Tiered Readiness is coming.

Today, under the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) plan, Brigade Combat Teams  (BCT) go through a cycle where they are deployed or ready to deploy, recovering from a deployment or readiness term, or are training up to regain their readiness to deploy. For the most part, all BCTs in the Army have, for the last decade or so, shared equally in cycle. The large numbers of BCTs needed for deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan dictated that almost every  BCT would sooner or later get its turn in the barrel.

But with Iraq over, and Afghanistan winding down, fewer and fewer BCTs are being tapped to deploy overseas. Particularly, the heavy BCTs, with tanks and Bradleys, aren’t deploying to Afghanistan.

More importantly, the Army is running out of money. It has already made the choice to shutter a large number of BCTs (though the remaining BCTs will gain an additional maneuver battalion).

But even with those cuts, the budget for manpower, training, and operations is under pretty severe stress.

So the Army, despite promising itself it wouldn’t do so, is going to take something of a strategic risk.

Cancelled training. Deferred maintenance. Grounded aircraft. That’s been the damage to military readiness from the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration in 2013. Now the Vice-Chief of Staff of the Army says the service may have to keep many units at lower levels of readiness for years. This is not a short-term expedient but new policy.

“We’re looking at having certain number of brigades at a higher level of readiness,” Gen. John Campbell told me last week. “Many of our units will go down much lower.”

“Some people would call that tiered readiness, where we said we never were going to go again,” the Vice-Chief went on, referring to the Cold War practice where units not in West Germany or South Korea sometimes never received their full allotment of troops, equipment, and training dollars. “I’d call it progressive readiness.”

A preliminary plan may be ready for public discussion within weeks, Campbell said. “We’re working through that now,” he said, as the service builds its 2015-2019 budget plan, the Program Objective Memorandum.

Campbell’s remarks suggest new willingness on the Army leadership’s part to shift it position on readiness, one that’s been urged by many thinktanks.

“While Army leaders have avoided cutting readiness to every extent possible, it is no longer feasible under current budget plans – even before sequestration moves into year two,” argues Mackenzie Eaglen, one of the think tank experts who recommended cutting readiness levels to guarantee the military’s ability to develop and buy new weapons.

“There is already a readiness shortfall this year that is being funded through war spending and additional untold readiness gaps based on all the services receiving fewer resources than expected when Congress finally passed a defense appropriations bill for 2013,” she said.

It is hardly a perfect solution, but then, it’s also the world I knew back in my own days of service.

Some BCTs will still receive the money and manpower to stay at full readiness, known sometimes as C-1. Fully manned, and trained in all the essentials of the commanders Mission Essential Task List, and having gone through a cycle of training from individual skills to full up BCT sized operations in the field at one of the Combat Training Centers against a dedicated Opposing Force.

Other BCTs… not so much.

They’ll have less money for fuel and maintenance for their equipment. Fewer spare parts. A smaller allocation of ammunition for training. Likely, exercised at battalion and BCT level will be cancelled or curtailed. They’ll get fewer rotations at the Combat Training Centers. They’ll be last in line for receiving new equipment.

And perhaps most painfully, they’ll get fewer people.

We talked above about some units being fully manned. But the truth is, no unit is ever really fully manned. Let’s say a rifle company has an authorized strength of 100.  The Army says it will be fully manned. But you’ve got people transferring out, and waiting for new bodies to come in. Then you’ve got people on leave, at various Army schools, people who are sick or injured (they still count toward you being fully manned, but aren’t available for duty), troops who are awaiting discharge either for completing their service, or because they’re unsuitable for the Army. Then there are the demands placed from above. It is not at all unheard of for a higher echelon to levy units for manpower, either for a temporary tasking, or for extended periods. Our notional rifle company might be lucky to have 75 troops present at morning formation.

My first two duty stations, I was assigned to units that were fully manned. My third wasn’t quite as lucky. We were constantly understrength. While we always had enough people to fully crew our Bradleys, we had only enough troops left over to field a single, understrength rifle squad per platoon. We needed another 10 to 12 troops, per platoon, to be fully manned.

We had enough money and assets to train on individual skills, and small unit collective skills. But it is hard to train a platoon to fight properly when every bit of doctrine that governs employing the platoon assumes a much larger unit, with a good bit more tactical flexibility.

The Army’s reasoning is that for the foreseeable future, should these lower tier BCTs be needed for a fight, they’ll have time to plus up their manning, and their training. We can only hope they’re correct.

If not, we can always ask the survivors of Task Force Smith how things worked out for them.