The Pentagon's Readiness Crisis Threatens To Worsen In 2018


One year into the Trump administration, what are the most complex challenges facing the U.S. military? This is the fourth installment of THREAT WEEK, our brief series spotlighting some of the Pentagon’s biggest obstacles ahead of President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.

By all accounts, 2017 was a year marred by tragedy for the U.S. armed forces — and the year that most civilians learned exactly why “readiness” matters. At least 56 service members were killed in non-combat incidents in the last six months of the year alone as combat-related deaths hit a six-year high, according to a Military Times analysis. After the summer brought the back-to-back collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain in the Pacific theater — punctuated by a KC-130 crash that killed 15 Marines and a Navy corpsman in July — observers attributed the rise in class A mishaps at sea and in the air to the Defense Department’s high operational tempo.

The Pentagon isn’t just stretched thin, but a buck short thanks to sequestration cuts and the political jousting that led to the government shutdown earlier in January — constraints that some lawmakers argue threaten to dramatically impact efforts to maintain and advance troop readiness and operability. Without appropriate resources and funding, the Pentagon will find itself pushed to the breaking point with each tactical confrontation — and though these challenges aren’t as visceral as the threats posed by ISIS and North Korea, experts argue that each shortfall will leave the United States permanently hamstrung in achieving its core objectives abroad.

“The biggest challenge for the Navy and Marine Corps in 2018 is to make the case that what they do is different and unique and critical to American security and that it should be better resourced,” Bryan McGrath, a retired naval officer and founder of national security consultancy The FerryBridge Group, told Task & Purpose. “I do not know that this means other elements of national security need be diminished. That’s not the argument for the moment; rather, it’s the tools that American seapower brings to American national defense are indeed unique.”

American seapower isn’t just unique in terms of conventional wars like the intense non-nuclear engagement that keeps North Korea observers up at night. Instead, McGrath argued, the power projection afforded by the Navy and Marines is a critical pillar of the day-to-day business of conventional deterrence that defines the Pentagon’s role as a sword of American hegemony. “Land power, unless it’s proximate, is not deterring anybody, and air power, unless it has overflight rights, is not deterring anybody,” McGrath explains. “The fact that the Navy and Marine Corps can use the maneuver force afforded by the seas, unclaimed and unclaimable, means they can shoulder a disproportionate share of the conventional deterrence efforts.”

The problem is that the Navy and Marine Corps, in McGrath’s mind, “are not making the case,” despite the fact that Trump’s initial $693 billion defense budget proposal for 2018 explicitly emphasized efforts to greatly expand the Navy and accelerate acquisition efforts for the indispensable Corps. To McGrath, the armed forces’ bloody summer is the most visceral evidence yet that American seapower can’t sit around and wait while lawmakers squabble over line items for combined arms exercises or the Trump administration plans to build a 355-ship Navy.

Related: Here’s Exactly What Went Wrong In the Final Moments Before The Fitzgerald And McCain Collisions »

“The whole 355 [ship] thing is an implementation detail; safety is the foundation of everything: You simply can’t do the other stuff without it,” McGrath told Task & Purpose. “Right now, we don’t have enough seapower to do what we ask of it today, and what we ask of it today is insufficient to our role in the world and misaligned with the responsibility of a great power to protect and sustain a global system.”

In McGrath’s assessment, no number of task forces or five-year strategic reviews can fix the DoD’s readiness woes — only a come-to-Jesus moment on defense spending can. While the current strategic requirements posed by the Global War on Terror represent a distinct departure from the posture of the Cold War, the proportions of the defense budget allocated to the Navy and Marine Corps rarely change; indeed, a Task & Purpose review of DoD baseline budget requests revealed that Navy and Marine Corps budget proposals have hovered around 29% for at least the last decade.

The wreckage of a KC-130 that crashed while ferrying Marine Corps personnel and equipment from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina to Naval Air Facility El Centro in California on July 10, 2017Screenshot WLBT News

When it comes to resourcing for the Navy and Marine Corps, “the needle never moves regardless of whatever major reviews between the Cold War and the Global War on Terror suggest,” says McGrath. “It’s evidence of a fixed way of looking at military force irrespective of the actual security conditions out there in the world … I get the political position that folks like [Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson] are in, but it’s time to talk about seapower and its unique role in the world.”

The one thing everyone’s missing: War is its own business, and this poor allocation of military spending between the various service branches reflects competing incentives. “There are powerful constituencies of influential people in the Trump administration, who obsess over the centrality of land power and see sea and air power as ‘support’ roles,’” McGrath said. “This is where the defense industry and congressional base conspire to limit options, which leads to a lack of strategic creativity.

