As the military absorbs round after round of defense cuts, congressional and Pentagon sources have frequently invoked the specter of a “hollow military.” The term came from General Shy Meyer during a 1980 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing, at which Meyer declared:
“Right now, as I have said before, we have a hollow Army. Our forward deployed forces are at full strength in Europe, in Panama, and in Korea. Our tactical forces in the United States are some 17,000 under strength. Therefore, anywhere you go in the United States, except for the 82nd Airborne Division, which is also filled up, you will find companies and platoons which have been zeroed out.”
It’s a rare occurrence for testimony out of a House subcommittee to drive national headlines the next day. But Meyer’s ominous warning had precisely that effect. President Carter’s defense cuts had quietly and steadily knifed the military, leaving a sturdy looking shell and an empty core. The Soviet Union took notice. The American public, until Meyer’s testimony, did not.
This week, in front of the House Budget Committee, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also opened some eyes. When Chairman Paul Ryan inquired about a veto threat, Hagel admitted that the Obama White House doesn’t consult him on defense budget issues.
Who, if not the Secretary of Defense, is shaping defense policy in the White House? In fact, is defense policy even being made in Washington, or is our government simply plugging numbers for the Pentagon into different budgetary scenarios, without regard to the impact on national security?
It’s no surprise that the Carter military and the Obama military are quickly becoming synonymous. Three rounds of defense cuts and a consistently underfunded war budgets, unprecedented during wartime, are creating a hollow military.
Absorbing cuts of that magnitude is an ugly business. The Army is reducing the readiness of more than 78 percent of non-deploying brigade-combat teams, curtailing training and deferring some post-combat equipment repair in Active and Reserve units for years. They are reducing life-saving training, cancelling training-center rotations, ending collective training above the platoon level except for the next-to-deploy units, reducing flying hours, leaving many units unprepared for possible contingencies both at home and abroad.
The Air Force recently announced that 17 combat-coded squadrons would stand down for the remainder of the fiscal year effective April 9, 2013, because the budget for flying hours has been reduced by $591 million, or 44,000 flying hours. Put plainly, if our pilots don’t have the funds to fly, they cannot stay current in their aircraft. If these squadrons continue to stand down throughout the remainder of the fiscal year, a regeneration would be required next year, requiring more time and at a huge cost to taxpayers.
The Navy has canceled key deployments to the Pacific, Europe, and South America, where they help the Coast Guard with counter-narcotics patrols. They also reduced non-deployed operations, deferred maintenance on 84 aircraft, 184 engines, two ship overhauls. In February 2013, the Navy delayed the deployment of the Truman Carrier Strike Group and reduced its carrier presence in the Central Command because of the budget shortfalls.
Because the president has refused to consult his own military leaders on his national-security strategy, the Pentagon has been forced to take money slotted for our troops deployed in Afghanistan and use it to relieve ever-lengthening lines outside military maintenance depots.
The House Armed Services Committee recognized that the military is in a readiness emergency, and took a small but meaningful step towards providing relief. By a vote of 59–2, the committee passed a bill adding $5 billion more to funding available for both the drawdown from Afghanistan and plummeting readiness rates.
The extra funding is by no means a cure-all, but it is the first real sign that someone in Washington recognizes what is happening to the Armed Services. The money could be used to restore some flying hours to Army and Air Force units, ease the growing backlogs at maintenance depots, fund the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, and support facility sustainment.
Unfortunately, Representative Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) has introduced an amendment to take the extra funding out of the bill.
It is no longer possible to deny that this is an attempt to spoil the good bipartisan work done by the Armed Services Committee and to score cheap political points off a hollow force. Van Hollen, Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, introduced an amendment that forces Congress to knuckle under to President Obama’s cuts to deployed military forces.
The House, which will vote on the amendment today, has a choice. It can reassert its constitutional obligation to provide for the common defense, as laid out in Article I Section 8 of the preamble, or Congress can accept the Van Hollen amendment and with it, a new role as a rubber stamp for President Obama’s national-security policy.
The House, and House Republicans in particular, have an opportunity here to prevent the strongest military in history from buckling. And that comes with a cherry, snatching constitutional responsibility for national security back from President Obama.
— Jim Talent served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-chair of the American Freedom and Enterprise Foundation.
First appeared in National Review Online's "The Corner."