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.
These profiles of training mean that units will maintain individual and small-team skills like marksmanship, gunnery and small-unit maneuver. To retain the capability of echelons at battalion, squadron, brigade or air wing, collective-unit training at the National Training Centers or simulation-driven exercises for higher headquarters must be done in annual cycles. Normally, Army brigades go to the national training centers for force-on-force exercises at least every twelve to eighteen months; divisions receive a rigorous simulation-driven exercise at least every two years, and more often if they participate in a multiservice exercise. Aviation assets in all services require between 14.5 and 17.5 flying hours per aircraft to meet the requirements for individual and collective training. Ships deploy on a cyclical basis, but their workup takes a fairly rigid schedule.
Cut training for two budget years and the loss of high-level collective training above ground-force platoon, air and ships’ crews will drive units like brigades and divisions, naval battle groups, and air wings to an embedded need for substantial last-minute training in order to deploy, combat ready, into harm's way. The overall impact of using training as one of the major sources of cuts is an extension of the time needed to get all individual and collective combat-skills qualifications done. Let this reduction of capabilities across the major units in our forces spool out for two budget years, and the hard-earned combat skills now embedded in our leadership cadres in our joint forces will atrophy significantly. We will be on our way to a C4 military. Deploying combat units that are unready and thrown together raises the likelihood of failure.
Congress has accelerated this process in other ways. By not producing a budget until mid-fiscal year, it forces a year's worth of reductions to occur in five to six months. In the 2013 budget, one Army command had 64 percent of its budget protected from reductions by Congressional language. With cuts to funding begun at mid year and applied against roughly one-third the total budget, the impact was six times what it would have been if reductions could have been taken over the entire fiscal year and across the entire budget. Starting late and applying cuts to a smaller proportion of an organization's budget ensures inordinately heavy hits on the targeted lines—and added stress on the units affected. For combat units, this unbalanced approach ensures deep cuts to training. For logistic units, it slows the provision of repair parts affecting the availability of vehicles, planes and ships, which can also impact training. This kind of absurdity exacts a toll at the human level as well.
Take the young leaders we have in our ranks today. Many captains and young sergeants in our forces have had two or three tours in harm's way. They have served in combat again and again and have done everything asked of them. They know what a great unit or ship's crew looks and feels like; they understand what challenging training it takes to ensure success in the combat zone against an adaptive, cagey, vicious enemy. They know the investment of effort and soul required to maintain discipline in the ranks while under fire. Imagine them sitting on their hands for days in the orderly room or at ship-side or in garrison. Such young leaders, with the most initiative and the most entrepreneurial spirit, as important to the military as they are to business, are the most likely to leave first.
Absurdity and boredom are a witch’s brew. Hollowness begins with the footprints of the very best young leaders heading out the door to a new career. Not all leave, but to grow the best possible slates of senior leaders, services must ensure the strongest possible cohorts as officers and noncommissioned officers head to selection for promotion and command. We owe a strong next generation of leaders to the troops they will lead and to the civilian leadership they will advise.