A Hollow Military Again?

Even in the best of times, U.S. leaders have stumbled trying to manage the tricky transition between war and what comes after. Following every “war to end all wars,” the American people demand a “peace dividend” that often cuts defense spending too deep for too long, eroding military preparedness. Congress resists shuttering unneeded bases, stopping unnecessary weapons production, or decommissioning excess reserve units that represent jobs in home districts. The result is military forces that are unbalanced and inefficient. The Pentagon plans to fight the last war, only with a smaller force, rather than adjusting adequately to new limitations and threats on the horizon.

Those deeply ingrained tendencies explain why brave but ill-prepared troops have been badly bloodied in the first battles of many past wars. American forces were routed at Kasserine Pass in North Africa at the outset of World War II; it happened again with Task Force Smith in the early days of the Korean War; and the 1st Cavalry Division was mauled by North Vietnamese regulars in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, a battle that became the basis for the best-selling book We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young.

During the post-Vietnam War drawdown of the 1970s, cuts in defense spending and difficulty recruiting a quality all-volunteer military infamously led to a “hollow” force by decade’s end. That force botched the 1980 Desert One attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran, lost 241 Marines to a terrorist bombing in Beirut, in 1983, and stumbled badly as a joint force in the invasion of Grenada that same year. The cycle arguably repeated itself during the post-Cold War 1990s, when a decadelong “procurement holiday” resulted in a dangerously aging military arsenal and troops who were manifestly unprepared for the insurgencies they confronted in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The problem for military leaders now is that the drawdown from the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan comes not at the best of times but arguably at the worst. Consider the simple fact that readiness problems that took many years to carve out the force in the late 1970s are already affecting today’s military. And more than a year still remains before the last of the 63,000 U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan are scheduled to come home.

“I have testified to Congress that I came into a ‘hollow Army’ in the 1970s that had significant discipline problems, no money to train, and low standards,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, speaking recently with reporters. “While I really don’t want to leave a hollow Army, that’s the road we’re headed down if we continue to have this budget impasse.” As a result of the sequester triggered in March by the 2011 Budget Control Act, the Army has already canceled six rotations at its premier training centers, limited 80 percent of its forces to rudimentary home-base training at only the squad level or below, reduced flying hours, and planned to furlough civilian workers who help maintain installations. If the sequester budget caps are kept in place in fiscal 2014, Odierno predicts they will create a readiness hole that will take the Army three to four years to climb out of. “The problem I have,” he said, “is that when the Army is not prepared and ready, we historically have paid the cost in lives lost.”


A number of factors are conspiring to make the coming U.S. military drawdown the most challenging of modern times. For starters, the United States is laden with far more debt today than during previous retrenchments, and is struggling to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression in the 1930s. The global nature of the financial crisis has also prompted America’s closest allies in the West to slash defense budgets, leaving fewer nations capable of sharing the burden of helping to stabilize a fractious international order. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on for so long, and became so deeply unpopular, that sustaining public support for a globe-spanning military will be difficult.

Moreover, for the first time in U.S. history, the burdens of more than a decade of conflict rest on the narrow shoulders of a relatively small, all-volunteer force, and the fatigue is showing. It takes years to replace aging and worn equipment, and the pathologies associated with multiple combat tours are revealing themselves in unprecedented rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, divorce, and sexual assault. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates memorably noted, the result is that “health care costs are eating the Defense Department alive.”

“Never has our nation sustained such a lengthy war solely through the service of an all-volunteer force,” said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has made “keeping faith” with military families one of his top priorities.

“For many veterans, returning home is a new front line in the struggle, with wounds seen and unseen,” Dempsey said in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We must continue to invest in world-class treatment for mental-health issues, traumatic brain injury, and combat stress. We also have a shared responsibility to address the urgent issue of suicide with the same devotion we have shown protecting the lives of those in combat.”

