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Research Questions

  1. What has been the level of responsiveness of the U.S. military in the ten cases examined?
  2. What role, if any, has responsiveness played in achieving the U.S. military and political objectives?
  3. How often was the joint force called on to respond to multiple contingencies simultaneously?
  4. What recurring factors facilitated or inhibited rapid responses?
  5. How responsive is airpower?

The Department of Defense (DoD) argues that it needs to maintain a high level of readiness across the joint force so that it can remain highly responsive. In this report, the author conducts a historical analysis to identify the demand for responsiveness in past U.S. operations. This historical analysis demonstrates that U.S. forces have been called on to rapidly respond to crises many times since 1950 and that responsiveness was important—to varying degrees—to achieving the United States' political aims in all but one of the cases examined. Moreover, the U.S. military has routinely been called on to carry out multiple operations simultaneously. Going forward, the United States must consider the balance between readiness for smaller-scale crisis response operations and being prepared to deter and defeat a great power in major combat. It is not clear that the U.S. military can continue to try to do everything. This historical analysis cannot specify the exact level of readiness that the joint force should maintain. But it does suggest that the United States has demanded a relatively ready military since World War II and that if the American people and American policymakers continue to expect their military to be able to quickly respond to events anywhere in the world, maintaining a relatively high level of readiness will be necessary.

Key Findings

U.S. forces have been called on to rapidly respond to crises many times since 1950

  • Responsiveness was important—to varying degrees—to achieving the United States' political aims in all but one of the cases examined.
  • Quick reactions are often needed in response to unanticipated or out-of-the blue events, such as terrorist attacks and hijackings.
  • They are also important when the United States is seeking to deter aggression, prevent an opponent from rapidly achieving its objectives, and assist a partner or ally that is under attack.
  • Responsiveness tended to be less important when critical U.S. interests were not at stake but decisionmakers chose to use force as a coercive tool.

U.S. forces have proven quite responsive

  • U.S. forces typically had enough military capability in place to carry out the operation within weeks of the deployment order being issued.
  • Only in the instances of deterring or intervening in a major war did the U.S. require a large joint force and take months to mass the requisite forces.
  • Many recurring factors facilitated rapid responses, including having forward-based or deployed forces proximate to the area of operations, political decisiveness, prepared en route infrastructure, prepositioned equipment, agreed-upon base access, strategic airlift, and prepared contingency and deployment plans.
  • The absence of these factors hindered responsiveness.
  • Airpower has proven to be extremely responsive.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    The Link Between Responsiveness and Readiness

  • Chapter Two

    Responsiveness in Ten Cases

  • Chapter Three

    The Demand for Simultaneous Operations

  • Chapter Four

    Responsiveness and Force Size

  • Chapter Five

    When Is Responsiveness Needed?

  • Chapter Six

    Enablers, Obstacles, and Risks of Rapid Employment

  • Chapter Seven


  • Appendix A

    Case Studies

  • Appendix B

    Operations Included in Simultaneity Analysis

Research conducted by

This research was commissioned by U.S. Air Force (USAF) Quadrennial Defense Review Office (HAF/CVAR) and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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