Washington • Warnings from defense officials and some experts are mounting and becoming more dire: The nation's military is being hobbled by budget cuts.
"You'd better hope we never have a war again," the House Armed Services Committee chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said of the decline in what the military calls its readiness.
So should Americans be worried?
A look at what the Pentagon means by "ready" and where things stand:
Readiness • It's the armed forces' ability to get the job done, and it's based on the number of people, the equipment and the training needed to carry out assigned missions. As an example, an Army brigade has a list of the things it would have to do in a full-level war, called its "mission essential task list." And a 4,500-member brigade is deemed ready when it has the right supplies and equipment, is in good working condition and pretty much has that full number of people, well-trained in their various specialties, to conduct its tasks.
Military units are rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the best, or fully ready. Typically, a unit freshly returned from a tour of duty would carry a 5 rating, since it's missing people because of casualties or because some are moving on to other jobs, and it's missing equipment that was battered or worn in the field and is in for repairs or must be replaced. A unit can be sent out in less-than-full ready status, but officials warn that would mean it could do less, take longer to do it, suffer more casualties, or all of the above.
The U.S. military rating now • Detailed information on that is classified secret so adversaries won't know exactly what they're up against. But because of ongoing budget fights, officials in recent weeks have given broad examples of readiness lapses in hopes of convincing Congress and the American people that cutbacks, particularly in training budgets, are creating a precarious situation.
For instance, an Air Force official says they've grounded 13 combat fighter/bomber squadrons or about a third of those active duty units. And the Army says only two of its 35 active-duty brigades are fully ready for major combat operations. The service typically wants to have about 12 ready at any given time so a third of the total can be deployed, a third is prepared for deployment and a third is working to get ready.
Analysts say a decade of massive spending increases have built a strong force superior to anything else out there. "We could certainly fight another war on the order of the first Gulf War (1991) without any problems; the Air Force could do air strikes in Syria," said Barry Blechman of the Stimson Center think tank. "We wouldn't want to get involved in another protracted war (such as Iraq and Afghanistan), but in terms of the types of military operations we typically get involved in, we're prepared for that."
The problem • Even those who believe the situation is not yet dire say that eventually these budget cuts will catch up with the force. Some analysts say another two or three years of training cuts, for instance, will leave the U.S. military seriously unprepared.
As an added wrinkle, the cuts come just as the military had planned a significant re-training of the force. That is, the bulk of U.S. forces were organized, trained and equipped over the past 12 years for counterinsurgency wars like Iraq and Afghanistan and now need to sharpen skills needed to counter other kinds of threats in other parts of the world.
For instance, much of the Air Force focus in recent years has been on providing close air support for the ground troops countering insurgents and not on skills that would be needed if the U.S. were involved in a conflict with a foreign government skills like air-to-air combat and air interdiction.
A solution • There's broad agreement in Washington that budget cuts should be tailored rather than done by the automatic, across-the-board cuts known as sequestration over the next decade. There is not agreement on politically sensitive potential savings from closing and consolidating some military bases, holding the line on troop compensation that has grown over the war years or drawing down more steeply from the wartime size of the force.
Finding replacement cuts for sequestration is the priority of budget talks led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and his Senate counterpart, Patty Murray, D-Wash., who are facing an informal Dec. 13 deadline to reach a deal. Any agreement that they negotiate could still be rejected by their colleagues.