February 29, 2024
Shot lines, dental status, weapons qualification, stoplight charts, DRRS - all useful tools in assessing the readiness of individual units in the DoD but not always effective at measuring interoperability, joint operability or mobility and agility. Now consider that the next great power competition may well require engagement of the entire nation - military, diplomats, citizenry and industry. A green mark for a tank company or a fighter group or even a carrier strike group won't really give a good measure of the nation's readiness. WAR ROOM welcomes back our own Tom Galvin to look at what national readiness and preparedness looks like. He explains the necessary tools, systems and mindsets to truly evaluate the nation's ability and will to win whatever conflict it may encounter next.

But given all that has happened in the past couple years with COVID-19 and the re-emergence of great power competition, another question should also be asked: is the nation prepared for war, and how do we know?

A natural question crossing the minds of leaders is simple: is the military ready for war? The word “ready” naturally associates with the military. We would expect a flag officer or a DoD official to know the answer, even though the meaning of “ready” may not be clear.

But given all that has happened in the past couple years with COVID-19 and the re-emergence of great power competition, another question should also be asked: is the nation prepared for war, and how do we know?

Unfortunately, the answers to these sorts of questions are not going to be found among current readiness metrics. Unit readiness, “force” or “strategic” readiness, and force generation models reflect the military’s capabilities alone and how the defense enterprise designs units to prosecute wars that it expects to fight. However, the joint force has long depended on non-military capabilities. Consider sustainment. Most of what the joint force consumes―food, fuel, ammunition, repair parts—is produced by either private industry or the organic industrial base. Services established and provided at forward bases—e.g., medical, information technology, facilities & infrastructure—depend on the private sector.

The joint force also depends on the capabilities and capacity of the rest of the U.S. government, including the federal, state, and local levels. For example, the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for homeland defense which may be critically important in the next large-scale war. The Department of State’s exercise of the diplomatic element of national power provides authorities and agreements that could be vital for deploying and sustaining military forces. Other departments and agencies would contribute the informational and economic elements. From the military’s foxhole, however, many of these capabilities are intangible in advance of a conflict. Planners must assume their readiness.

One problem is that despite the expansion of frameworks used to describe and quantify readiness over the past decade, the frameworks still only consider parts of the question of a nation’s preparedness. Worse, the questions unasked represent the thornier issues such as expansibility: including the capacity to nationalize and mobilize industry or reinstitute a draft in the event of a rapidly escalating conflict. What is the nation prepared to do in the event that the All-Volunteer Force is simply not big enough to sustain the fight, especially if it is a protracted large-scale conflict? Can we rely on the Selective Service if needed – along with the abilities to train and equip them? Could we reconfigure and retool unused industrial capacity to build weapon system platforms as in the 1940s? The Civil Reserve Air Fleet was successful in evacuation operations in Afghanistan, but would it and other auxiliaries such as the Merchant Marine be prepared for the demands of a protracted conflict?

Existing national frameworks, such as the National Preparedness Framework, is oriented on threats below the level of war – e.g., terrorism, natural disasters, cyberattack, or catastrophic loss of critical infrastructure. But while the framework addresses capabilities that would be useful in times of war such as mass care, security, first responders, and operational communications, a protracted war means these capabilities may also have to expand. This could lead to intense competition over critical resources such as people, raw materials, and production and distribution capacity. Alarms have already been sounding over shortages of critical raw materials that could be lost or cut off during a major conflict.

Another problem is vulnerability to strategic surprise. This is always a challenge because adversaries are always looking for weak points and opportunities to exploit them. Even strengths can become vulnerabilities. A nation and its military combat strategic surprise through agility through the robust capability for planning against the wars that the enterprise expects to fight and the capacities of individuals and staffs to adjust to the actual war being fought. Current measures exercise an unfortunate circular logic – the enterprise defines the expected war, designs the force to fight it, and measures readiness against it. The most important metric, agility, is not adequately defined. And that’s just the military element of power. How much agility is built into the other U.S. government agencies who have been under intense budgetary pressures, scrutiny, and polarization due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest that has come along with it?

