Hollow Force: The Tradeoff Between Readiness and Modernization

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.

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