Omens of a Hollow Military

The warning signs to watch out for that sequestration has taken its toll.

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.)