Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A "hollow force": what it is and isn't

It is almost literally impossible to read an article or essay on the subject of imminent defense budget cuts without coming across expressions of concern about the potential "hollowing of the force." Bob Gates warned about it before he left the Pentagon, and Secretary Panetta's been on the same talking points. Journalists and bloggers sprinkle the term liberally throughout their prose. But it seems that somewhere along the way, nearly everyone stopped paying attention to just what the heck the term "hollow force" actually means. I've been ranting and raving about this (to myself, mostly) for months, so it's time to get this straight once and for all.

This post was prompted by Walter Pincus's column today, in which he at least concedes some uncertainty about the precise meaning of the phrase:
A repeated fear is that defense cuts will result in a “hollowing-out of the military.” As best as can be pinned down, that means reductions, whether in numbers or pay, that would leave the services without the experienced noncommissioned and mid-level commissioned officers who actually run things.
So that's one version: reductions in staff NCOs and field grade officers proportional to the size of the force. Let's look at some other representative examples. (The italicized bits indicate my emphasis.)

Here's Benjamin Friedman writing at The National Interest's blog:
The more substantive claim wielded by Pentagon boosters is that cuts would produce a hollow force, a military overburdened with missions that it is too small to perform and thus unable to protect Americans. These claims exaggerate both the damage cuts would do to our military’s ability to perform current missions and the damage not performing those missions does to our security.
(UPDATE: See Ben's comment below. I understand that Friedman was making an effort to characterize the views of people with whom he disagreed, and I probably should've noted this in the first place. I actually very much agree with the substance of his essay; this was just a clear example of the sort of misimpression that I'm trying to correct with this post, so I had to draw it out -- whether it was his or someone else's.)

Now the "Defending Defense" people at Heritage, AEI, and FPI:
This backgrounder describes the likely results of the significant defense spending reductions now being considered: a “hollow force” characterized by fewer personnel and weapon systems, slowed military modernization, reduced readiness for operations, and continued stress on the all-volunteer force.
Here's how an un-bylined Fox News piece described it (hilariously, this warning came in 2003):
Overdeployment may threaten recruitment and retention for the entire military, particularly the National Guard and Reserve, presenting the risk of a "hollow force" — a military that suffers dramatic drops in volunteers willing to join or stay in the armed services.
Now here's Air Force Chief of Staff GEN Norman Schwartz (via Phil Ewing at DoD Buzz) coming closer to the point:
My pledge for the coming year is to strengthen unit readiness and avoid a creeping hollow force that proves only the illusion of global vigilance, reach and power.
But what about the SECDEF -- what does he mean when he says it?
"Very simply, it results in hollowing out the force," Panetta said during an Aug. 16 event at National Defense University in Washington. "It would terribly weaken our ability to respond to the threats in the world, but more importantly, it would break faith with the troops and with their families."
So we've seen a litany of references to the "hollow force," some of which are vague and ill-defined (like Panetta's), others of which are more specific (like the Fox News/Pincus version). Many suggest that the expression fundamentally has to do with the size of the force and related issues like recruitment and retention.

Now let's check out this excerpt from a 1996 Center for Naval Analyses paper called "Avoiding a Hollow Force" (pdf), which really nails -- with a bit of maritime flavor -- what the expression is actually all about:
[Budget cuts since the end of the Cold War] have raised fears that the Navy may once again be on the verge of a hollow force. Our review of the readiness literature suggests that hollowness is a condition that keeps ships from living up to their design potential. It is the general state that persists whenever maintenance problems dominate a force; when poor quality sailors seem the rule rather than the exception; and when meaningful training is both scarce and questionable.
This explanation is consistent with the way I'd always understood the term and heard it used before the recent glut of references. If you think for a second about what hollowness evokes, this use of the term makes perfect sense: you're talking about an apparently intact form that gives the illusion of completeness and authenticity, but lacks robustness -- lacks real substance.

What "hollowing the force" means is that you keep force structure, you keep major platforms and weapon systems, you keep personnel numbers up, but you start to skimp on the things that make all of that useful -- the money that you spend to translate equipment and units and personnel into effective warfighting capability. A hollow force is one that keeps up the appearance of capability but shorts those things that make the difference between a shiny, impressive garrison army and a world-class fighting force.

What are those things? Realistic, tough, meaningful training. Flight hours. Regular preventive and corrective maintenance. Spare parts and similar contributors to sustainment. Ammunition. Exercises.

Hollowing isn't just about spending less money, but about allocating money improperly. If Congress cut the defense budget by half tomorrow and said to DoD "make it work," there are two basic ways the Pentagon could execute that tasking: 1) by slashing force structure, aircraft, vehicles, and personnel numbers and then training and maintaining that smaller force to accomplish a smaller range of missions; or 2) by keeping all those airplanes, never taking them out of the hangers, and saving money on jet fuel; keeping all those brigade combat teams, never turning a wrench on Strykers or Humvees, and spreading your non-broken down vehicles thinner across the formations; keeping all those personnel but cutting down on their expensive professional military education and realistic live-fire training. (Incidentally, the defense industry doesn't much care whether the force is hollow or not -- they'll happily sell you vehicles and planes for your last dollar, whether or not you've got the cash left over to put gas in them and take them out of the garage.)

A smaller military that does less accordingly is not a "hollow force," even if it's a less capable one. A large, apparently "world-class" military that fights poorly because of insufficient training, low morale, broken vehicles, and a lack of ammunition -- that's a hollow force. So if we know now that a hollow force is a specific type of bad military, one that's bad for a specific reason, can we all agree to stop using the term as a general synonym for "bad military"?


  1. You're right. I was trying to characterize how others were using the term, but I should have been more precise about it.

    Ben Friedman

  2. Ben -- I understood what you were getting at, and I very much agreed with the gist of your essay. It was probably a little unfair to quote you out of context like that, and I should've made it clear that you were characterizing other people's argument. Not trying to call you out!

  3. Planes that don't fly? Ships that don't complete the mission? Never turning a wrench on Strykers and Humvees? Since the F-22 and JSF are taking turns being grounded, the LCS does fit its mission profile, and Strykers/Humvees aren't welcome in Afghanistan, it seems like we already have a hollow force not ready for combat, we don't need any cuts to get there.


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