April 18, 2006 | WebMemo on National Security and Defense

More Signs of a Future Hollow Force? The Air Force Cuts a Corner

The budget decisions derived from the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) suggest more and more that the military's long-term preparedness is in doubt. The QDR is a mandatory assessment of resources, force structure, and programs that the Pentagon provides the President and Congress. It also outlines strategy for addressing issues such as budget and acquisition priorities. A recent Air Force decision to terminate the alternative engine program for its Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) raises questions regarding defense budget priorities. Congress needs to recognize the warning signs of trouble ahead, reverse some of the department's worst decisions, and address the larger federal spending issues that are forcing the armed services to make poor choices. 


Why Worry?

America's national security is in peril when the armed forces look good on paper but cannot actually perform their missions. "Hollow force" describes what happens when military readiness declines because of a lack of adequate funding. A hollow force lacks the resources (1) to provide trained and ready forces, (2) to support ongoing operations, and (3) to modernize. Today's military is not hollow, but it could become so in a decade or less if funding for the military isn't adequate. When the armed forces make trade-offs to address short-term needs, they risk a hollow force in the long-term.


A Questionable Call

The JSF will be America's newest fighter aircraft. Concerned that the program which would produce tens-of-billions of dollars in aircraft was overly dependent on a single contractor, Congress required the development of an alternate source for the plane's most critical component, the engine. Now, the Air Force has recommended terminating the alternative engine program, a move that would save $1.8 billion in development costs. The Air Force would then use these funds to buy items for which there is an immediate need, such as unmanned aerial vehicles.


Cancelling the alternative development program, however, raises concerns. That decision means that the U.S. and its allies will have only one design for the engine that will power the majority of their future tactical fighter fleet. That's risky proposition, especially since the primary engine design has not yet been fully tested.


While the Air Force may save money in the short-term by eliminating the alternative program, the long-term fiscal impact is less clear. Without competition, the sole-source engine will undoubtedly cost much more. Moreover, eliminating the alternative program wastes the $1.3 billion the Air Force has already spent developing it. Spending a lot of money in the long run in order to save a little today is a counterproductive strategy. When the Pentagon makes decisions as it did with the JSF program, it is getting cash by mortgaging the future, akin to paying off credit cards with credit cards. 


Congress Can Do Better

Congress must address spending on defense and non-defense programs, particularly entitlement programs. Defense spending prospects a decade from now are bleak with mandatory federal outlays, such as Medicare and Social Security, consuming an increasingly large part of the federal budget. Congress needs to reverse the Pentagon's short-term thinking and the growth of entitlements to prevent the hollow force from becoming a reality-sooner or later.


James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security 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.

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