Just a reminder: Military readiness affects the viability of Syria operations too


After U.S. officials agreed last week that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on its people, politicians and pundits resumed making the case for a U.S. intervention in Syria.  And they speak as if the budget cuts affecting the Air Force and Navy won’t affect our ability to launch operations overseas.  Their heads apparently aren’t around that reality yet.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) suggested that enforcing a no-fly zone could be required.  He expressed concern that the administration would maneuver to delay action – and he is no doubt right.  Charles Krauthammer pointed out on Fox News’s Special Report that the president’s credibility is on the line, given his clear identification of chemical weapons use as a “red line” for the U.S. on the Syria crisis.  But no one mentioned the core limitation of military readiness.

You may or may not think it’s advisable for the U.S. to intervene in Syria, even with an operation of minimal scope.  But it should all be pretty close to moot, because the Air Force standdown means that we just don’t have that many combat-ready strike-fighter squadrons to put on the problem.  There is no Navy aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean either, and there is only one in the Persian Gulf.  While it is possible to deploy the USS Harry S Truman (CVN-75) Strike Group from the East coast, where it lingers in a non-deployed Twilight Zone, the Navy would have to ask for more operating funds to do it.

Air Force readiness

Air Force strike-fighter squadrons in Europe now are down to two (there’s a handy visual representation put together by Al Clark for The Aviationist), with a potential plus-up from three additional combat-ready squadrons in the U.S.  The squadrons in Europe:

  • ·         510th Fighter Squadron in Aviano, Italy (F-16C)
  • ·         493rd Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, UK (F-15C)

Combat ready back in the States, and not currently dedicated to the Far East, are:

  • ·         7th Fighter Squadron at Holloman AFB in New Mexico (F-22A)
  • ·         335th Fighter Squadron at Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina (F-15E)
  • ·         55th Fighter Squadron Shaw AFB in South Carolina (F-16C)

This tally excludes the squadrons dedicated to the Pacific and Far East or deployed to CENTCOM.  Augmenting the combat-ready squadrons listed above would require reassigning units away from the Far East or CENTCOM – obviously not a prudent measure.  Between them, the squadrons in CENTCOM and the Far East, along with the global bombers (B-2 and B-52), will get the lion’s share of flying hours for the rest of 2013 (and quite possibly for the foreseeable future).

Note additionally that the 81st Fighter Squadron in Spangdahlem, Germany, with its A-10 Warthogs, will be inactivated in May 2013.  This will leave Europe with no Warthogs.  The only combat-ready A-10s will be in South Korea and deployed to Afghanistan.

With each passing day, meanwhile, the time required to restore combat readiness for the non-ready forces increases.  The longer a unit is out of readiness, the more it must do to regain combat readiness.

Navy readiness

This calculus affects the Navy as well, and the Navy’s posture is declining on much the same glideslope as the Air Force’s.  In addition to the fundamental carrier readiness problem, the Navy is having to cut back on underway days for deployed ships, and even on flying hours for deployed aircraft.  The Military Reporter has a presentation the Navy put together in January to show what it would have to cut in 2013 to “operate down” to the minimal funding from the old continuing resolution – as modified by the sequester.  Highlights of the potential Navy cutbacks in 2013 included:

  • ·         Cancel several SSN (attack submarine) deployments
  • ·         Flying hours on deployed carriers in Middle East reduced 55%; steaming days reduced 22%
  • ·         Reduce WESTPAC (Western Pacific, or Far East) deployed operations by 35%; Non-deployed Pacific ships lose 40% of steaming days (Note: this is the theater to which we have shifted our security emphasis)
  • ·         Cancel all non-BMD deployments to Europe (this means deploying NO cruisers or destroyers beyond those assigned to ballistic missile defense patrol – roughly cutting the number of surface combatant deployments in half). But also…
  • ·         Reduce total number of BMD deployments for Europe, Atlantic Ocean stations, and Middle East (leaving our European and Middle East allies more vulnerable to missile attack)  To summarize: fewer BMD deployments, and no non-BMD deployments
  • ·         Cancel 23 “ship availabilities” – that is, pierside maintenance periods – leaving over $800 million worth of scheduled maintenance undone
  • ·         Cancel $433 million worth of maintenance on fleet aircraft

By early April, the delivery of an actual defense budget for the remainder of 2013 allowed the Navy to scale down these cuts.  Originally facing a $9 billion shortfall for operations and maintenance, the Navy will get through 2013 with a shortfall of half of that, or about $4.5 billion.  That won’t translate into a problem-free readiness picture, however.  Cut the worst-case picture in half, and it’s still pretty bad.

