Sequestration Will Hollow Our Military

Poorly targeted defense cuts will have a severe and lasting impact on readiness.

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.

Monthly at battalion through division level, commanders rate their unit's readiness on a scale of C1 through C5. C1 means a unit is ready to go in harm's way with very minor additions of key personnel, tweaks to maintenance, and a quick return to the training areas for some additional gunnery or similar training. C2 signals a need for more serious effort, but that a unit can be made deployable in about two weeks with some remedial work. C3 indicates serious deficiencies in manning, maintenance and training. It indicates that it will take up to 30 days or so to accomplish the improvements in capability needed to move the unit to combat. C4 signals that the unit cannot be combat ready without very serious help across the board from higher headquarters. C5 reports that the unit is not ready because of reorganization, modernization or some other mandated transformation.

The road to a hollow force intersects with the boundary between C2 and C3. Given the service’s periodic required collective training, the commander’s call on training readiness is the most cyclical of the three components in this reporting system. It is in this area that the current rules in sequestration have the most impact.

By protecting the sacred cows it favors in service budgets, Congress focused much of the actual sequestration in a way that has a devastating impact for future readiness. Service chiefs planning to reduce from wartime tempo try to lessen the impacts on the long-term health of their organizations. Congressional rules focus a disproportionate level of cuts on maintenance and training. The Navy has lengthened the timelines for carrier-group workups. The Air Force has reduced flying hours. Recently, Congress granted some flexibility to the Air Force in regard to flying hours. Yet catching up on a flying-hour program originally cut in April will take four months. With the exception of units preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, the Army is allowing no training above platoon level for its brigades and divisions and has reduced its flying-hour program for its aviation assets.

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