Janine Davidson

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An Un-Hollow Force: Readiness in the FY15 Budget Request

by Guest Blogger for Janine Davidson
March 19, 2014

U.S. soldiers walk while on patrol in Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan, in August 2012. U.S. soldiers walk while on patrol in Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan, in August 2012 (Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters).

By Russell Rumbaugh

The debate about the defense budget suffers a fundamental disconnect: even as the national conversation focuses on deep cuts, the actual force remains the most awe-inspiring military force in the world. Some of that disconnect stems from blurring the distinction between a smaller force and a hollow force. While a hollow force—a force that claims capabilities on paper but in reality isn’t ready to execute—is without doubt a bad thing, it is not inevitably an outcome of a smaller force. In fact, a smaller force makes a hollow force less likely. And the president’s recently released  budget request takes significant steps to prevent a hollow force.

The specter of a hollow force arose in the 1970s when the force, especially the Army, claimed a certain force structure but the actual units were short people, parts, and training, all exacerbated by the drugs and social inequity the Army was suffering from post-Vietnam. General Shy Meyer rightfully called out this hypocrisy in congressional testimony. But what General Meyer left out is that the Army itself had decided to add an extra three divisions to its force structure and compounded the problem by focusing on funding the Big Five: a new Army tank, a new infantry combat vehicle, a new attack helicopter, a new transport helicopter, and a new antiaircraft missile. These acquisitions absorbed funds that might have gone toward training and people. Coupled with the budget drawdown of the 1970s and the personnel turbulence, these choices led directly to the hollow force.

Today’s military is without a doubt getting smaller—the Army will be the smallest since before World War II. But being smaller does not inevitably mean the force has to be hollow. In fact, being smaller makes it easier to avoid becoming hollow as there are fewer units to man, train, and equip.

Moreover, the budget request released last week favors the funding that most keeps the force ready. Under the constraints of the Bipartisan Budget Act of last December, only two accounts get increased. Operations and Maintenance (O&M), the account that most directly affects readiness, got the biggest plus-up: a $6 billion increase, or 3 percent. (The second was research and development with a 1 percent increase). For the Army this shows up in its accounts for maneuver units and land forces operations support.

And those increases are real increases. Whereas in recent years O&M has had to accommodate increasing health costs, this budget request only had to increase health spending by two-tenths of a percent. At the same time, the increase is less real than it seems as it is primarily a transfer from war funding back to the base budget. Both the Army and Air Force explicitly made that point. But when the base budget is capped, while war funding isn’t, prioritizing readiness funding in the base budget may show an even greater commitment to readiness.

There is a real debate to be had whether a smaller force can advance U.S. national interests—not least by debating what the United States’ national interests are. But that debate gets clouded when a smaller force is equated with a hollow force. At whatever size the force ends up, it should still stand ready. This budget request ensures those two choices don’t become disconnected.

Russell Rumbaugh is a senior associate and director of the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC. He is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Rumbaugh has conducted extensive analysis of the FY15 budget proposal.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by James

    Not a bad article. But the Big 5 were the Abrams, the Apache, the Blackhawk, the Patriot, and I think the Bradley.

    Those systems are still the backbone of the Army today, so it’s hard to argue that wasn’t money well spent.

  • Posted by Aleksi Korpela

    Hmm… interesting article. If the down-sizing (n.b. not the same as down-grading) of the world’s most capable military is a reflection of national interests (more specifically, a reflection of the US’s global security identity), then it would seem to be an indication of both a fundamental change in the international system, as well as self-conscious acknowledgement of the decline of the more conventional expeditionary military forces. Perhaps as a term “hollow” is a poor choice, since what it actually refers to is force-capabilities. Hollowness would not take into consideration general pertinence either, so in that regard the term seems ill-equipped and lacking in descriptive power of relevant components to take into account.

  • Posted by Bill Cherry

    Regarding readiness, should we not ask the critical question: Ready to do what?

    Post-the Cold War, the US military was required to be “ready” to (1) liberate populations from their oppressive regimes and (2) help these populations transform their states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

    Problem: We learned that these populations, thus liberated, often chose to (1) descend into chaos or (2) adopt ways of life and ways of governance that were (when compared to those of the previous regime) even more detrimental to US interests.

    Given these counterproductive results, and the extravagant costs involved, the rationale for working by, with and through the populations (to achieve our desired ends) — rather than by, with and through the regimes — evaporated.

    So today — as in days past — we have decided to pursue our desired ends (the transformation of outlying states and societies along modern western lines) via the regimes rather than via the populations.

    This, causing our military forces to no longer need to be “ready” to either (1) liberate populations from the oppressive regimes (for the reason outlined above, not a wise move) nor to do “stability operations.”

    Thus, for what few remaining tasks must our American military need to be “ready” to do?

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