America’s military leaders state time and again that China’s forcible assault on Taiwan, and therefore our response to it, is a near-term challenge. Given the lengthy time to plan, program, build and field credible combat power, a 2027 problem is really one of today. Alarm bells should be ringing in Congress as the president’s latest defense budget cuts readiness.
Given that ongoing support for Ukraine is straining some key U.S. military supplies and munitions, everyone should be concerned the China fight would demand even more and faster. As this Pentagon team is plagued with “next war-itis” by overly biasing research and development dollars to prepare for future wars over purchasing from hot production lines today, the result is the erosion of our few remaining competitive advantages.
For fiscal 2023, the administration requested $119.4 billion in readiness compared to the fiscal 2022 request of $109 billion. The 9.84% increase is a decrease in real terms. To simply match 2019 (pre-pandemic) purchasing power under the 2.2% inflationary estimates that the Pentagon and White House are using to tout a “record” budget, the military would need to invest $133.84 billion. That still would only be a flat budget under today’s inflation.
The Army, Navy and Air Force are confronting a $26 billion gap between what the budget request provides them once adjusted for inflation and the levels of funding they would need to maintain buying power at 2019 levels.
In 2013, similar across-the-board cuts came in the form of sequestration, or a self-imposed spending freeze that disproportionately harmed the military due to inaction by politicians on debt reduction. Uniformed leaders described the abrupt cuts as the “biggest challenge to the military’s readiness.” The result is not “tough but necessary choices,” but rather destructive early decommissionings and retirements, along with extended deployments and unsafe work environments for troops.
The administration is shooting itself in the foot by not sustaining the readiness of the very systems they seek to modernize. By overusing systems and facilities without adequate maintenance, they won’t be prepared for modernization upgrades once they become available. In other words, lack of sustainment delays innovation implementation.
For example, the latest budget request only funds weapon systems sustainment for the Air Force at 85% of requirements. Over the past four years, weapon sustainment dollars have fallen and been unable to match 2019 levels.
To advance future capabilities that provide for long-term readiness, the armed services need well-trained, knowledgeable warfighters who have the capacity to integrate modernized systems into sustained arsenals. Instead, the budget’s reductions come at a point when the operational tempo of the force continues to increase as capacity investments are falling.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office clearly stated in a report just last year that “nearly 2 decades of conflict has degraded military readiness at a time when the National Defense Strategy calls for preparedness for great-power competition.” The administration offers an NDS that maintains this call while producing a budget that further degrades U.S. armed forces by ignoring the realities Pentagon leadership seems to acknowledge: U.S. competition with China.
At the same time, as readiness and sustainment are tanking, Pentagon reports that assess the People’s Liberation Army’s and Navy’s strengths have confirmed China developed and holds the world’s largest naval force, many of the most advanced missile systems, and more troops than the U.S. in order to harness them.
Considering we are crushed by ship and troop count, the remaining American advantage to Chinese defense forces is the credibility and capability of our service members and their weapons systems. American warfighters are the most well-trained and battle-tested individuals on the globe. For Air Force pilots alone, U.S. forces averaged 2.5 times the number of flight training hours per year than their Chinese counterparts. Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s budget proposal fails to fully consider this advantage.
Declining readiness means decreased training. To hone in on the Air Force pilot advantage specifically, this ratio is rapidly leveling. Required flight training hours — which keep airmen prepared and ready for battle — have continuously declined over the past five fiscal years. In FY19, the Air Force averaged 1.45 million hours of in-flight training in their respective aircraft; today, training is nearly 25% less, with 1.12 million hours requested in President Joe Biden’s FY23 request. This request slashes 24,000 hours in just one year.
Two years ago, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper said: “The bottom line is that each part of the readiness life cycle is vital to preparing and enabling our men and women in uniform to successfully execute their mission. The question we must answer is this: if called upon to fight tonight, are we ready?” His answer in 2020 was “yes.” Under proposed FY23 readiness levels, which fail to stem the downward trend, the answer could soon become “no.”
So what does Congress need to do to change the tide? Invest $142.4 billion in readiness for FY23 — a figure that adjusts for realistic inflation rates and adds 3% real growth that would allow the services to make small steps toward resurging readiness levels. Targeted investments should include pursuing restored Air Force flight training and the maintenance of the aircraft themselves, reducing the growing forward-fleet operations tempo in order to sustain readiness and prevent sailor fatigue, as well as improving basing and restoring the Army’s munitions stocks to ensure day-of fighting preparedness.
Modernization efforts should not come at the cost of our deterrence today. While Russia inches toward NATO borders and China repeatedly demonstrates its aggression toward Taiwan, the U.S. cannot afford to leave readiness priorities underfunded. By failing to fully account for realistic inflation estimates and match pre-pandemic readiness investments, the White House is openly accepting more risk at a time of heightened security challenges around the world. To meet and defeat these challenges, Congress must also meet $142 billion in this budget cycle and continue growing readiness in the critical years ahead.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She served as a staff member on the congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission. She also previously worked in both chambers of Congress, at the Pentagon, and on the Joint Staff.