At least one SSN deployment has been cancelled, along with the deployments of three surface combatants and two auxiliary ships.  The planned deployments of at least two other ships remain a question mark.  That’s in addition to the non-deployment of the Truman strike group, which includes surface combatants as well as the carrier.  Eight ship availabilities are being deferred (rather than 23), meaning the maintenance won’t happen until at least 2014.  There is already plenty of maintenance due in 2014, of course, beyond the maintenance due in 2013; anyone who works with complex equipment knows that the failure-to-maintain snowball becomes an avalanche very quickly.

They won't be doing much for the time being (three carriers pierside at NAS Coronado, San Diego, April 2013. US Navy photo)
They won’t be doing much for the time being (three carriers pierside at NAS Coronado, San Diego, April 2013. US Navy photo)

The most illuminating way to view the Navy cuts is probably through the prism of carrier air wing readiness – and it illuminates what the Air Force is facing as well.  If the Navy had had to take the cuts originally identified, four of its nine carrier air wings would have had to “shut down” in 2013.  With the smaller cuts from the 2013 defense budget, the four air wings won’t have to shut down, but neither will they be able to retain readiness beyond basic safety qualifications.  The San Diego Union-Tribune, doing the work the national media won’t do today to report on defense readiness issues, interviewed Navy officials, one of whom put it this way:

“As resources become available, the air wings previously slated for shut down will be able to operate at least to minimum safe flying levels for the remainder of the year,” Lt. Aaron Kakiel said. “We are still going through what the final readiness level will be for those air wings. Those discussions are still in progress.”

What they won’t be is four air wings capable of achieving combat readiness on the same schedule the president and the American people have been accustomed to for the last 30 years.  They just won’t be able to fly enough in 2013.  It’s the same problem the Air Force faces.  When we get to October 2013, there will be a lot of unreadiness: planes and aircrews we may have in the inventory, but can’t assign to operations, and can’t plan to assign to operations without a much longer training period than they would have required one month ago.

Stretched to the max

I have only highlighted here the kinds of hits that would affect a no-fly-zone-type air operation in Syria; this piece doesn’t even start on the hits being taken by the Marines and Naval amphibious shipping, or by the Army.  (There is no amphibious group in the Mediterranean today, and there is only one in CENTCOM.)

Given all this, it is correct to say that the U.S. would be stretched to the max, and quite possibly beyond, to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria.  For the Air Force, it’s not that four or five strike-fighter squadrons would be inadequate to the job; it’s that they wouldn’t remain adequate for very long – and the harder we drove them, and the more we cannibalized other units for parts, the less we would have available to deal with any other contingency, including homeland defense.

The same can be said for support assets – reconnaissance aircraft, tankers, E-3A AWACS air controllers – which could not be flown indefinitely without maintenance and relief. The support assets fall into the “low-density, high-demand” category: there just aren’t that many of them, and every airframe we have is on the hook 365 days a year for a high-priority contingency, such as the defense of South Korea.  Using them for anything else creates a potential shortfall for a contingency plan somewhere.

Keep in mind as well: all the stood-down fighter planes and aircrews are falling out of readiness as you read this.  When the currently ready squadrons reach their limit, there’s no one coming along behind them to take over in a Syria operation.  We’re simply burning the readiness we have. The few squadrons that are working up to combat readiness today are already committed to replacing the ones operating in Afghanistan and the Far East.

Bottom line: there’s no point in starting a new no-fly zone, if you have what amounts to a date certain on which you can no longer enforce it.

A note on unmanned aerial vehicles, which are bound to come up: they are as likely to be shot down in Syria as they are in Iran.  While the Assad regime has lost control of some of the territory on which it once deployed its anti-air missiles and artillery, it started out with such a huge inventory that it no doubt has a considerable arsenal left.  Like the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, a Syrian SA-6 crew could even get lucky and shoot down a U.S. F-16.  But – again, as the Serbs could tell us – an anti-air crew wouldn’t have to get that lucky to shoot down a Predator.