The results of two decades of war in Afghanistan and its conclusion demonstrate the importance of rethinking what it means to be prepared. Despite the qualitative superiority and greater capacity of the U.S. and its allies, the opponents showed patience and waited out the situation. While readiness metrics show the extent to which forces are trained and resourced in a snapshot of time, they do not provide insights as to their long-term resilience. This does not mean that extant readiness metrics have no use, but that they only tell part of the story. No matter how comprehensive those metrics may become, there are whole swaths of readiness considerations left unmeasured.

At the U.S. Army War College, we seek to remedy this through the development of an alternative framework for national preparedness and associated military readiness that harmonizes current conceptions of readiness with all these difficult unanswered questions. Through updating the considerable work done in the post-Cold War era (leading examples being Betts’ 1995 book on military readiness and a 1991 RAND study on sustainability readiness), the aim is to provide defense enterprise leaders with a comprehensive picture that fosters better-informed strategic decisions. This emerging framework divides military readiness into five constructs, each measuring different resources.

The first is operational readiness, which is the best known and understood of the constructs. According to Betts, operational readiness describes the extent to which “individuals, teams, sections, flights, companies, squadrons, battalions, ships, groups, wings, divisions, task groups, air forces, fleets, corps, expeditionary forces, armies, major commands, Services, defense agencies, and military departments, to the Department of Defense as a whole” are ready to move from pre-mobilization to a warfighting standard to deliver the capabilities for which they were designed. It is a largely a resource-driven metric, as elements at high readiness have more of what they are supposed to have than elements as low readiness. Simple, easy to quantify even when, as Betts points out, the metrics have severe limitations.

The second is structural readiness, which is perhaps best understood through one management tool – force generation. Betts said that a nation is prepared if “the time needed to convert potential capability to actual capability is not longer than the time between the decision to convert” and they must be employed. Forces must be able to grow, reorganize, and adapt for the mission. Because it is too expensive and wasteful to keep the entire force and all its elements at high readiness, leaders make decisions on what part of the force structure to sustain at high readiness and what to sustain at low while assuming that the enterprise would reconstitute―staff, train, and equip―those units and employ them just in time to the theater.

Force generation modeling is not the only way to manage readiness.

Time is the key metric. Tiered readiness was used by the U.S. Army during the Cold War. Forces were forward stationed just in case of anticipated attack. Those forward units were kept persistently at higher readiness so they were fully operationally and structurally ready. Follow-on forces in the continental U.S. were less operationally ready due to resource priorities while also being less structurally ready as they required time to deploy to the fight. Cyclic forms of force generation ensure high readiness of a portion of the force on a rotating basis, allowing the rest of the force to reconstitute, recapitalize, and modernize. But structural readiness is also context dependent. A high-readiness unit in Europe may be less structurally ready for operations in a different theater than a CONUS-based unit at low-readiness if the latter can be staffed, trained, equipped, and employed more quickly.

Force generation modeling is not the only way to manage readiness. Leaders can place capabilities in the reserve components – which in some cases may allow for more rapid mobilization and employment than their active counterparts. Leaders can establish cadre headquarters (a full staff headquarters but with few or no subordinate units) that would be fully constituted only when needed. They can create incomplete units, such as brigades with only two battalions vice three or divisions with two brigades and a roundout unit that activates only when needed. Each has advantages and risks regarding the time and mechanisms required to fill out the unit and bring it to full readiness before employment.

The third and fourth constructs relate to the expansion of the military beyond its organic structure. Mobilization readiness appraisals measure expansibility of the military – i.e., the capability and capacity to assemble and organize national resources in support of an emerging war effort. Military entities being appraised include accession commands, individual training centers, combined training centers and ranges, distribution of materiel stockpiles, and materiel production. But the nation shares responsibility to sustain the readiness of its selective service systems to function and of its capacity to nationalize and reconfigure industry, and so on. Questions such as the state of the recruiting pool and access to the additional raw materials and production and distribution capacity to equip recruits are included here. Like operational readiness, mobilization readiness is a measure of resources, but instead of those on-hand, it is a measure of what is available and accessible to the war effort. One can assume that competition for talent and raw materials between the military and civil society could become intense, and the nation could face anti-war sentiments and movements as it has in the past.

