Restoring Military Readiness Will Take Time and Money

The branches are struggling with old equipment and too few, too mediocre recruits. Can Trump fix it?

Todd Johnson · Jan. 9, 2018

It was just under a year and half ago that then-candidate Donald Trump was campaigning to eliminate the sequester on defense spending, as well as increase troop levels and military spending on weapons.

He more than lived up to that campaign promise when he signed the $700 billion 2018 National Defense Authorization Act last December. The congressional authorization was championed by many Republican representatives and senators as being badly needed for the defense of the nation.

The bill authorizes that numerous weapons systems, including 90 F-35s, 24 F/A-18s, and three littoral combat ships, be added to U.S. military formations in the future. However, these items won’t be arriving anytime soon. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan stated as much last month when he told reporters that weapons modernization takes time and that no new spending can take place until Congress decides to eliminate the Budget Control Act of 2011, better known as the sequester.

Yet more troubling than the long procurement cycles for new weapons is the fact that the services are currently finding it difficult to maintain or grow their organizations without compromising standards, let alone to the levels that President Trump wants for the future.

Recruitment challenges are nothing new for the U.S. military, but the dynamics of finding qualified individuals in the 21st century is a real problem. Recent numbers show that 70% of 17-24 year-olds don’t even meet the minimum requirements for military service. According to the Defense Department, “Only 1% of young people are both ‘eligible and inclined to have conversation with’ the military about possible service.” The pool of recruits has shrunk even more over the last couple of years as the unemployment rate has dropped to record lows, so the services have found themselves having to be creative in recruiting and reenlistment practices.

The U.S. Army recently announced, and later rescinded, a plan to provide waivers to individuals who had a history of mental issues, including bipolar disorders and self-mutilation. Last year, the Army accepted 50% more Category 4 recruits — individuals who score in the bottom third of military exams — than in 2016.

The U.S. Navy last month pushed out several policy changes designed to keep individuals in the active component. The changes include allowing individuals who fail the physical fitness test twice to remain on active duty. Vice Adm. Robert Burke, the chief of naval personnel, wrote in a message to the fleet, “Adjustments to physical readiness program policies reflect a continued emphasis to invest in and retain our most important resource, our sailors.”

Lastly, the Air Force continues to grapple with a shortage of pilots and the problem is getting worse. According to recent reports, the USAF is short almost 2,000 pilots and much of the blame is directed at the combination of multiple overseas tours and the airline industry aggressively pursuing talent. The Air Force has attempted to stem the exodus through a combination of bonuses and a reduction of administrative duties but it hasn’t worked.

Meanwhile, the pace of U.S. military operations around the globe continues to grow and the time is soon approaching when the services will find themselves having to drop standards to even lower levels in order to meet manning requirements. This impending disaster must be avoided at all costs, which is why the Joint Chiefs must work with the secretary of Defense and other administration officials on how to avoid this potential crisis.

The strength of the American military has always been its people and that’s why it’s important that the services not relax personnel standards in order to meet artificial strength levels. It’s not good for the long term health of organization, our relationships with our allies, and most importantly, our nation’s ability to fight and win our future conflicts and wars.

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