Improving military readiness in the Mena region: less is more

Haroon Sheikh

Published: Updated:

Every military commander knows that battles are won and lost long before operations actually begin: the force with the highest level of training and readiness often prevails.

Yet commanders and planners in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) frequently do not have a clear understanding of the readiness of their forces. They strive to maintain extremely high levels, under the logic that more is better, leading to standards that are often unrealistic and unsustainable.

At best, this leads to unnecessarily high logistics costs. At worst, commanders and governments make decisions based on an inflated sense of their armed forces’ true readiness, leading to failed missions and needless casualties. Put simply, MENA region armed forces need a more comprehensive and realistic approach to readiness.

A key part of the problem is that many commanders and planners tend to focus on the technical status of equipment such as weapons platforms and systems, rather than the overall operational status of their forces.

Equipment is only one part of the equation, and commanders often fail to consider other factors, such as personnel, training, equipment maintenance and repair, and logistics.

For example, it is not enough for a military jet to be ready to fly. Commanders and planners also need to consider the training level of pilots (including their ability to work with allied forces), supplies such as fuel and spare parts, and how to deal with both scheduled maintenance and unscheduled repairs. If a jet is slated for an overhaul 45 days from now, it may be operational today, but it is not available for a 90-day deployment.

Personnel readiness

Personnel readiness has similar complications. Units need to absorb new recruits, rotate troops out for skills training courses, and simply rest after returning from operations. It is not possible for a unit to be ready to deploy all the time.

To account for these factors, governments in the MENA region need a more comprehensive approach to military readiness, which requires assessing four key factors. First, commanders and planners need to understand the threats that their country faces from a potential adversary, and they should plan for the worst-case scenario: defending against an attack by foreign forces on home soil.

Governments also need to consider their alliance commitments, which typically stipulate that countries have forces of a specific size and capability in place, and are available to respond to an emerging crisis in a specific time frame.

A country’s foreign policy is a factor as well, such as commitments to support the United Nations with peacekeeping forces or participation in humanitarian operations in different parts of the world. Finally, some armed forces have standing obligations to support domestic operations such as responding to terrorist threats or natural disasters.

With an understanding of these parameters, commanders and planners must then consider the specific mission they are planning for. Again, they need a more comprehensive understanding, including aspects such as the destination, duration, logistics requirements, and other factors—which means they must ask “readiness for what?”

For instance, a government may need to mobilize its entire armed forces to address an emerging threat within 12 months and be prepared to fight a high-intensity conflict for 30 days. Or it may need to provide a brigade-sized force to support an ally’s defensive operations within 30 days and to remain deployed for six months. Or it may need to develop a quick reaction force that can provide national air defence indefinitely. Each mission has different requirements.

‘Yes-or-no’ determination

Empowered with this information, armed forces can then begin to develop a readiness program that is more advanced than the current “yes-or-no” determination used by many MENA region armed forces. Instead, they can develop a sustainable rotation in which units cycle through predictable states of readiness, from low to high, typically with 12 months at each stage:

Low readiness—Units at this stage are typically just back from operations or rotating off a considerable period on high alert. They are not available for major combat operations, but they can respond to homeland defence requirements and provide support to civil authorities. During this period, units bring on new personnel, refurbish equipment, and conduct individual and collective training.

Medium readiness—Units at the next level of readiness train for potential missions in their upcoming deployment window. They are eligible for sourcing if necessary to meet joint requirements.

High readiness—Units at high readiness are in their planned deployment windows and are fully trained, equipped, and resourced to meet operational requirements. They are ready to go and succeed in their missions.

In each of these states, commanders should factor in the various dimensions of readiness: personnel, equipment, training, and sustainability. The best approach will put all of this information into commanders’ hands through a dashboard that offers an accurate, current indication of readiness, and allows leaders to test scenarios and identify potential ramifications.

At a more sophisticated level, the dashboard can also predict readiness at future points in time by factoring in considerations such as manpower forecasts and equipment overhaul schedules.

Applying this approach to MENA region armed forces will mean acknowledging that some armed forces are not ready according to the current standard, which may seem like a step backwards. In the long term, however, a more comprehensive approach to readiness offers a wide range of benefits. It is far more predictable, both to troops and commanders.

It creates readiness levels that are realistic and sustainable. Most important, it will give military planners and decision-makers accurate information, allowing them to make informed decisions about the use of forces. As a result, those forces will be better able to respond appropriately to a wide range of threats—wherever and whenever they emerge.

Haroon Sheikh, partner, and Bassem Fayek, manager, are with Strategy& Middle East (formerly Booz & Company), part of the PwC network.