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How to avoid becoming a ‘hollow force’

62nd Airlift Wing vice commander

Published: 02:20PM February 7th, 2013

News about reductions in military spending and the impact of sequestration have dominated the recent headlines. Many military and political leaders have raised concerns that reductions in defense spending could lead to a “hollow force.” In order to understand these concerns, I would like to provide some context by looking at previous reductions in defense spending. Throughout its history, the United States has followed a pattern of significant defense cuts following the conclusion of armed conflicts. This reduction in defense spending is often labeled a “peace dividend” and there is no denying the pressure to scale back as U.S. military operations in Afghanistan are winding down. Thus, given the current fiscal climate, reductions in the defense budget are likely and we can draw some insight from the past to avoid creating a “hollow force.”

Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Edward Meyer, was the first to publicly use the term “hollow force” in 1979. Meyer gave the president and Congress his assessment of the Army’s inability to fully deploy and fight the Soviet Union. After Vietnam, the drawdown in military spending and force structure left many Army units partially manned and ill equipped to meet their wartime tasking. Meyer’s assessment was echoed by the other services as they faced similar readiness challenges. For example, a U.S. Navy captain refused to deploy his ship from Norfolk, Va., due to safety concerns and the absence of a qualified crew.

A very similar reduction in defense spending and military force structure occurred in the 1990s following the first Gulf War. Yet, few people would describe the U.S. military in the 1990s as a “hollow force.” I believe the main difference between the post-Vietnam and post-Gulf War period was the quality of the personnel in the U.S. military. The quality of the force, as measured by high school graduation rates and entrance exam scores, rose dramatically from the late 1970s to a peak in 1993.

In the 1980s, the U.S. military emphasized recruiting and retaining high quality individuals as each service adjusted to the all-volunteer force. Marketing campaigns like “Be All You Can Be” and “Aim High” were used to boost interest in military service. Thus, higher quality personnel in the U.S. military during the 1990s allowed for more adaptation and innovation, which helped soften the blow of declining budgets.

The U.S. military continues to attract high quality individuals who want to serve their country. Current rates for recruiting and retention indicate that the total force, across all the services, remains strong. Additionally, overall defense spending (not counting supplemental funding for Iraq and Afghanistan) has nearly doubled in the past decade. Thus, a post-war “peace dividend” is likely but it may not reach the depth of previous reductions. While the Airmen and Soldiers at JBLM will feel the budget squeeze, it is important to realize that our military has dealt with reduced spending twice in the past 40 years. If the past can help inform the future, then it will be the high quality of our service members that prevents the U.S. military from becoming a “hollow force.”