Further complicating the job of military planners as they attempt to downsize the force is a global landscape that remains in a state of dynamic flux. In contrast to the “strategic pause” that U.S. military forces took during the post-Cold War 1990s drawdown (which arguably never fully materialized), multiple threats loom on today’s horizon. China has used America’s lost decade of war to accelerate its economic and military ascendency and has alarmed its neighbors with aggressive posturing in the South China Sea. Bellicose North Korea recently tested a nuclear weapon and threatened to destroy American cities. Islamic extremist groups allied with al-Qaida continue their attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, even as they increasingly take root in the ungoverned spaces of the Middle East and North Africa. A potential conflict looms with Iran over its suspected nuclear-weapons program, and the Syrian civil war shows signs of destabilizing the entire Middle East. On top of all that, many analysts believe cyberwarfare could lead to the next Pearl Harbor.

“Even as the military emerges and recovers from more than a decade of sustained conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, it confronts an array of complex threats of varying vintage and degree of risk to the United States,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified recently. “Meanwhile, the frenetic pace of technological change and the spread of advanced military technology to state and non-state actors pose an increasing challenge to America’s military.”


In response to those complex strategic challenges, the Pentagon released in January a new defense strategic guidance—essentially, its blueprint for navigating the coming decade of austerity, in which the department plans to reduce its budgets by $487 billion. Major elements of those plans include “rebalancing” military forces toward the Asia-Pacific region in response to China’s rise; consolidating the U.S. footprint in Europe, to include the withdrawal of the last two heavy combat brigades and an Army corps headquarters; continuing to emphasize operations in the unstable Middle East, including counterterrorism strikes; slightly reducing nuclear forces; eliminating or capping 30-plus weapons-modernization programs; planning for a base realignment and closure round in 2015; and downsizing ground forces by 100,000 troops between 2012 and 2017, facilitated by a major de-emphasis on the kind of “long-term stability operations” represented by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The way President Obama put it to me is, ‘Give me fewer Iraqi Freedoms and more Desert Storms,’ ” said Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who coordinated the new defense strategic guidance. The point is to develop campaign plans and forces with an idea of getting the job done quickly if force becomes necessary. “And don’t end up there 10 years later trying to do nation-building,” said Winnefeld, speaking late last year at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “We’re just not going to be allowed to do that, because it costs too much in lives and treasure, and we can’t afford it. It would take an extraordinary situation, I think, for us to find ourselves doing that again.”

By far the most challenging aspect of the postwar drawdown, however, is the political paralysis and partisan dysfunction in Washington that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta accurately called “one of the greatest dangers to national security.” The ink was hardly dry on the defense strategic guidance when the sequester’s across-the-board spending cuts kicked in on March 1, upending Pentagon plans for a gradual and relatively shallow drawdown spread over the next decade. Instead, sequestration sent Pentagon planners scrambling to find $41 billion in spending reductions in just the six months left in this fiscal year, with another $52 billion in cuts to come if the law is not repealed in fiscal 2014.

Because cuts in long-term weapons programs reap relatively little in immediate savings, and reductions in personnel have significant up-front costs in terms of guaranteed benefits, Pentagon and service planners had little choice but to raid the remaining trough of funds, which conveniently reaps immediate savings: the “readiness” accounts. The department cut back sharply on facilities maintenance, reduced official travel, imposed hiring freezes, planned furloughs of civilian workers, and curtailed training and exercises. As a result, the Army predicts, by the end of September, only one-third of its active-duty units will be rated as “ready.” The Air Force has grounded four of its six fighter squadrons in Europe. The Navy took the extraordinary step of canceling the planned deployment of a carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf at a time of heightened tensions.

“Currently, we don’t know how much money we are going to get, when we are going to get it, and what the rules will be for spending it,” a senior U.S. military officer said, on condition of anonymity. “That is a very wasteful and inefficient way to conduct business for the largest organization in the world.”

Indeed, military leaders are frustrated by the knowledge that the sequester is not only forcing them to spend precious dollars inefficiently but also depleting the preparedness of the force in a way that will be costly and time-consuming to restore.

“This is not the deepest budget cut in our history, but it is the steepest by far … and what gets crowded out is training and readiness,” Dempsey said. “There are plenty of constituents for infrastructure, for compensation, and for weapons systems. But there are not so many constituents for readiness. And right now, we are consuming readiness. We are using it, not producing it. That is a dangerous path.”