource readiness,” which she explained as being people, equipment, and supplies, “we found the sea domain declined” while “ground, air, space domains generally reported improvement,” she said, before adding “there is still a lot of ground to make up.”

Overall, Maurer said, the reports document that “nearly two decades of conflict has degraded military readiness” and that many of GAO’s recommendations to remedy cited issues in previous readiness reports were never considered.

The latest analysis includes “more than 130 recommendations in the 37 reports listed in my statement,” she said. “The DOD [Department of Defense] has moved on some but 100 remain open.”

She highlighted some of the readiness issues identified by the Government Accountability Office.

Maurer said in 2022, the office tested 49 aircraft types being used by the Navy and Air Force. “Only two met their annual mission-capable goals. The vast majority missed by more than 10 percent,” she said.

USS Virignia
The USS Virginia attack submarine returns to the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, Connecticut. (Jack Sauer/AP Photo)

The F-35 program, “in particular, suffers from a variety of sustainment woes,” Maurer said, noting fleet-wide mission-capable rates for the fighter have declined every year since 2020

“The Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps face substantial gaps between what it costs to fly [F-35s] and what they can afford,” she said.

GAO analysts maintain in 2022 the Navy pushed aside $1.8 billion in deferred ship maintenance, mainly in cruisers and amphibious ships.

“Over a 10-year period, maintenance delays went up and cannibalizations also increased while steaming hours went down. The Navy is also facing a significant crewing shortfall,” Maurer said.

The office analyses criticized the Army for helicopter safety practices. The reports also show “shortfalls in rail support and in Sea-Lift training that affects readiness and ability to get to the fight,” she said.

Air Force maintenance and supply issues limit the availability of aging aircraft, Maurer said. From 2011–2021, only three Air Force aircraft—B-2,s RC-135s, UH-1N helicopters—met their annual mission-capable goal in most years, the GAO documents.

Even the foundling Space Force took a ding from the accountability office.

“Space Force faces unique readiness challenges” because DOD is still trying to figure out what it is, Maurer said. “DOD can better incorporate involving Space Force’s mission into its readiness approach.”

Flag Officers Agree

GAO’s assessments, criticisms, and suggested recommendations drew little comment from the panel during the hearing until Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H). said she was “disappointed with the decline in readiness” and asked the flag officers if they agreed with Maurer’s assessments.

They all did and they all said they are either responding to or evaluating GAO’s recommendations.

U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff General Randy George—nominated last week by President Joe Biden to succeed the retiring Gen. James McConville as Army Chief of Staff— said the service is using the GAO report to enhance mobilization and investing $10 million in rail capacity to ferry battle tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Lisa Franchetti said the Navy is very aware of issues cited in the report and has been addressing them even before GAO identified them as problems.

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Troops from U.S. Army mechanized units wait to take part in live fire exercises during the multinational Defender Europe 20 military exercises in Poland, on Aug. 11, 2020. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

The Navy has been increasing its number of days at sea and its budget request seeks billions to draw down ship maintenance backlogs, she said, noting that in 2022 there were reductions in delays in maintenance and that a shipyard optimization plan addresses issues in the nation’s four public shipyards was initiated.

The shipyard optimization plan was endorsed by Shaheen because of one the four naval shipyards is in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Franchetti said the Navy has made strides in extending the service life and lethality of F-18 Super Hornets and elevated their fleet readiness to 80-85 percent.

“We have a lot more work to do,” she conceded. “We’re grateful for the work GAO has done.”

U.S. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General David Allvin said he also agreed with most GAO findings about maintaining aging aircraft.

“Fifty-three percent of [the Air Force’s] aviation assets are exceeding expected service lifespans,” he said. “They break 65 percent more and take 15 percent longer to repair.”

That has a spiraling effect on readiness elsewhere, he said.

Readiness Enhanced

Prior to Maurer’s testimony, the service honchos offered past-is-prologue accounts of an increasing tempo of exercises, deployments, and training programs in 2022 that will continue in 2023 and beyond.

Right now, there are an average of 143,000 sailors and two amphibious groups with a combined 5,000 Marines at sea on any given day.

At least 80,000 of those naval forces and one amphibious group are in the Western Pacific at all times.

Meanwhile, there are more than 142,000 Army troops in Europe, including 17,000 in rotationally deployed units along NATO’s “eastern flank” deployed since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

In 2022, the Navy-Marine Corps flew nearly 1 million hours, sailed more than 22,000 days, and participated in nearly 100 exercises, Franchetti said in her testimony.

The Navy has stepped up its deployments since 2022 to accommodate a “significantly higher” operations tempo than five years ago, she said, especially in the Western Pacific’s South China Sea where China’s growing navy is building and arming artificial islands in commercial sea lanes.

Taking up a battlegroup station in the South China Sea “deters and complicates the PRC’s decision-calculus and regional plans while reassuring our allies and partners” of American resolve and capacity to check the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) illegal territorial claims, Franchetti said.

In 2022, the Navy deployed 95 ships, 28 submarines, and 75 aviation squadrons to the Western Pacific, maintained continuous strategic deterrence patrols by ballistic missile “boomer” submarines, and conducted numerous Freedom of Navigation Operations—“show the flag” transits through contested waters—in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, she said.

The U.S. Army, too, is picking up its training and readiness pace and also doing so with an emphasis on addressing the “pacing challenge” presented by China, George said.

In addition to forces stationed in Hawaii, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, the Army plans to dispatch combat units to the Western Pacific for seven or eight-month deployments in the coming years, he said in his testimony.

“After years of diminished activities due to the pandemic, we have resumed and expanded our multinational exercise programs,” George said, with emphasis on the Indo-Pacific where, in 2022, the Army participated in a massive exercise in Thailand with the militaries from 29 nations.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tested the readiness of the U.S. military and its NATO allies to respond in a way that deterred further westward advances by Putin’s armies and provide meaningful assistance for a besieged nation, he said.

“Within hours” of the invasion, the Army deployed soldiers from pre-positioned units to NATO’s “eastern flank,” George said. Right now, 142,000 remain in Europe, including 17,000 in rotationally deployed units. Many are supporting weapons supply chains and training Ukrainian soldiers, he said.

In response to Russia’s invasion, Franchetti said in her testimony that the Navy deployed 27 ships, 14 submarines, and 31 aviation squadrons to Europe “to send a strong deterrence message” to Putin and “reassure our NATO allies and partners that we are committed to their security.”

Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps General Eric Smith said in testimony that the Marines delivered one of those “deterrence messages”  when the 22nd U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) of the USS Kearsarge battlegroup participated in Baltic Sea maneuvers, including amphibious landings with Swedish and Finnish forces, in May-June 2022.

Also 2022, he said, the corps deployed its first newly created Marine Littoral Regiment (MLR) to the Western Pacific and, in March 2023, activated its third MLR.

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