Omens of a Hollow Military

Pull pin. Toss in.

That's how it works with hand grenades. And, sometimes, in political warfare too.

That certainly proved the case last year with a contentious report concerning the future of the armed forces from the usually non-controversial Congressional Research Service (CRS). Now, a year later, we can declare the controversy dead—but the issue the report surfaced still hasn't been answered.

Turns out, Congress is going to need something better than CRS to guide its way forward.

The Congressional Controversy Service

In the winter of 2012, when Congress returned to Capitol Hill, it struggled to make sense of the almost half-trillion dollars in cuts to the armed forces budget instituted by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In addition, President Obama planned further cuts in the top line of the defense budget as his preferred method of reining in federal spending. On top of that was the Budget Control Act of 2011, which required sequestering nearly another half-trillion dollars in military funding.

On the one hand, the administration was eager to cash in a “peace dividend.” After all, it was winding down the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns as well as the ground war against Al Qaeda. Further, Obama promised better relations with China and Russia and a more settled Middle East. Plus, the administration’s strategic-guidance directive described how it would pare back on missions and priorities so the military could do more with less. Finally, the Pentagon promised a boatload of efficiencies and reforms. All these initiatives suggested the U.S. could make do with smaller armed forces.

On the other hand, the Pentagon had given Congress scant insight into how it would handle sequester. The White House had offered no real solution for how it would address the "procurement holiday" that extended back to the early 1990s, leaving the military with a long wish list for new ships, planes and vehicles to replace their aging fleets. The administration also was pretty hazy about how it would handle the cost of resetting the armed forces after a decade of war. Nor did the administration have a good answer for what it would do if the world proved less peaceful than Obama predicted.

Whither the state of the American military was an open question. Would the armed forces go hollow—lacking sufficient resources to field trained and ready forces, conduct current missions, and prepare for the future?

In the midst of this uncertainty, out came “A Historical Perspective on ‘Hollow Forces’," a report from the normally cautious Congressional Research Service. The report confidently concluded that it was unlikely the U.S. military would go hollow as it did in the 1970s after the Vietnam War.

Controversy followed. It was like arming all sides in a civil conflict.

Groups like the Project for Government Oversight—POGO—(which is habitually skeptical about defense spending) trumped the report as "debunking" concerns that the military would hollow out.

Those defending defense, including think tanks like AEI, the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Heritage Foundation, found the Congressional Research Service's contribution disingenuous. That the armed forces might not go hollow like they did in the 1970s was cold comfort. That was no guarantee that they wouldn't prove wholly inadequate in a different manner. Skeptics of the report also pointed out the CRS study assumed that all of the president's planned efficiencies and reforms would pan out. It assumed a stable strategic environment. And, it didn't address the impact of sequester.

Case Closed

A little over eighteen months later, it is pretty clear which side of the debate was right.

A lot of the history recited in the CRS report has proved irrelevant, and most of its assumptions are proved baseless. The promise of a smarter, leaner military? For the most part, now shown to be empty. For example, Gates disestablished the Joint Forces Command to save faces, spaces and money. But, all that really happened was the size of the Joint Staff ballooned to fill the vacuum. Other efficiencies just turned out to be cuts that were called efficiencies—like canceling a program to buy new presidential helicopters. (And now the Pentagon is trying to resurrect that contract.)

Obama’s promise that the strategic guidance would balance missions and forces didn’t fare well either. The armed forces are already insufficient to meet the demands of the reduced role for the military laid out in his plan. The Strategic Choices and Management Review released by current Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel admits as much. The review also acknowledges that sequester will have a disastrous impact on military readiness and capabilities.

As for the diminishing need for a strong military, well the case for that is diminishing. It is hard to argue where any key national security concern of the United States is more secure today than when Obama started cashing in his peace dividend.

Red Flags for the Future

The CRS report that dismissed the notion that the military might go hollow is now exposed as hollow itself. So where does that leave Congress? How will lawmakers know when the gutting of the military has gone so far as to jeopardize its capacity to protect vital U.S. interests?

Congress needs some real, needs-based benchmarks, and it won’t be getting them from the White House. The administration’s track record on honest defense planning looks pretty shaky. Even now, the administration is doing everything it can to mask the effects of military cuts. Case in point, the Defense Department briefed Congressional staffers on its Strategic Management and Choices Review—but it refused to give staffers the actual briefing that detailed precise impacts.

Further, the administration is playing a shell game, seemingly blaming every shortfall on the sequester, while ignoring the dilapidating impact of its own policies—such as raiding the “base” budget for maintenance, training and readiness to pay for operations overseas.

What the Congress needs is true, objective measure of military power. Here are some definite warning signs that need to be watched.

What is up with our National Guard and Reserves? Long before 9/11, the Pentagon had stopped thinking about citizen soldiers as a strategic reserve to be called out only for World War III. Virtually every operational mission now involves calling up our co-workers and neighbors. Even if the United States retained active duty forces at their post-9/11 peak, they alone—without a robust guard and reserve—would be inadequate to meet the needs of protecting America’s global interests. If the services keep leaning on the reserve components while at the same time shorting their training and readiness, recruiting and retention will plummet. A key indicator to watch for is how many reserve component units have to be canvassed to put together enough trained and ready troops to deploy a fully capable unit.

Who is looking after the homeland? Post-9/11 and post-Katrina, the U.S. military promised it would be there if it was needed. For years, however, the Pentagon has been quietly scaling back on the forces trained, equipped, and ready to support civil authorities at home in case of catastrophic disasters—particularly incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear response. Watch for how close the Pentagon comes to treating the mission like a pre-9/11 problem—that is a clear sign it is cutting corners.

Will we be able to look in more than one direction at a time? The cornerstone of U.S. foreign and security policy since the end of World War II was that America would be able to prevent a World War III by retaining sufficient military force to keep regional conflicts to from spreading into global conflicts. The lynchpin of the ability to limit conflict is the ability to fight two wars at once. Shuttering combat commands, trimming war plan requirements, and shuttling forces from one crisis to the next are all indicators that the global safety net against future global conflicts is atrophying to dangerously low levels.

Can we hold the high ground? Strategic forces (missile defense, nuclear weapons and space control) and conventional forces (ships, planes and troops) are complimentary—but not fungible. For a global power with global interests and responsibilities, both have to be strong. If, for example, the United States lacks a robust strategic deterrent, an enemy could hold America hostage—threatening a catastrophic attack on the homeland to dissuade Washington from employing conventional forces. The weakening of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the diminishing scope of the administration’s missile-defense program has gone almost unnoticed. Congress needs to start looking at how weakening our mastery of the high ground is going to impact our ability to hold our ground.

Can we do windows? Nation-building was always a dumb idea, but building a sufficient level of governance and public safety in order to create the conditions for the drawdown of U.S. military forces after a conflict has been a necessary component of post-conflict operations going back to the American Revolution. When the United States lacks the capacity to do the job right, it exacerbates the difficulties of effectively extracting our troops and not leaving chaos behind. Odds are the U.S. military will shed all the expertise and capacity gained through painful years of trial and error.

Congress must make an effort to seriously measure the power of our armed forces. Otherwise, one day in the near future, they may awaken to find that they are bivouacked in Sleepy Hollow.

- James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign relations and defense issues at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Originally appeared in The National Interest.