The latest US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report into the country’s military readiness, has repeated previously highlighted challenges faced by the services as they juggle recapitalisation efforts with the need to sustain in-service platforms to ensure availability.
In its 2 May report, the GAO said that the US Department of Defense (DoD) faced “several challenges” as it worked to rebuild and restore readiness across the military, while also seeking to modernise its forces.
Examples of this include the US Navy’s ship maintenance backlog, which had grown to $1.8bn, and aircraft maintenance and supply issues limiting the availability of ageing aircraft. Ground forces, by contrast, had seen an increase in readiness.
According to the GAO, nearly two decades of conflict had “degraded military readiness”, as the DoD worked across all domains to rebuild capabilities while also undergoing a significant programme to modernise its forces.
The US military has been consistently on a conflict footing for the better part of a generation, as it fought twin insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of its recommendations, the GAO said it had made “dozens… in prior reports to help improve readiness in each of the domains”, although some of these “remain unimplemented”.
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In GAO testimony before the US Congress on 2 May, Diana Maurer, director, Defense Capabilities and Management at the GAO, stated that mission capability had declined since 2017.
“While the [US] Army and Marine Corps improved in the ground domain, we found declines in the sea, air and space domains. For example, only two of 49 aviation systems met their annual mission capable goals. The vast majority missed by over 10%,” Maurer testified.
“The F-35 programme in particular, suffers from a variety of sustainment woes. Fleet wide mission capable rates have declined every year since 2020, and the [US] Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps face substantial gaps between what it costs to fly the aircraft and what they can afford.”
Continuing, Maurer said the US Army needed to improve its helicopter safety and address shortfalls in rail support and sealift training that affect readiness and the ability to perform logistical manoeuvres.
Meanwhile, the US Navy had nearly $1.8bn in deferred ship maintenance, “mainly in its cruisers and amphibious ships”, while also facing a “significant crewing shortfall” which can harm mission maintenance and safety.
The US Navy has sustained a number of fatal incidents among its vessels during operations at sea in recent years, including collisions of major warships.
Predicting the points of failure
Although practices such as predictive maintenance can have considerable impact on improving readiness levels among defence vehicle and platform fleets, a December 2022 report by the GAO found that the US DoD had made limited progress in its implementation.
According to the GAO report at the time the US Army began using predictive maintenance on the AH-64 Apache in 2005 during the installation of sensor systems, expanded this to all aircraft in 2012, with coverage so far across all AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, as well as with the sensors on 65% of CH-47 Chinook aircraft.
The US Marine Corps are in the early stages of implementing predictive maintenance for ground combat systems, with pilot programmes having been run for platforms such as the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. Similarly, the US Navy had also begun pilot projects, but these were yet to be introduced at scale.