The United States should leave the hollow force where it belongs—in the past. Defense budget cuts and inadequate strategy are damaging readiness. Heritage’s Baker Spring, along with Colonels Ruchard Dunn and Kerry Kachejian, opened “Protect America Month” at The Heritage Foundation last week, speaking about the potential for the U.S. military to become a hollow force.
Kachejian explained that a hollow force is created when “our nation can’t defend itself properly.” Dunn elaborated that, while personnel, equipment, and maintenance are all individual factors in a ready military force, they act like a three-legged stool. Just as with the stool, all three legs much be in balance for the military to operate properly.
The hollow force of the 1970s emerged because personnel were insufficiently paid, poorly trained, and had low morale—despite having relatively new and advanced weapons. Military salaries did not keep up with high inflation rates, so the military was not an attractive career option. New recruits generally had low test scores and many had not graduated from high school. Drug use, crime, and unauthorized absences led to many separations of new recruits for disciplinary reasons.
The hollow force feared today is very different from that of the 1970s. Members of the military are well trained, relatively well compensated, and experiencing high morale, but the force is too small and operating old equipment. The current force is still suffering from the procurement holiday of the 1990s, says Spring, when the end of the Cold War created a false sense that we would no longer be engaging in large-scale military operations, and thus did not need new equipment. This kind of thinking creates a vicious cycle when operations and maintenance accounts have also been an easy source for cuts. The Navy cannot buy half an aircraft carrier, so, to save money, it will defer maintenance.
On the battlefield, insufficient readiness leads to real, immediate threats. Kachejian described how his team of engineers was sent into Baghdad in the middle of a “raging insurgency” and tasked with rebuilding Iraq. Kachejian’s division was created and staffed with little notice, and no spare military vehicles, weapons, or even ammunition for the unit. To compensate, his team borrowed weapons, purchased ammunition out of their own pockets, and duct-taped their personal body armor to the sides of rented SUVs for added protection.
Navy shipyards are also subject to the effects of the hollow force. Sequestration left the armed services to make deep cuts to their budgets with little preparation. As a result, the Navy canceled the deployment of the USS Truman, leaving only one aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
Fortunately, it is not too late to avoid the dangerous effects of the hollow force. Military health care and retirement systems could be reformed to save $39 billion, and acquisitions processes can be reformed for further savings, which should be reinvested in modernization and maintenance. The U.S. Constitution grants Congress the responsibility to provide for the common defense. This cannot be accomplished with a hollow force, and leaders in Congress and the White House should learn from the past and restore defense funding.
Genevieve Syverson is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.