The “military readiness crisis” has become a terrifyingly common phrase in our political discourse. At this point, most if not all political pundits are aware that our military is hurting. The sequester is the most notorious culprit for this crisis, and for good reason.
The spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act — a measure designed to be so devastating that even our dysfunctional Congress would get its act together to avoid it — have indeed been crippling. But a second, more complex factor has been almost as destructive, and for it Congress is equally responsible.
For nine consecutive years, Congress has begun the fiscal year by funding the federal government through a temporary continuing resolution rather than a traditional spending bill. Continuing resolutions, as military leaders have warned Congress repeatedly, are uniquely devastating to military readiness. This annual display of congressional incompetence reduces training opportunities, limits maintenance, and imposes significant burdens on military families. Continuing resolutions are so destructive that Defense Secretary James Mattis told military leaders recently they have a duty to speak publicly (though non-politically) about the issue.
Continuing Resolutions Only Work Temporarily
A continuing resolution (CR) is a stop-gap funding measure that Congress uses to avoid a government shutdown when it can’t agree on a year-long budget. Rather than approving new funding measures for the upcoming year, a paralyzed Congress passes a CR that funds the government at pre-existing levels for specified number of months. It is a continuance of the previous year’s appropriations.
Last month, congressional leaders and President Trump agreed to a three-month CR. How does this affect the military, specifically? The military plans its operational and training cycles in 12-month windows, and forecasts its corresponding funding needs accordingly. After the Pentagon informs Congress of its funding requirements, it is essentially forced to plan its mission, training, and maintenance rotations based on the assumption that Congress will do its job and pass an actual budget that reflects those needs.
When Congress chooses to punt instead, as it has nearly 30 times since 2001, all of those plans go out the window. This year, the Department of Defense requested $639 billion, but it is currently operating on last year’s appropriations level, which is $47 billion less, for the duration of the CR. Under continuing resolutions, the military is unable to start new programs or expand others, including on critical and quickly changing fields like cybersecurity, and is restricted from moving money between its various spending accounts.
The latter restriction reduces the Pentagon’s flexibility to adapt and adjust to new challenges to our national security. In an increasingly unpredictable world, this unforced error can be deadly. CRs essentially place the military in a straightjacket. And the longer the duration of a CR, the more harmful it is.
CRs Are Strangling Military Effectiveness
In a letter to Congress on September 8, Mattis explained that a CR forces the military branches to “realign or execute CR and existing budgetary resources within the limits of their authorities to support forward-deployed operations.” In plain English, this means the service branches are robbing Peter to pay Paul — specifically by taking training dollars from units that are on training rotations and re-allocating them to imminently deploying units to shore up their pre-deployment resources.
Rather than building the whole force, the military has to triage the damage and focus its resources only on the most immediate and critical needs. “Training scheduled for the period of a CR,” Mattis told congressional leaders, “must be re-scoped and scaled to incorporate only mission essential tasks.” In other words, much of it won’t happen.
Even if Congress eventually passes an appropriations bill, the damage from the CR will have already been inflicted. As Mattis explained, “by ninety days, the lost training is irrecoverable.” Air Force pilots, for instance, cannot get their lost flight hours back, since time is not a fungible commodity.
The disruption is especially damaging to Army and Marine units. Army units conduct training cycles step-by-step, starting with team and squad-level exercises and slowly building up to company-wide missions. This is especially the case for live-ammunition exercises. So, even if a unit receives full funding later in the fiscal year, it won’t be able to progress as far on the training ladder as it originally planned. The continuing resolution for the 2017 fiscal year lasted seven months.
Only One-Tenth of Our Army Brigades Are Ready to Deploy
All non-mission-critical maintenance is also postponed for the duration of the CR. After nine consecutive years of CRs, it should surprise no one that only three of the Army’s 31 Brigade Combat Teams are capable of deploying immediately to a conflict. The people responsible for this situation are many of the same people who loudly complained that the military did not send resources to Puerto Rico quickly enough for their liking.
As the incidents over last several months have finally laid bare, our degraded state of readiness can cost men and women their lives in training. And if our military finds itself in a war against a conventional power — a possibility that has become less remote than in previous years — the consequences of Washington’s incompetence will be an unnecessary, large-scale loss of life.
Congress, of course, is well aware of all of this. Mattis sent them a six-page letter discussing it. Nonetheless, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to negotiate for a six- or even nine-month CR a few weeks later.
Ironically, despite all the anger on the Right that Trump agreed on a three-month CR with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, that was the “least bad” of the three options, from a military readiness standpoint. Last year, the Freedom Caucus held out for six-month CR after Democrats in the Senate filibustered Republican spending legislation. There is blame on all sides.
The compounded effects of nine consecutive years of continuing resolutions — of Congress’s failure to do its job at the most basic level — have inarguably contributed to the readiness crisis now facing the 1 percent of our country that we send into battle on behalf of the other 99 percent. The current CR ends on December 9, but the Senate does not have to wait that long to pass a defense appropriations bill. The House has already passed the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018 in July, and Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pennsylvania) recently demanded in a floor speech that the Senate do its part. If our senators mean what they say about rebuilding America’s military, they will pass the NDAA immediately and prevent further harm to the armed forces. But I won’t hold my breath.