Officials Sound Warnings Of ‘Tiered Readiness’

Say units may be ill-prepared for deployment

(NAVY TIMES 14 DEC 13) … Andrew Tilghman

As the Pentagon tries to carve billions of dollars in savings from its annual budget, many officials are warning that the force will have to accept a strategy of “tiered readiness” that will leave many units ill prepared for deployment or full scale war operations.

Several high-ranking defense officials have used the term tiered readiness in recent months, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel invoking it at a major policy speech in November.

“We may have to accept the reality that not every unit will be at maximum readiness, and some kind of a tiered readiness system is, perhaps, inevitable,” Hagel told the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Yet many experts note that the military already does that to some degree as a matter of routine. For years, some high-profile units have maintained a higher level of readiness, such as the Army’s 101st Airborne Division or the Navy’s Japan-based carrier George Washington.

And all of the services allow some units to fall below their optimal maintenance and manning periodically as part of a broader readiness plan, particularly when they come off deployments for a period of rest, refitting and retraining.

Maren Leed, a defense expert with CSIS, suggested that the term tiered readiness is gaining currency in part for political reasons and its historic connection with the readiness crisis of the post-Vietnam era.

“That’s the boogeyman that the phrase invokes, the 1970s horror stories where you had massive disconnects within the force and a lot of personnel problems with very low morale,” Leed said in an interview. “It’s a highly emotionally significant phrase to any serious military policy person of a certain age. And many of those people are in the Congress and can remember [the 1970s] saying, ‘Never again.’“

Unclear Definition

The Pentagon has only a limited working definition for the phrase, and the practical meaning of tiered readiness would vary significantly among the services and their individual commands. “Tiered readiness means that not every unit achieves the highest level of readiness in a given cycle or period of time,” said one Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified because the conversations remain preliminary. “None of the services have completely adopted this. … This is something that we are looking at and is a system we may be forced to adopt,” the official said.

Readiness levels likely are falling since the defense spending caps known as sequestration took effect in March. Since then, military leaders have canceled training events, grounded aviation squadrons and delayed maintenance programs. The impact on internal readiness ratings is unclear because that information is classified.

The notion that some units may be designated as unready could have sweeping implications for servicemembers’ careers. Individuals assigned to such units might struggle to get good follow-on assignments. They could suffer delayed promotions and never achieve the same career opportunities as some of their peers who serve in units with higher readiness levels.

A Matter Of Timing

Yet that scenario is not entirely new. For example, the Navy and its rotational readiness cycles results in some ships having skippers who never go to sea.

“There are a lot of unfortunate [commanding officers] who take over a ship and wind up going into dry-dock for a year and a-half,” said Bill Hatch, a retired Navy officer who teaches manpower at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.

“You take over as commander on the back side of a deployment and the ship doesn’t deploy again before the next turnover,” he said. “That’s why some people never make it past O-6.”

While the term tiered readiness is becoming more widely used, it does not reflect much new detailed planning inside the Pentagon about how to absorb the sequestration spending caps that may not be lifted anytime soon.

“I have searched for a technical definition, and, to me, it is just another term to sort of justify what the military will do when the budget is not adequate,” said Brian Slattery, a defense expert with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

“It’s a very vague term, and I think it’s intentionally vague. It’s just another way to say ‘We won’t be as ready.’“

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