Long-term sustainability readiness (hereafter “sustainability”) is the ability of the nation to sustain the fight over a protracted period of time, beyond the effects of the initial mobilization. How might the nation handle another World War II-like scenario where resources and industries remain nationalized for a period of time, the population continuously tapped into for recruits, and the people constantly having to be reminded of the war’s purpose and necessity and therefore put their own needs aside? Key inputs to measuring sustainability include stockpiles, facilities and infrastructure associated with mobilizing forces, systems of production and distribution, and organizational modeling to shift supplies to meet ever-changing demands.

But sustainability is not so much a measure of resources as it is a measure of the nation’s will to keep fighting. The capabilities of concern become important when the nation’s war effort extends across all segments of society. Generating capacity shift to regenerating capacity as casualties are brought back from the battlefields, equipment is damaged beyond repair, and lines of communication are disrupted with shipment of supplies lost or captured. The nation may need to pull deeper into its resources to keep the fight going while also continuing to develop other capabilities that might provide the decisive edge. How does one assess the patience and resilience of the nation? What can be learned from the COVID-19 experience where that patience with pandemic countermeasures was tested?

The final construct is enterprise readiness that measures of capacity of the enterprise leadership and associated staffs and agencies to both plan for the expected wars and adjust to the actual war. Enterprise readiness is a measure of information and its flow. To what extent does it accurately or usefully analyze the environment and forecast potential threats? To what extent does it produce useful and actionable concepts and doctrine? How effective and efficient is it at establishing requirements, designing organizations, and testing and fielding new capabilities? Most importantly, how prepared is it to adjust on the fly and suspend or reject its assumptions about the expected fight? A ready enterprise is intellectually superior to that of the adversary, capable of reorganizing and reorienting itself quickly in the face of an adversary’s efforts to exploit vulnerabilities and attack strength. But it would be hubris for leaders to assume ‘yes’ to all the above questions. There are always information gaps, bureaucratic procedures slowing things down, and political considerations that get in the way of doing things right. Agility is best measured when under pressures that necessitate transformational change.

This framework has been under development for more than a year and is changing the way we address the questions of national preparedness and military readiness. Regardless of whether the next major conflict resides on the conflict continuum, one must assume that adversaries will try to avoid fighting the way we expect. Our future strategic leaders need the tools and freedom to ask the questions that our current readiness systems may not be asking, no matter how uncomfortable those questions may be.

Tom Galvin is Associate Professor of Resource Management in the Department of Command Leadership and Management at the United States Army War College. He is the author of the monograph Leading Change in Military Organizations and companion Experiential Activity Book.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Paratroopers participate in a division run along Long Street during the All American Run on Fort Bragg, N.C., Nov 19, 2021.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Vincent Levelev


  1. From our article above:

    “Long-term sustainability readiness (hereafter ‘sustainability’) is the ability of the nation to sustain the fight over a protracted period of time, beyond the effects of the initial mobilization. How might the nation handle another World War II-like scenario where resources and industries remain nationalized for a period of time, the population continuously tapped into for recruits, and the people constantly having to be reminded of the war’s purpose and necessity and therefore put their own needs aside? Key inputs to measuring sustainability include stockpiles, facilities and infrastructure associated with mobilizing forces, systems of production and distribution, and organizational modeling to shift supplies to meet ever-changing demands.”

    Since we are talking about “sustaining the fight over a protracted period of time,” let’s not ask the question “How might the nation handle another World War II-like scenario” and, instead, ask the question “How might the nation handle a new Cold War scenario — one in which, this time, it is the U.S./the West who is pursuing “revolutionary” political, economic, social and/or value “change” both at home and abroad. (In our case, today, in the name of such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy.)

    Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

    In the Old Cold War of yesterday, when the Soviets/the communists caused communism to be on the march, the U.S./the West (and, indeed, all conservatives, everywhere?) — thus seeing their desired status quo being gravely threatened — understood “long-term sustainable readiness” in such terms as those described below:

    “Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need—not as a call to battle, though embattled we are—but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation.”

    (President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961.)

    In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, however, when it has become the U.S./the West who is pursuing “revolutionary change” goals both at home and abroad, it is our opponents now who see such things as “long-term sustainable readiness” from this such “long, twilight struggle” (and dare I say “containment” and “roll back?”) perspective.

    THIS is what we are up against today — re: our “long-term sustainable readiness” requirements — which, themselves, are (a) driven by our “revolutionary change” goals and by (b) the “resistance to unwanted change”/”reversal of unwanted change” efforts of our opponents (our both great nation and small opponents, our both state and non-state actor opponents, and our both at home and abroad opponents).

