In a recent report titled “A Historical Perspective on ‘Hollow Forces,’” the Congressional Research Service (CRS) surveyed past efforts to keep the military from going “hollow.” The CRS is spot on in bringing attention to the issue. We need to look for the warning signs that budget cuts are leaving us with a military that is not up to the job of defending us. But rather than getting bogged down over academic definitions of hollowness, we need to focus on objective measures that America’s armed forces are becoming less capable. Even before operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military was compressed by the Clinton-era “Peace Dividend,” which put a strain on modernization.
Congress needs to start looking seriously at the signs that military readiness and capabilities are declining. It could start by focusing on the backlogs of maintenance work—the upkeep on aircraft, ships, and other equipment to keep them operational. This work is beneficial because it has the potential to fix issues before they become larger, costly concerns. Maintenance is often deferred when budget issues bring these operations to a halt. However, missions do not cease during budget holdups, which creates a backlog as demand for maintenance outpaces the rate at which it can be performed.
Another readiness issue that Congress should evaluate is depot maintenance. This differs from normal maintenance in that it is large-scale overhauls and upgrades on programs, enabling them to sustain superior capabilities. This is common in the U.S. Navy, as ships undergo extensive overhauls that extend their service lives and install new technologies in the process. The House Armed Services Committee estimated that sequestration cuts may cause a reduction of 50 to 60 vessels. If the fleet is significantly reduced, depot maintenance will be critical to sustain the remaining ships.
Budget cuts and their effect on our armed forces have been intensely discussed. Congress should now shift its focus to what those reductions will mean for military readiness and how to deal with the possibility of lost capabilities.