Inside The Pentagon
by Elaine M. Grossman
July 6, 2006
Page 1

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Air Force preparedness at ‘historic low’

A memorandum circulated last week on Capitol Hill by a House Armed Services subcommittee chairman is raising concerns that Army units training at home are so short on equipment and personnel that they are unready if needed urgently for Iraq, Afghanistan or potentially any other crisis that may emerge domestically or abroad.

The June 26 document, issued by readiness panel head Rep. Joel Hefley (R-CO), suggests the Army has already deployed units to Iraq and Afghanistan officially rated at the lowest levels of readiness.

But an Army spokesman said this week that although some units arrive in theater at less than top preparedness, they receive additional equipment and training before undertaking missions. In the Persian Gulf, for example, Army units typically fall in on equipment in Kuwait and undergo weeks of additional training there before moving into Iraq.

“There’s not one unit that goes across the berm [into Iraq or Afghanistan] that is not C-1 ready,” Lt. Col. Carl Ey, an Army spokesman, told Inside the Pentagon on July 5.

“C-ratings” are an official measure that describes units ready for their assigned missions as “C-1” and those most ill-prepared as “C-4.” The ratings reflect three major factors – personnel, equipment and training
– and any of the three can alone drive a low assessment.

Hefley prepared the memo for readiness subcommittee members prior to a June 28 closed-door briefing by one- and two-star flag and general officers from each of the services.

The six-page missive, obtained by ITP, asserts that “overall, units are deploying in a combat-ready status, but at the expense of units that are remaining behind.” Army and Marine Corps stocks of weapon systems and support equipment are being used abroad so heavily that little is available with which units back home can train for their own potential deployment.

Hefley goes on to recommend questions that members of the readiness subcommittee might ask the military briefers, and here the memo alludes to readiness problems that have already spread from home bases to units deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom, or “OIF,” and Operation Enduring Freedom, or “OEF,” in Afghanistan.

According to the subcommittee chairman, there are multiple instances of Army forces deploying abroad with the worst possible C-ratings.

“In many cases, units deploying to OIF/OEF have lower C-ratings than previously would have been allowed,” the memo states in a section recommending questions for Maj. Gen. George Higgins, an Army assistant deputy chief of staff assigned to brief the subcommittee. “Why do units with poor C-ratings deploy to combat? How do units that are C-3 or C-4 accomplish their mission in theater?”

Because last week’s briefing was closed to the public, staff aides contacted for this article said they were unable to discuss responses military briefers offered to this and other questions posed by lawmakers. The memo does not provide details on how many units or which ones have deployed with the lowest readiness ratings.

But it does indicate readiness problems appear to be getting worse rather than better.

“Data suggests that overall readiness ratings of the Army are continuing to decline due to equipment shortages,” Hefley writes. Lawmakers should ask the service how it plans to repair or replace worn-out equipment, particularly in the National Guard, which bears “the greatest burden of equipment shortages in the Army,” according to the document.

Nonetheless, those familiar with the issue say unit readiness lapses are affecting both the active and reserve components of the services.

The military briefers were on Capitol Hill last week as part of a series of meetings devoted to readiness concerns. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee testified June 27 before the House Armed Services Committee on plans to replace or repair ground equipment and rotorcraft. A day later, the two service chiefs returned to the committee to testify in closed session.

The Army is seeking $17.1 billion in fiscal year 2007 to “reset” its force after years of wear in Afghanistan and Iraq. The effort includes $6.5 billion for repair; $8.5 billion for recapitalization; and $2.1 billion to replace equipment destroyed in combat, sister publication Inside the Army reported this week.

That continues an effort begun several years ago.

“Since 9/11, we have reset and returned over 1,900 aircraft, over 14,000 track vehicles, almost 111,000 wheeled vehicles, as well as thousands of other items to our operational units,” Schoomaker told the House committee last week. “By the end of this year fiscal year 2006, which will end in three months – we will have placed approximately 290,000 major items of equipment into reset. Approximately 280,000 major items will remain in theater and will not redeploy to be reset until the drawdown [of U.S. forces in Iraq] is implemented.”

Across the services, the Pentagon is seeking $8.6 billion in the coming fiscal year to buy new weapons and equipment for operations abroad, Inside the Army reported.

“To make sure that we continue to operate at the level we do in theater, we have to have enough funds to get equipment turned around . . . on time,” says one Army official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Units typically return home from Iraq and Afghanistan at C-3 or C-4 readiness, and there have been increasing “challenges” in bringing them back up to full capability before they must deploy again, the official acknowledged. Those include serious shortages of equipment with which to train, as well as personnel shortfalls as officers and troops transfer to other units or attend school.

