The Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently delivered a new report, “A Historical Perspective on ‘Hollow Forces.’” It is cold comfort to those who are really worried about the ability of our military to defend us.
A military that looks good on paper but can’t adequately defend the country is the definition of a “hollow force.” A military force becomes hollow when it lacks sufficient capabilities to field trained and ready forces, conduct current missions, and prepare for future threats. If a military can’t do all three well, it is hollow—it can’t really deliver on government’s promise to provide for the common defense. In both the 1970s and the 1990s, military leaders used the phrase “hollow force” to describe their declining capability to meet the armed forces’ responsibility to defend the nation.
Warnings about the potential for another “hollow force” arose in 2006. The lion’s share of additional spending on the military over the last decade has gone to funding operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many “core” military activities—including buying new ships, planes, and vehicles—have been under-funded for decades. In addition, years of combat operations have caused great wear and tear on the force, resulting in multiple combat tours for many servicemen and equipment such as combat helicopters wearing out far faster than expected.
The warning then was that if we didn’t invest to rebuild the military after combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan ended, the force would “go hollow again.” That concern was echoed by the bipartisan panel chartered by Congress in a 2010 review of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review report. The panel concluded that the armed forces lacked the capacity to meet the responsibilities of protecting U.S. interests worldwide.
Those concerns were exacerbated when President Obama announced his new Strategic Guidance that envisions significant reductions in military forces. The U.S. military will be required to further divest the capacity to robustly defend U.S. interests around the world. On the ground, in the sea, and in the air, American forces will shrink drastically. The Army will shrink by 72,000 people, the active Marine Corps will be reduced by 20,000, the Air Force will see six tactical fighter squadrons de-established while an additional training fighter squadron will be eliminated, the next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter procurement will be slowed, and the Navy will retire seven cruisers and two amphibious ships at an early juncture while delaying the procurements of new ships.
There is a potential for even more cuts that would be required to comply with the Budget Control Act of 2011. The House Armed Services majority staff determined that without question, the military capability would be further greatly diminished. “The Navy will likely mothball more than 60 ships,” the report concludes, “including two carrier battle groups, while we give up nearly a third of Army Maneuver Battalions and Air Force fighters, a quarter of our bombers, and jeopardize our ability to defend America against a nuclear attack. As a service, the Marine Corps will be broken.”
So what practical advice does the CRS have to offer in dealing with these challenges? The simple answer is: not much. The CRS report points out that in several ways, the challenges the military faced in the post-Vietnam years differed from those the services confronted during the Clinton presidency. Similarly, the report notes out that the issues confronting today’s military differ in key respects as well. The report concludes that, “given these conditions, it can be argued that the use of the term ‘hollow force’ is inappropriate under present circumstances.”
That’s not very helpful. How a military goes hollow is not as important as the fact that the nation is left with a force that cannot do the job as advertised. What is critical to understand is that if a military can’t field trained and ready forces; conduct current missions; and prepare for future threats, it is inadequate. With the Pentagon facing a dramatic reduction in capability, it is irresponsible to suggest that this isn’t something worth worrying about.
The CRS report offers a useful historical perspective on the challenges the U.S. military has faced after the “drawdowns” after Vietnam and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is wrong to infer from the report “don’t worry, be happy” about the challenges the military currently faces. The report notes that there are those who argue that this drawdown can be “managed” to prevent the military from going “hollow.” There were those that argued the same thing after Vietnam and the end of the Cold War. In many ways, they were wrong.
Rather than just accept the Administration’s claim that it is going to keep us a lot more safe with a lot less defense, let’s give the issue more careful scrutiny than glib comparisons with the mistakes of the past.