August 12, 2016

How Ready Is Our Military?

Gen. Petraeus praises Patriots in uniform, but they face challenges.

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, retired Army General David Petraeus claimed that descriptions of a readiness crisis in the military are overblown. There’s no question American Patriots in uniform are the finest in the world, and that’s partly Petraeus’s beef with anyone claiming a decline in readiness. But while he may have some points, there are some bigger questions that will need to be answered. The first concerns the readiness of our forces in terms of training and equipment, but there are also questions about morale, and about the priorities of this (or the next) administration.

The fact is, many of our troops have combat experience. Just about any company-sized unit probably has at least one senior NCO who joined prior to 9/11, and has stayed in. Troops still deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan — meaning that most squads are likely led by a soldier or Marine with at least one combat tour under his belt. That experience will matter in just about any conflict.

A second plus is the fact that our troops have seen better technology. Grunts have better body armor and their rifles have replaced the iron sights that were standard in 2001 with optics that make it easier to shoot accurately. The United States has the advantage of a large force of unmanned aerial vehicles for tactical and operational reconnaissance. The F-35 seems to have most of its kinks worked out, and no one can match U.S. air superiority.

That being said, though, the picture is not as rosy as General Petraeus is painting it. Let’s look at the situation involving tactical aviation. In some areas, the readiness gap is a critical problem. The Marines, for instance, are facing serious issues surrounding their force of F/A-18C/D Hornets. This past summer, one squadron, VMFA-232, has been involved in two crashes, with a third involving the famous Blue Angels demonstration team. In one sense, VMFA-232 is lucky — they are actually in the air. Other squadrons are barely getting any flying hours at all. Why? Because the Hornets are wearing out after years of heavy flying. As a result, they’re not as able to take the demands of heavy combat flying as they once were.

The Marines never bought the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and now have resorted to raiding the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base for additional airframes, in addition to bumming airframes from the Navy. This is because nobody thought that it might not be a bad idea to either have the Marines get in on the F/A-18E/F or to continue producing the F/A-18C/D models, especially when it was becoming obvious that the F-35 wasn’t going to be ready for prime time soon enough. That means those planes that are too old to keep flying are on the ground. But the Marines still have to meet their deployment requirements, so the training is reduced to a minimum for any squadron not on deployment or preparing to deploy.

This is a huge problem — without constant flying time, experienced pilots’ skills get rusty. Newer pilots, “nuggets,” don’t even gain the skills they need to survive combat. All the abilities of our latest fighters and bombers mean nothing if their pilots don’t know how to get the most out of them in combat. Worse, in trying to shake off the rust, there will be losses in accidents — as we’re already seeing.

This is just one part of the Marine Corps’ aviation forces. There’s no telling how badly other aviation units in the Marine Corps — not to mention other services — are being affected. (But, for example, the Air Force lamented this week a critical shortage of 700 pilots.) Aviation units are just part of America’s military might. There are ground units, naval units, and even assets in space and cyberspace that require protection.

But Barack Obama is more worried about social engineering with repeal of politically incorrect policies.

Contrary to Petraeus’s assertions, there is a very real readiness crisis, and pretending otherwise will only make the problem worse. Congress and defense officials must admit a problem exists, and then start to address it — before the lack of readiness costs lives.

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