“If we can move the budget needle in a way that makes 355 ships a reality or makes 205,000 Marines a reality, the sort of situation where resources follow a coherent strategic approach, that would be lovely, but I don’t hold out hope for that,” he added. “The thing that can break through here is presidential leadership, but I simply dont president Trump being that guy.”

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U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter Burghart
(Photo: CNN/screenshot)

NAVAL BASE SAN DIEGO — A Navy SEAL sniper on Wednesday contradicted earlier testimony of fellow SEALs who claimed he had fired warning shots to scare away civilian non-combatants before Chief Eddie Gallagher shot them during their 2017 deployment to Mosul, and said he would not want to deploy again with one of the prosecution's star witnesses.

Special Operator 1st Class Joshua Graffam originally invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege before Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh gave him immunity in order to compel his testimony.

Graffam testified that Gallagher was essentially justified in the shooting of a man he is accused of unlawfully targeting, stating that "based off everything i had seen so far ... in my opinion, they were two shitheads moving from one side of the road to the other."

Spotting for Gallagher in the tower that day, Graffam said, he called out the target to him and he fired. He said the man was hit in the upper torso and ran away.

Graffam, who joined the Navy in 2010 and has been assigned to SEAL Team 7's Alpha Platoon since September 2015, deployed alongside Gallagher to Mosul in 2017, occasionally acting as a spotter for Gallagher when the SEALs were tasked with providing sniper support for Iraqi forces from two towers east of the Tigris River.

Another SEAL, Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Dalton Tolbert, had previously testified under direct examination by prosecutors that, while stationed in the south tower of a bombed-out building in June 2017, he had observed Gallagher shoot and kill an elderly civilian.

"He ran north to south across the road," Tolbert testified on Friday. "That's when I saw the red mark on his back and I saw him fall for the first time. Blood started to pool and I knew it was a square hit in the back." Over the radio, he said he heard Gallagher tell the other snipers, "you guys missed him but I got him."

Former SO1 Dylan Dille, who was also in the south tower that day, testified last week that he watched an old man die from a sniper shot on Father's Day. He said the date stuck out in his mind because he thought the man was probably a father.

Later that day, after the mission, Graffam said he spoke with Dille about the shooting and they disagreed about the circumstances. Dille, he said, believed the man was a noncombatant.

"I, on the other hand, was confident that the right shot was taken," Graffam said, although he said later under cross-examination that the man was unarmed. Dille previously testified that the SEALs were authorized to shoot unarmed personnel if they first received signals intelligence or other targeting information.

Photo: Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

Graffam described the man as a male between 40 and 50 years old wearing black clothing, giving him the impression of an ISIS fighter who was moving in a "tactical" manner. He testified that he did not see anything like Dille had described.

Graffam further testified that he didn't see Gallagher take any shots that he shouldn't have on that day or any other.

Although Graffam said he did not hear of allegations that Gallagher had stabbed a wounded ISIS fighter on deployment, he testified that he started to hear rumblings in early 2018. Chief Craig Miller, he said, asked him at one point whether he would "cooperate" with others in reporting him.

When asked whether he would like to serve with Miller again in a SEAL platoon, Graffam said, "I don't feel as confident about it." A member of the jury later asked him why he'd feel uncomfortable deploying with Miller and he responded, "I just wouldn't."

Graffam said he would serve with Gallagher again if given the chance.

Under cross examination by prosecutors, Graffam said he couldn't say whether there were warning shots fired that day, though Dille and Tolbert both said happened. "There were multiple shots throughout the day," Graffam said.

Prosecutors also asked him about his previous statements to NCIS, in which Graffam said of Miller that "he has good character" and was "a good guy." Graffam confirmed he said just that.

Defense attorney Tim Parlatore, however, said those statements were back in January and "a lot had happened since then." Parlatore said Graffam had also said at the time that Gallagher was a good leader.

"That part remains unchanged, correct?" Parlatore asked.

"Yes," Graffam said.

The defense is expected to call more witnesses in the case, which continues on Thursday.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexi Myrick)

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(YouTube via Air Force Times)

Editor's Note: This article by Oriana Pawlyk originally appeared on, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

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"The specifics of the situation are being reviewed by the airman's command team," said service spokesman Maj Nick Mercurio, confirming the incident. Mercurio did not provide any identifying details about the airman.

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