April 18, 2006 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

Avoiding the Hollow Force: Maintaining a Trained and Ready Military

"Hollow force," a term coined in the post-Vietnam War era, describes a military force that lacks the resources to field trained and ready forces, to support ongoing operations, and to modernize. With mandatory spending in the U.S. budget projected to increase significantly in the coming years, the armed forces may well face a tightening budget. The concern at hand is future defense funding and whether that funding will be adequate to prevent the return of the hollow force.


The Heritage Foundation recently invited Daniel Goure, Vice President of the Lexington Institute; Col. Chip Leonard (Ret.), Associate Director for Manpower and Training at the Rand Corporation's Arroyo Institute; and General Dennis Reimer, former Army Chief of Staff (Ret.), to address the hollow force. The panel discussed whether the United States military has adequate resources to educate and train properly service members in order to maintain a combat-ready force.


The panelists agreed on the need for improvements to ensure combat readiness in future uncertain strategic environment. They disagreed, however, on the current state of the military. Goure pointed to withering resources and inadequate spending on training as signs that the military is already becoming hollow. Leonard and Reimer asserted that current training and education practices were adequate for maintaining a combat-ready force.


Hollowed Out

In future contingencies, U.S. forces will operate more frequently outside the borders of conventional conflict and will be deployed to less familiar areas. "Unforeseen conditions are going to be the future," Goure explained. 


Goure painted a grim picture of the long-term consequences that reduced spending will have on training for these new circumstances. To remedy the training problem, he suggested that the Defense Department train more specialists in a wider variety of fields, while strengthening core competencies and forming alliances in key regions. He added the military's curriculum currently overemphasizes language skills and culture education at the expense of "core competencies." "Adding language training, culture training, civil affairs, good governance, law, and sociology to the curriculum for the military is the wrong way to go about [military training]," he explained.


Something Old, Something New

With operations becoming increasingly varied, the military leaders must adapt and acquire new skills. While core characteristics the military seeks should remain the same, Leonard argued for broadening tactical and operational skills and enhancing critical thinking abilities of military leaders. The Defense Department must provide higher education opportunities, practical exercise tools, and incentives for lengthened careers to ensure the development of future leaders, he explained.


Better Than Ever

Gen. Reimer offered a unique perspective since he served during the last hollow force. That experience shaped his thinking when he later became Army Chief of Staff. "When I took over as Chief in [19]95, the one thing that worried me that most was how do you prevent the Army from becoming a hollow army," he said.


Reimer is optimistic about the future of the armed forces. The military is in the greatest shape ever, he explained. Equipment is in good condition, the U.S. military has the best leadership the country has ever seen, and tough, realistic training prepares soldiers for duty overseas. The quality of the force must decline significantly before the force becomes hollow, according to Reimer.


Pay Now or Really Pay Later

The United States military cannot afford to wait until it faces a crisis to act. Although the panelists disagreed as to when the U.S. military may become hollow, they did agree that the costs associated with preventing the problem of a hollow force are far less than the costs of resolving it.


James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow for Defense and Homeland Security, Alane Kochems is Policy Analyst for National Security, and David D. Gentilli is a Research Assistant, in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Stud­ies, at The Heritage Foundation. Alexis Rudakewych, an intern in the Davis Institute, contributed to this paper.

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

Alane Kochems Policy Analyst, National Security
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy