Over the last several months, there has been much media coverage and analysis of the impact of sequestration on America’s military services. But there has been little attention paid to the potential damage to readiness as a result of the distorted way the spending cuts must be made. Carried over two to three years, this pattern will drive the U.S. military back to the years of “hollow forces” we experienced in the post-Vietnam military. Hollow does not describe how bad things really were then, nor how bad they could become now.
In 1974, one could easily find company-sized organizations in U.S. Army Europe with two or more drug rings selling to the unit. Morale was abysmal. The troops' response to just about any situation good or bad was “Don’t mean nuthin.”
Determined to break up the drug trade, leaders began a concerted effort to catch the dealers. We ran focused inspections at random times in our billets anytime day or night. After a month or so in one case, one of the drug dealers in a unit pulled the commander aside and whispered, “officers like you can go out the window some night.” Thugs in outfits did not stop with that: in some units Staff Duty Officers, responsible for supervising the unit area at night carried side arms with ammunition. In addition to cleaning out malcontents, we did everything we could to instill in the troops who remained a will to win and a professional approach to their work. A year into this very hard slog, we saw we were turning the corner when the best young sergeants in their first term of service began to reenlist for a career. Fixing these problems across the board took another four to five years.
On alert, this tattered, morally compromised army was to clear post in under an hour, move to its defensive positions on the West German border with the Warsaw Pact, fight outnumbered five to one and win. Such odds were daunting.
Today's strategic environment, one of instability in important nations and the emergence of capable nonstate actors, poses even more complex and challenging strategic dilemmas. Sustained over several years, “sequestration,” combined with continuing resolutions in place of real budgets, could well take us back to hollow forces not ready to deploy to combat.
To understand this reality, one must have at least a superficial understanding of the measurable components of readiness and its fragility. In our system, a commander's assessment of readiness depends on the number of days a unit needs to bring itself up to ready for combat status. This rating depends on three variables: personnel fill, status of equipment like tanks, aircraft and ships, and training. Personnel and equipment ratings derive from a simple calculation of the percent of fill across the unit's billets and of the percent of mission-essential equipment that is up and running. For training, the commander makes a subjective assessment of the number of days required to conduct the training needed to conduct full-up combat operations. A combat-ready unit should be at full strength, with its equipment at close to 100 percent available, and having reached successful completion of individual qualifications and annual collective-training requirements. Collective training includes brigade and battalion maneuver and live-fire exercises done at the Army's National Training Centers, Air Force's Red Flag and the Marines’ Twentynine Palms.