What would Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan—America’s evangelist of sea power—say about the U.S. Navy’s “readiness” travails in this time of uneasy peace? Readiness is important. No less an authority than the 2018 National Military Strategy instructs the armed forces to balance “current operational needs with readiness recovery and modernization” in hopes of buoying their competitive advantage over rival great powers. Notes the watchdog Government Accountability Office, the Defense Department enacted a “readiness recovery framework” last year to appraise the state of readiness within the joint force and chart progress toward acceptable standards.
What standards? The ever-illuminating DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms defines readiness as “the ability of military forces to fight and meet the demands of assigned missions.” Readiness means being ready—got it! The Pentagon may not clearly know what readiness is, but it wants a whole lot of it. Naval magnates offer more specifics. They envision a “readiness kill chain,” or phased process, for mass-producing readiness. There are five “pillars” of readiness, they say, namely personnel, equipment, supplies, training, and ordnance. A ship, submarine, or aircraft squadron must meet certain standards in each domain at each stage of its operational cycle, from maintenance to workups to forward deployment. Fall short and the authorities withhold certification to deploy.
But even this approach to readiness is rather static, concentrating mainly on the production line for forward-deployed forces. Focusing on the supply side neglects the demand side. Navy readiness documents genuflect to operating and personnel tempo, but otherwise say little about what impels optempo—namely the strategic environment, and especially the actions of potential or actual foes. The truism the enemy gets a vote applies as much to peacetime readiness as wartime combat. A China, Russia, or Iran can exploit American strategic indiscipline. They can veto U.S. military readiness if Washington habitually sends the military whenever they make mischief.
Denizens of the wretched hive of scum and villainy keep their superpower antagonist scurrying about. They drive optempo up and readiness down over time.
If the weary titan is forever running around, chances are he’s not husbanding his strength for priorities that genuinely matter. Mahan copped to being a less-than-mellifluous writer, but he captures the dynamism of the readiness challenge with admirable concision. A “broad formula,” he writes, is that a fleet or task force “must be great enough to take the sea, and to fight, with reasonable chances of success, the largest force likely to be brought against it . . .” Here’s what he means by that pithy passage:
- Great enough encompasses the measures now employed by naval leaders, including personnel and training on the human side and equipment, supplies, and ordnance on the material side. The U.S. Navy (and any affiliated joint forces) must be able to concentrate enough firepower on a prospective battleground, manifest in fully ready vessels, warplanes, and armaments, to outcompete an adversary force (and any joint forces backing it up).
- Fight with reasonable chances of success demands that naval commanders take account of the opposing force, estimating its readiness relative to the U.S. contingent. It also demands that they look inward, asking themselves about their own attitude toward risk. A risk-averse commander amasses surplus force on the scene in an effort to make victory a sure thing. A risk-taker might get by with less.
- Likely refers to geopolitical calculations in hostile capitals. Officialdom must acquaint itself with the opponent, including the commitments its leaders have taken on, how they rank their priorities, and how they will allocate forces to uphold each commitment. After getting to know the enemy, U.S. leaders can estimate the fraction of hostile forces U.S. forces may face at a particular place, time, and set of circumstances. That fragment becomes the yardstick for American sufficiency. If the Navy can put enough ready units on scene to duel that fraction with reasonable prospects of success, it meets the Mahanian standard.
As it turns out, then, the DoD Dictionary’s circular definition makes sense. It errs only in being partial. Readiness means being ready—and being ready means the ability to make oneself stronger than a specific antagonist at a particular place on the map at a particular time. Readiness translates into victory at sea for navies in wartime, or into deterrence or coercion in peacetime.
Mahan was trying to figure out how to size the U.S. Navy’s first serious battle fleet for the contingencies it was likeliest to confront, chiefly in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, where European navies might seek naval bases and thus control over the sea lanes leading to the Panama Canal. America didn’t need to outbuild Great Britain, whose Royal Navy stood preeminent in the world, or imperial Germany, which was riveting together battleships of its own. Mahan judged that twenty U.S. Navy battlewagons and a retinue of lesser craft could outmatch the largest segment of its strength that any imperial navy might dispatch to the Americas. Congress funded a fleet precisely that size—and it sufficed.
In the end, then, readiness is about battle strength. It is a compound of material capability; numbers of units; and human beings adequate in number, proficient at seamanship and tactics, and possessed of indomitable willpower to win. The existing readiness regimen tries to gauge these factors. But time is also intrinsic to readiness. After all, victory may not come in an afternoon. Deploying superior forces at the outset may not be enough. American mariners may have to sustain superior strength throughout a “battle” that lasts for weeks or months, a la the protracted Guadalcanal campaign of 1942–1943. Readiness thus connotes stamina across the force as a whole.
And, lastly, readiness is interactive. Self-discipline is a virtue—if not the virtue—for political and military leaders. Trying to accomplish everything, everywhere generally means accomplishing little, anywhere. Let’s master our priorities rather than let strategic competitors dictate our operating rhythm to us.
Take charge of America’s destiny and Mahan’s ghost will smile.