Syrian air defense OOB when civil war started*
Syrian air defense OOB when civil war started*

Navy air wing assets would be available if we deployed the Truman strike group – an unfunded expense, at a time when flying hours are being cut even for the front-line Persian Gulf carrier – or if we left CENTCOM without a carrier and put USS Nimitz (CVN-68) in the Mediterranean, or perhaps kept USS Dwight D Eisenhower (CVN-69) there instead of letting her go home when Nimitz relieves her in the Persian Gulf in about two weeks.  Ike has been out for 10 months now, minus her Christmas in port.  The Ike option would require more funding. The only option that wouldn’t require a big hunk of additional funding is the one that leaves CENTCOM without a carrier.

There is also, of course, the possibility of deploying only a Navy air wing and basing it in the Mediterranean somewhere.  The Navy-wide air wing readiness shortfall, with four of nine certain to not be combat ready for the rest of the year, significantly increases the danger to readiness inherent in doing something like this.  It would be the kind of last-ditch effort we might undertake in a desperate defense of the American homeland, but is certainly beyond prudence for an optional overseas contingency.

There is no depth of force availability today.  Here is how Navy Vice Admiral William Burke put it to Congress on Friday, 26 April (emphasis added):

The vice admiral said that prior to sequestration – which went into effect March 1 – the Navy was operating a fleet at levels below the baseline Global Force Management Allocation Plan, [levels] which suppress the readiness of deployed forces for full-spectrum operations and reduce the remaining surge capacity of the non-deployed force.

The U.S., not as global superpower but as miscellaneous ally

Presumably, we would approach a Syria intervention as a joint operation with our NATO allies. But our options for leadership – our discretion over the strategic purpose, tactics, rules of engagement, and so forth – would be reduced commensurate with the much reduced scope of our capabilities.  Do we want to put our forces in harm’s way under these conditions?

When the U.S. can conduct an operation on our own, if necessary, then we can pick and choose which compromises we make to gain the participation of allies.  But when we literally cannot mount the operation without their help, we become subject to their demands.  We have reached the point at which we can’t do this – indefinitely enforce a no-fly zone over Syria – using only U.S. assets.

Indeed, think up any kind of U.S. intervention in Syria, and we don’t have the combat-ready assets for it.  We are cutting back on training and maintenance to the point that our very large military will be largely immobilized, at least for an operationally significant period of time, if we do not change course.

Charles Krauthammer is right: Obama’s credibility – and America’s – will take a meaningful hit if he does nothing to follow up on his threat about the WMD “red line” in Syria.  But given the plummeting readiness of the Air Force and Navy, it’s not clear that Obama has credible options anyway.  Remember the minimal – weird – amount of military action we undertook in Libya in 2011?  We don’t have even that many forces in theater now – nor do we have them available elsewhere.


Readers will be gratified to know, however, that the Navy’s biofuel program continues apace.  Never forget that President Obama is engaged with his military, and sets its priorities for it every day.

* Slide from presentation on Syrian air and air defense forces created by Joseph Holliday and Christopher Harmer of the Institute for the Study of War.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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14 thoughts on “Just a reminder: Military readiness affects the viability of Syria operations too”

  1. Thanks for the great analysis you provide, this should be more publicized, not because of politics but because while all sorts of promises are being made to American allies the US is effectively not able to meet any of them currently, and from I understand from your facts a forced march style operation would jeopardize part of the assets for the medium term.

    Furthermore the US seems to have no plan for Syria and I don’t see why jeopardizing US assets for the strategic goals of Turkey and Saudi Arabia should be done.

  2. “Furthermore the US seems to have no plan for Syria and I don’t see why jeopardizing US assets for the strategic goals of Turkey and Saudi Arabia should be done.”

    I agree, Mwnanamai. The last thing we should do is back into Syria on someone else’s terms. That’s essentially what we did in Libya, and we were lucky to pull out without mishap. We wouldn’t be so lucky in Syria.

    There were viable things a US president could have done two years ago to help settle the Syria problem, without putting any US forces in combat there. But it would have had to be a different president. The one we have just isn’t up to it.

  3. From the Other Site:


    OZero will do nothing. Well, maybe some more of that “theme” stuff you were speaking of earlier…

    But basically, the Democrat power structure is not interested in actually doing anything about anything at all. That was the big beef with Bush in Iraq… The Dems resent the fact that he actually did something about what was known about the situation. Of course their Clintoon Era “Regime Change” regarding Iraq was just what we are talking about here…

    BS… Bovine Scatology… Flummery… bluster… lies… Democrat military policy is all about launching a few buzz bombs, blowing up empty tents and such. Then they claim to have done something.