    1. Re: the “long-term sustainable readiness” perspective that I provide above, you may wish to see an example of how and why our both at home opponents, and our abroad opponents, might see each other as natural allies. In this regard, consider the following:

      “For Putin, he suggests, the populist wave in Europe was a predictable response to the permissiveness of European societies, particularly with regard to immigration and gay rights. And in the rise of the right across the continent he sees an opportunity to address himself to a wider audience. ‘The Russian conservative turn . . . must be exported, and Putin sees himself as the harbinger of that anti-modernist movement.’ ”

      (See the Mar 24, 2018 The Irish Times article “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin: Two Takes on the Russian President” by Raudhan Mac Cormaic.)

      Thus, re: such things as Ukraine in the New/Reverse Cold War of today, should Putin lose the Ukraine “battle” (much as the U.S. lost the Vietnam “battle” in the Old Cold War of yesterday), this does not mean — in the “long, twilight struggle” that I identify above — that he will lose “the war.”

      Something to keep in the forefront of our mind — as we discuss such things as “long-term sustainable readiness?”

  2. In considering “a framework for national preparedness and military readiness,” one must, one might suggest, determine who America’s long-term — at home and abroad — enemies might be; these, as relate to the long-term national security goals and objectives of the United States. In this regard, let us look at the following quoted items, which seem to indicate that:

    a. Those who might use such things as community, identity, and traditional social values, beliefs and institutions against the U.S./the West (Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea, the Islamists and American social conservatives here at home?)

    b. These are the folks who — both here at home and there abroad — must be considered as the long-term enemies of the U.S./the West:

    “Capitalism is the most successful wealth-creating economic system that the world has ever known; no other system, as the distinguished economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed out, has benefited ‘the common people’ as much. Capitalism, he observed, creates wealth through advancing continuously to every higher levels of productivity and technological sophistication; this process requires that the ‘old’ be destroyed before the ‘new’ can take over. … This process of ‘creative destruction,’ to use Schumpeter’s term, produces many winners but also many losers, at least in the short term, and poses a serious threat to traditional social values, beliefs, and institutions.”

    (From the, year 2000, book “The Challenge of the Global Capitalism: The World Economy in the 21st Century,” by Robert Gilpin, see the Introduction.)

    “All in all, the 1980s and 1990s were a Hayekian moment, when his once untimely liberalism came to be seen as timely. The intensification of market competition, internally and within each nation, created a more innovative and dynamic brand of capitalism. That in turn gave rise to a new chorus of laments that, as we have seen, have recurred since the eighteenth century: Community was breaking down; traditional ways of life were being destroyed; identities were thrown into question; solidarity was being undermined; egoism unleashed; wealth made conspicuous amid new inequality; philistinism was triumphant.”

    (From the, year 2000, book “The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought,” by Jerry Z. Miller; in this case, from the section therein on Friedrich Hayek)

    The national security rationale — for (a) standing hard against such things as traditional social values, beliefs, institutions, etc., and for (b) standing hard with and for the “revolutionary change” requirements demanded by markets — this such national security rationale is described below:

    “Proponents of this vision of a globalized economy characterize the United States as ‘a giant corporation locked in a fierce competitive struggle with other nations for economic survival,’ so that ‘the central task of the federal government’ is ‘to increase the international competitiveness of the American economy.’ ”

    (See the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law paper “Moral Communities or a Market State: The Supreme Court’s Vision of the Police Power in the Age of Globalization” by Antonio F. Perez and Robert J. Delahunty, Page 643; therein, see the paragraph that begins with “We agree with Bobbitt …”)

    Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

    In the Old Cold War of yesterday when — throughout the world and both here at home and there abroad — communism threatened community, identity and traditional social values, beliefs and institutions — the U.S./the West, back then, used this such threat to OUR strategic advantage.

    In the New/Reverse Cold War of today when — throughout the world and both here at home and there abroad — now such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy threaten community, identify and traditional social values, beliefs and institutions — it is our opponents, today, who use this such threat to THEIR strategic advantage.

    Something that those determining “a framework for national preparedness and military readiness” need to take into account?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend