Can the U.S. fight tonight if called upon? Is the U.S. military ready to fight if a conflict arises? The Defense Secretary says he thinks so.
"Today, given our efforts over the past few years, I am fully confident the answer to that question is a resounding yes," Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper, said, while speaking today with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Lethality and readiness for conflict is just one of three pillars of the National Defense Strategy. The other two include: partnerships strengthening alliances and attracting new partners; and reform the department for greater performance and affordability. When he took office in August 2019, Esper added a fourth priority, which is taking care of service members and their families.
As a goal for the Defense Department, restoring readiness in the U.S. military has focused on policy, people and performance, Esper said.
Policy changes to enhance readiness have involved both implementation of "dynamic force employment," he said, as well as increasing the number of highly-ready immediate response forces and follow-on contingency response force units.
"These policy shifts — which constitute another one of our top ten NDS objectives — have enabled us to think and act globally and with speed, unencumbered by limitations within individual geographic combatant commands," he said. "This construct has also allowed us to be much more confident in the joint force's preparedness, and in directing readiness levels from the services, while also creating predictability and efficiency within our programming and budgeting system."
One example of how policy change has enhanced readiness, Esper said, was evident in December. When Pentagon officials learned of protests outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and later learned of a possible embassy breach, U.S. forces were ready to respond.
"This triggered the requirement to deploy an immediate response force, which was successfully accomplished within 19 hours of the incident," he said. "Over the next three days, an entire infantry brigade combat team consisting of more than 3,000 soldiers and equipment was deployed halfway around the world to secure American lives and property in Iraq."
Individuals must also be ready to fight tonight, Esper said. The department has pursued several initiatives to ensure its people are prepared for great power competition.
When it comes to training those people, he said, he has directed the National Defense University to reorient its curriculum onto China, in much the same way the curriculum had been focused on the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
"I also tasked the military services to make the People's Liberation Army the pacing threat in our professional schools, programs and training," he said.
It's not just enough that the department has people available, Esper said. Those service members must be ready to go to combat. So while the department has added some 30,000 personnel to the ranks over the last 4 years, he said, there has also been a greater push on the military services to ensure those people are actually ready to deploy at a moment's notice.
"This was the result of close, senior-level and senior leader attention to needed reforms such as quickly resolving medical conditions, enabling service members to get back to a ready status sooner," he said.
Esper said the department has been able to get the number of non-deployable service members down below its goal of 5%, which he said returned tens of thousands of personnel to deployable status ahead of schedule.
"For example, over the last few years, the army's non-deployable population has decreased well over 50 percent, meaning many more soldiers are available for a potential, high-end fight if called upon to go," he said.
Readiness also means that both equipment and people are performing well, Esper said. That includes proper maintenance and sustainment of equipment, as well as high-end training of personnel.
As an example, Esper cited the Navy's efforts with the F/A-18 Hornet aircraft. There, he said, the mission-capable rate has increased from 55% to 80%, as of last year. He said the Navy got rid of older Hornet aircraft and used repairable parts for spares.
As an example of enhancements to training, he said, the Air Force migrated to a common aircraft simulator platform, replacing stand-alone devices that trained pilots for specific airframes.
"The department's vision for readiness is one in which our people are focused on great power competition from day one, and trained to deter and prevail in the high-end fight, while able to perform across the full spectrum of combat operations," Esper said. "It is a vision in which we have more planes in the air, more ships at sea, more units prepared to go into combat at a moment's notice, more cyberwarriors online and more space assets ready to defend the high ground."