    The only reason why Bubba got any traction in the Balkans was that he eventually, after that crippled useless low-threat region had been bombed enough, put troops on the ground. Gee, we are still there, too, and got exactly Zero out of the entire effort. The Balkans are still not worth a Pomeranian Grenadier, and we gained no advantage or good will from the Muslim world, either.

    The Med is rapidly draining from our fingers, and we have nothing substantive to send there. We don’t have the fleet, troop, or air assets to do much more than wave a magic wand. Maybe OZero will get one of his Hollywood buddies to make a propaganda flick about how great our influence is in the Middle East. It would be a lie, like everything that comes out of this Regime’s mouths… but it would be much better produced and directed than OBozo’s foreign policy.

    Seeing the Google satellite image of the USS Enterprise sitting inert and about to be brutalized at Newport News just really drove home the reality that this Regime is destroying us. Gutted like a fish… She should have been laid up, rebuilt and totally refitted; not turned into razor blades… A quick view of the facility finds no big bottoms being worked on to replace her. Soon we won’t be able to do the work, the children of the workers of the mightiest ship building company in the world, are all on welfare or looking for work in the tourism and retail industries.

    Shortsighted fools and pacifists make deadly bedfellows.


  4. It is possible that there might be a feeble attempt to outsource a possible Syrian intervention to Turkey, Jordan and Israel, with the US and NATO providing support, but I don’t believe that will hold together, or, go unchallenged by Russia, China and Iran.

    Meantime, Syrian goverment forces are on the counteroffensive and have made substantial gains cutting off major “terrorist/rebel” supply routes recently.

    Curious coincidence how that goes pretty much unreported in western media at the same time there is a media blitz on Assad’s limited, cynical, and successful tactical use of chemical weapons against military targets.

    This round goes to Assad, hands down.

    Also, there is the possibility that any serious sign of preparations for air strikes against Syrian territory would find S-300 missile batteries suddenly operational.

    Just a reminder of who the “rebels” are, not that I can honestly say Assad is any better….


    I took the liberty of posting a link your piece to give Prof. Landis’ readers some military operational perspective on a Syrian intervention. Hope you don’t mind Optcon 🙂

  5. There are two things that I try to keep in mind when I hear the sound of sabers rattling on the subject of Syria. 1) What, exactly, have we accomplished in Afghanistan? By ‘exactly’ I mean the goals achieved that have benefited America greatly or, at the very least, enough to justify the loss of American treasure in the billions and American lives in the thousands. Is whatever we achieved there significant, durable and long-lasting? If not, then I have to repeat the question…What, exactly, have we accomplished in Afghanistan? 2) The same questions and trepidations should be applied to Iraq.

    Because I have partaken of that tempting sugar pill myself, I know that it is quite easy to use the emotional, patriotic and ethical justifications that are there for all of us to use. Especially handy among them are the chest-beating rationalizations that are generally followed by heavy panting and anger-fed guttural sounds. But, really, do we actually think that Iraq’s “fledgling democracy” was worth the life of one single American soldier and, if so, why…?

    And, do we really think that we have in effect displaced, mortally wounded or heavily curtailed Jihad in the region or, much less, in the rest of the world including America?

    It is easy to favorably conclude a task that was started without a really clear definition of the objectives. We can always say: “No. That was not the reason I did that. I wasn’t really building a table; I was working on a new form of abstract art.” This type of dodging could go on indefinitely, as we all know.

    This is why my eyes roll over when I hear the sabers rattling on the subject of Syria. Shouldn’t we first define clearly and honestly what our purpose should be there, what we expect to gain and what our real and clear objectives, the ones we will use later to evaluate our success, be before we spend one more single dime there or, much less, one single American life? Oh, and please spare me the blanket rationalization that includes the often used (misused?)words like “freedom”, “democratic process”, “human rights” or any other “for the children” nonsense that politicians use as a knee-jerk reaction to justify sending us into harm’s way for unmeasurable and unconfirmable reasons.

    As to why our military is being disbanded and weakened, the answer is quite easy: Political priorities. We need all that money to pay for expanding entitlements for all the voters that are here now and for the lillions that will soon join the Democrat Party.

    And, what a ‘party’ that will end up being……….


  6. I neglected to thank you for another great piece. I share the view of other readers in wishing your posts were more widely distributed.

    Keep bringing us down to Earth Optcon. Our feet have to be firmly on the ground and our heads must be clear, BEFORE we get sucked into anything we can’t finish on our own terms.

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