The Readiness Trap: The U.S. Military Is Failing to Prepare for the Next Big War

By Sobel, Cliff; Thompson, Loren | Policy Review, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

The Readiness Trap: The U.S. Military Is Failing to Prepare for the Next Big War


Sobel, Cliff, Thompson, Loren, Policy Review


During the 1992 presidential race, the Fleetwood Mac song "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" became the official anthem of the Clinton campaign. Once in office, the new administration lost little time infusing every facet of its domestic agenda with concern about the future. But its defense agenda has been curiously immune to long-term thinking. Rather than planning for tomorrow, the administration's defense policies reflect a disturbing preoccupation with the concerns of the moment.

This is a dangerous flaw. The record of the 20th century suggests that the present period of diminished global tensions will not last, and that major new threats to national survival may emerge in the near future. However, the Clinton administration seems to assume that the end of the Cold War meant the end of history, at least as far as great-power threats to national security were concerned. The result is a U.S. defense budget that exhibits high levels of consumption and very low levels of investment.

Both in their rhetoric and in their resource allocations, senior Pentagon executives and many congressional Republicans have been preoccupied with "readiness"--the ability to fight effectively on short notice. Readiness is a notoriously nebulous concept, but in economic terms it translates into consumption: Money is spent to preserve and enhance current capabilities rather than prepare for the future.

Like other forms of consumption, readiness tends to be bought at the expense of procurement of new weapons. In inflation-adjusted terms, Pentagon procurement accounts now stand at the lowest levels since 1950, the year the Korean War began. The $39 billion requested by the Clinton Administration for weapons procurement in fiscal 1996 constitutes only 16 percent of a defense budget that itself has shrunk to a mere 15.5 percent of overall federal expenditures. In other words, the Pentagon's planned spending on all types of equipment for military services in fiscal 1996 adds up to only 2.5 percent of the federal budget--an amount of money equal to about four months' of sales by the Ford Motor Co.

The Clinton administration contends that this low level of investment is justified by a diminished threat and the huge inventory of weapons accumulated during the Cold War. It also claims that a planned increase in procurement will lead to "recapitalization" of the armed forces toward the end of the 1996-2001 Future Years Defense Plan. However, the Pentagon's current predictions for 2001 may not be any more reliable than those of science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. It is possible that spending on procurement will remain depressed. If that occurs--while high levels of readiness are sustained--the armed forces will suffer continued depletion of their weapons inventories.

LESSONS OF THE PAST

Unfortunately, the depletion of capital stocks could coincide with the reemergence of threats abroad and a revolution in military technology, creating a situation not unlike that of the 1930s.

The current debate over national-security needs presents a rather distressing spectacle in historical amnesia. The struggle with communism for the past two generations has so strongly influenced policymakers that they exhibit little apparent capacity for interpreting that experience in a broader context.

The Cold War was the third occasion in this century when the U.S. mobilized to prevent anti-democratic forces from dominating Eurasia. The century began with the challenge posed by German imperialism, and barely a generation later the U.S. was at war again, this time to defeat fascism. The outcome of WWII then set the stage for the anti-communist crusade of the post-war period.

Note that the same pattern repeated itself with each new danger. Regional powers gradually accumulated land and resources while the United States was distracted; early warnings that a great-power threat was emerging were greeted with widespread skepticism; when the threat became urgent, U.

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