The Army had hoped to allow a unit to train at home for two years between each yearlong deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. But sustaining large force levels in both nations typically has allowed only a single year of rest and repair between deployments, Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, noted in an interview last week.

“We know that the ground forces are overstretched,” and Army recruiting and retention problems have aggravated readiness challenges, he said.

“It hit home [units] first” and the challenge now is to avoid putting inadequately prepared forces in harm’s way, Korb said.

Peculiarities in the ways in which Army unit readiness is measured make the exercise more an art than a science, experts say.

“Clearly there are challenges during reset in terms of having all people present and all equipment on hand,” one senior Army official told ITP on condition of not being named. “On the other hand, over half the units – [and] even more of their leaders – will have experience in [Iraq and Afghanistan] and thus are much better prepared for what they’ll be required to do. Because of that, I am nowhere near as concerned as I otherwise would be.”

Moreover, a unit may be unready to perform its primary mission as combat engineers, for example, but may be prepared to deploy abroad to undertake secondary tasks, such as driving trucks, according to service officials and experts on Capitol Hill. So an engineering unit could be rated C-3 or C-4 in its primary mission, but effectively be at a C-1 level for truck driving.

“I’m not sure the C-rating system necessarily captures the readiness of a unit,” the senior officer said. “I think you really have to look more closely at the C-ratings and determine whether they actually should be cause for concern or not.”

Other factors also may mitigate the official ratings, including an Army “unit manning system” that attempts to keep soldiers training and operating together over time to increase their effectiveness, as well as improved training and manuals that better prepare troops for counterinsurgency operations, service officials say.

“I don’t buy it,” responds Winslow Wheeler, a longtime Capitol Hill defense aide who has served members of both parties.

“Commanders don’t rate their units at this bottom level of readiness lightly. If they do, they’re admitting failure on their part, failure of the system and failure of their commanders,” says Wheeler, now director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. “The typical pattern is to inflate ratings of readiness.”

Korb agrees.

“It’s hard to say what pressure they’re under to put a better face on it,” he told ITP.

Lagging readiness in a unit’s primary mission may be cause for serious concern, particularly in the event that a new crisis demands the urgent deployment of units not already tied up in Iraq or Afghanistan, experts say.

With this week’s missile tests by North Korea and simmering tension surrounding Iran’s potential nuclear weapons capability, national security leaders and analysts are increasingly alarmed about potential obstacles to deploying U.S. troops outside of existing commitments.

“In order to sustain the current pace of military operations in Iraq without leaving the nation vulnerable to aggression in other places, the Department of Defense must continuously repair, rebuild and replace equipment worn out or destroyed by the war effort,” defense experts Korb, Loren Thompson and Caroline Wadhams wrote in an April report published by the Center for American Progress. Strains on equipment from intense use in the harsh Iraqi environment “currently undermine the Army’s ability to confront new challenges overseas or cope with disasters at home and threaten to impede operations in Iraq over the long term,” the trio wrote.

As a candidate for the presidency against Al Gore in 2000, George W. Bush criticized the Clinton-Gore administration for allowing lapses in Army readiness.

“If called upon by the commander in chief today, two entire divisions of the Army would have to report, ‘Not ready for duty, sir,’” Bush said at the Republican National Convention in August of that year (ITP, Oct. 5, 2000, p1).

Pentagon officials explained at the time that the two divisions, which were deployed to the Balkans, were fully ready for the missions they were undertaking. But if crisis arose, they would require more time to disengage from the region, retrain and redeploy than plans for major theater wars assumed, officials told reporters.

Similar challenges emerged after Bush became president.

Beginning in late 2003, four Army divisions were deemed unready for combat in the event of a major conflict in Korea or elsewhere, a Pentagon official told reporters at the time. After returning from Iraq, the C-3 and C-4 rated units would require 120 to 180 days of rest and retraining before cycling back into ready status.

With Army forces typically facing greater risks combating insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan than they did in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, defense officials and outside experts worry readiness strains could be much more dangerous today.

“The penalty you’re going to pay is casualties,” says Wheeler.

Although ground troops bear the greatest brunt of combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, the House memo also notes strains the current operations are having on the Air Force.

“Despite claims that Air Force readiness levels are stable, it must be noted that readiness is at an historic low and the factors associated with current shortfalls will likely fuel a continued decline,” according to the memo.

The service operates many of the Pentagon’s so-called “high-demand/low- density” forces – such as command and control aircraft, combat search and rescue planes, air refuelers, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft – which are used heavily and are in short supply.

– Elaine M. Grossman

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