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Combat-Ready

I confess I haven’t listened to all 80 minutes of this interview with Nancy Pelosi. But my CONTENTIONS colleague Abe Greenwald tells me that, in addition to crediting Iranian munificence for the growing stability in Iraq, the Speaker made the following statement:

The undermining of our military strength is just staggering. We don’t have one combat-ready unit in the United States to go to protect our interests wherever they are threatened, or those of our friends .

I suppose this is further confirmation of the old chestnut about what goes around comes around: Back in 2000, conservatives were lambasting the Clinton administration for declining readiness levels (see, for instance, this Heritage paper) and promising “help is on the way.” Now it’s the turns of liberals. In both cases the attacks are partially fair, partially not.

The issue is that a unit’s combat readiness declines immediately after rotating out of a war zone. At that point, lots of soldiers and officers leave and lots of new ones come in. Worn-out equipment is repaired or discarded; new equipment arrives slowly. Gradually, the unit fills up and trains up in preparation for another deployment. Often it will not reach the highest level of combat readiness until just before the deployment. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most active-duty army and marine units are either deployed, preparing for deployment, or recovering from deployment. That doesn’t leave a lot of units sitting around at high levels of readiness in CONUS–the military abbreviation for Continental United States. But the units we are sending into combat are the most experienced and best-prepared we have ever sent to fight any war.

Traditionally the 82nd Airborne Division maintained one home-based brigade at the highest state of readiness at all times-ready to deploy anywhere in the world within 72 hours. Last year all four of the 82nd brigade’s deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, handing off the “ready brigade” mission to the 101st Air Assault Division, which has lots of its units deployed too. Three of the 82nd‘s brigades have now returned home to Fort Bragg and the division is supposed to re-assume the “readiness” function next year.

It would be nice to have more units standing by at a higher level of readiness, but that hardly means the U.S. is defenseless. In addition to our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have substantial numbers of ground forces deployed in Okinawa, South Korea, and Germany that in a pinch could be used to deal with another crisis. More importantly, we have lots of air and naval assets that are not engaged in the fight today. Pelosi did not refer specifically to army units; she said “combat-ready units.” By that standard, there are lots of air force squadrons and naval task forces that qualify. And they would in fact be our first line of defense against a crisis in, say, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan strait, or Iran.

Anyway, just what is Pelosi’s point? Is she saying that she supports a large increase in the size of the active duty force? John McCain has called for increasing the overall size of our ground forces (army and marines) from today’s projected level of 750,000 to 900,000. Is Pelosi willing to support legislation along those lines? Or is she instead suggesting that, rather than substantially increase our forces, we downsize their missions? I suspect it’s the latter, and that her preferred option is to pull units out of Iraq, thereby losing the most significant war we’ve fought since Vietnam, in order to keep units in readiness for another contingency that may or may not materialize. But, if Vietnam teaches anything, it is that nothing is guaranteed to harm long-term readiness more than losing a war.


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