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By Jack Miller

After years of annual increases in the United States defense budget, recent measures to reduce federal budget deficits have mandated a substantial decline in Department of Defense spending over the next decade. This has led to an almost singular focus on preserving readiness and the resumption of a debate dating back to the Vietnam-era: Will the American military risk becoming a hollow force when faced with deep defense cuts? But while the effects of the nation’s short-term readiness gap can been minimized with short-term spending boosts as needed, the magnitude of converging security threats in the form of new technologies and strategies places the nation at risk of not meeting its long-term security objectives. And though near-term readiness is an important consideration for policy makers, it should not distract from the opportunity to begin a modernization process to address over the horizon threats.

The term “hollow force” was initially used in the late 1970s and subsequently in the 1990s to characterize military forces that appeared mission-ready but upon examination, suffered from shortages of personnel, equipment, and maintenance or from deficiencies in training. In these two periods, budget targets were met largely by taking a percentage off the top of everything as the simplest and most politically expedient approach both inside the Pentagon and outside of it.

In 2011, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was determined to avoid a hollowing out of the force based on these historical lessons, arguing that a salami-slicing approach results in a military force which suffers from a lack of proper training, maintenance and equipment, and manpower. His concerns were echoed in the findings of the 2010 and 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review independent review panels, which indicated that little has been done to prevent the regression towards a military that resembles a post-Vietnam hollow force.

Despite the concerns of policymakers, cuts to readiness will be manageable in the near-term due to a lack of immediate strategic threats, in addition to the Defense Department’s ongoing focus on the ability to regenerate capabilities that might be needed to meet future contingencies. Yet the future security environment will require entirely new capabilities, since the next several decades will likely see a period of even greater discontinuous change than the past twenty years in both technology and warfare. The expansion of the guided munitions regime will continue, along with the technological convergence of unmanned systems, cyber capabilities, and space systems to produce a new war-fighting paradigm for the United States, its allies, and its adversaries. More generally, the fusion of robotics, global satellite communications networks, advanced sensors, and information technology will continue to create a new mode of data collection, awareness, and interaction across the globe that will allow for new modes of combat. The diffusion of advanced military technology to state and non-state actors puts the joint force at great risk, as conflicts will also unfold more rapidly and with a higher degree of lethality.

Another development underway in conjunction with the proliferation of technology is the development of innovative tactics and strategies that can be labeled “asymmetric.” With technology as a vital force-multiplier, these tactics and strategies are designed to circumvent American strength by exploiting cost-analysis calculations and symbols of American military might. A military establishment fiscally focused on an immediate readiness gap will be too slow to adapt to underlying trends in warfare and pivot by adjusting its investments and force planning. In the zero-sum game of military investments, short-term funding can have long-term second and third order effects that hinder the ability of a force to meet future threats.

The challenge for present and future American military leaders is the unpredictability of future opponents in major military operations, or the types of conflict and missions in which they will be involved. In future operational environments, the defense community must be quick to recognize emerging platforms and capabilities in order to seize any first mover advantages and understand how systems may be applied to the battlefield. In this rapidly changing technology charged environment, the effects of decision-making failures and wasted resources will be amplified and ramifications far more severe. Therefore, the principles of adaptation in mobility, maneuverability, and responsiveness take on even greater importance. The tradeoff between the pursuit of these capabilities and immediate force planning is an obvious one; short-term risk should be tolerated in favor of long-term capabilities.

It is easy to suggest that the U.S. military needs to be more adaptive and imaginative in confronting future threats, but this realization will not bear fruit in the face of a debate regarding a hollow force. According to the 2014 independent review panel, the United States must prepare for a much more challenging future, beginning with “an energetic program of targeted reinvestment in research, development and procurement designed to protect and enhance the technological advantages that are central to U.S. military superiority.” To meet future challenges, the Department of Defense needs to invest monetary resources in order to yield strategic adaptability and technological superiority. The 2014 defense panel’s recommended investment priorities, which include ISR systems, space architecture, cyber capabilities, long range precision strike capabilities, and direct energy weapons to name a few, create a strong foundation for which to address over-the-horizon threats. The appropriation of additional resources should not be spent reverse declining military readiness, getting the military on an improved trajectory to meet the threats of the 21st century.

Jack Miller is currently serving as the Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Technology and National Security Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington D.C. He has also spent time at the Center for Strategic and International Studies working for the Transnational Threats Project and The Washington Quarterly Journal. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania with high honors.