Nearly 2 decades of conflict has degraded U.S. military readiness. To adapt to growing threats posed by major powers (such as China and Russia) and other adversaries, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the individual military services must make some urgent changes.
The war in Ukraine has emphasized the importance of deterring Russian aggression in Europe through the presence of U.S. forces. Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, DOD has expanded its presence in Eastern Europe. However, it hasn't developed cost estimates for continuing that presence in the long term. Doing so could help DOD better plan and Congress oversee future costs.
The National Defense Strategy states that DOD should be ready to operate in all warfighting domains—ground, sea, air, space, and cyber. From FY 2017 through FY 2019, U.S. military readiness increased for its ground forces but declined for its sea forces. The Navy and Marine Corps are beginning to address the causes of their readiness decline, but recovery will take years.
F-35 aircraft comprise a growing portion of DOD's aviation fleet. DOD currently has 450 F-35s, and plans to procure about 2,500 in total. However, the F-35 fleet's average mission capable rate—the percentage of time during which the F-35s can fly and perform at least one mission—declined between FY 2020 and FY 2021. One major reason is that an increasing number of F-35s don't have a working engine.
Despite spending billions of dollars annually, the Air Force and Navy have struggled for years to maintain their aircraft due to the age of their fleets, a lack of parts, maintenance delays, and other problems. Of particular concern is that neither service has completed required "sustainment reviews"—a critical tool to assess performance and help increase readiness throughout an aircraft's life cycle.
A review of whether 49 types of DOD’s aircraft met their annual mission capable goals for FYs 2011-2021 found that only 4 met their goals in a majority of the years. Additionally, 26 did not meet their goals in any year.
Navy ships need regular, intensive maintenance. But the Navy reported a $1.7 billion backlog of deferred maintenance on just its surface ships. Of that, $1.2 billion is for ships the Navy proposed decommissioning early—in part because of their maintenance costs. Reducing the backlog could help fleets last longer and improve Navy operations.
The Navy is planning for a total of 35 Littoral Combat Ships, which are designed to operate in shallow waters close to shore. But the Navy hasn't demonstrated that this type of ship can perform its intended missions. For example, operational testing found challenges in the ship's defenses. Also, some key equipment has failed, and the Navy is behind schedule in developing capabilities like mine countermeasures. The Navy doesn't have a comprehensive plan to resolve these issues.
The Navy issued a policy in 2017 for managing sailor fatigue after finding that it was a contributing factor in fatal ship collisions. But the Navy has inconsistently implemented that policy and only 14% of officers are getting adequate sleep. In addition, the Navy routinely assigns fewer crewmembers to ships than its workload studies have determined are needed to safely operate them.
The Army and Marine Corps reported 3,753 non-combat tactical vehicle (e.g., tanks, trucks) accidents from FY 2010-2019, which resulted in 123 servicemember deaths. Driver inattention, supervision lapses, and training shortfalls were common causes. The Army and Marine Corps have practices to mitigate and prevent tactical vehicle accidents, but units don't always use them. DOD improved driver training, but advanced training experience—e.g., driving in varied conditions—differed across units, leading to uneven driver skills.
When an Army unit is called into the field, about two-thirds of its equipment moves to a shipping port by rail, Army officials said. The Army cut its rail operating force by 70% after a 2015 Army analysis concluded that it didn't need its own crews and could rely on civilians. However, the remaining crews have been in high demand and Army officials said it is unclear what would happen in a large mobilization.
DOD maintains, overhauls, and repairs weapons systems and equipment in its depots. However, the poor condition of these facilities reduced their performance, increased costs, and impeded military readiness. Depot infrastructure generally remains in fair to poor condition, and most depot equipment is past its service life. The military services have put $20 billion into the depots since 2007. However, they don't report what's needed to prevent more deterioration.
The condition of the Navy’s 4 public shipyards has a direct impact on the readiness of the aircraft carrier and submarine fleets they maintain. The Navy began a 20-year, $21 billion effort to modernize them in 2018. Average facility condition has improved at 3 of the 4 since 2017. However, detailed investment plans for each shipyard won't be done until FY 2025—3 years late. And estimated costs for modernizing 3 of 17 dry docks grew by $4 billion.