Cries of ‘Hollow Military’ Stifle Rational Debate on Future Spending

By Sandra I. Erwin
Like the boy who cried wolf, champions of big defense budgets are shouting “hollow military.”

For those who may be too young to remember, “hollow” was the term used to describe the U.S. military of the late 1970s. After a Vietnam War that tore the nation apart, military budgets were decimated, troops were demoralized, and the military lacked basic equipment or funds to train. The hollowness eventually caught up with U.S. forces in 1980 when they failed to rescue hostages held in Tehran.

Of late, “hollow military,” has become a convenient turn of phrase that tends to cut off all rational debate about national defense priorities.  

President Obama has called for $400 billion in Pentagon cuts over the next 12 years, which is hardly draconian in the context of $700 billion annual budgets and trillion-dollar a-year federal deficits. But to some defense officials and lawmakers, this is just the opening salvo of a campaign to tear down the U.S. military.

Departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates called it the “worst of all possible worlds” — cutting the budget by X percent without proper regard for the consequences. “That’s the way we got the hollow military in the 1970s and in the 1990s,” Gates said.

Cuts may not be wise when the military is busier than ever, said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen. “I’ve been in a hollow military before and I won’t lead a hollow military. … I think it would be particularly dangerous in the world that we’re living in now.”

One of Congress’ leading defense hawks, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., accused the administration of already having started to “hollow out” the military, even though defense spending now is at its highest since World War II. “I’ve seen it happen after every conflict, after every war we’ve had,” he said.

Pundits, too, are throwing around the “H” word. Thomas Ricks, a veteran defense journalist, said he worries that the military budget is “going to come down precipitously.” In an interview with National Public Radio, Ricks said, “I think the military is going to be surprised at just how much the belt gets tightened.” Few members of the military remember what is was like in the late ‘70s, “when we had what the Army chief of staff called a hollow military,” he said. “We have a generation that’s known, really, unlimited resources.”

It speaks volumes about the paranoia of today’s defense debate that “unlimited resources” and “hollow military” are used in the same sentence.

A more levelheaded view is that moderate cuts are inevitable and even necessary. The new defense secretary set to replace Gates, Leon Panetta “has a chance to bring much-needed discipline to a Pentagon budget that has spun out of control,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University and a federal budget expert. “The cuts could be an incentive to design a military force that is globally superior, more focused, less bureaucratic and tailored to the missions it will face,” Adams wrote in a Washington Post editorial. He contends that the defense budget could be cut by $1 trillion, or 15 percent below current projections over the next decade, and the U.S. military still would be the world’s most powerful. “This is the fourth scaling back of defense spending since the 1950s. It is predictable, normal and, like the others, driven by fiscal concerns and the end of wars,” said Adams. A build-down, he believes, would not make the military weaker, but leaner and more efficient.

Even some senior military officials are dismissive of the hollow-force hyperbole.

“I know we are going to look at some reduction in numbers,” said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, who recently returned from commanding forces in Afghanistan. “I’ve gone through this a couple of times in my career,” Mills said. Each time the military has had to tighten its belt, “We continued to function very well.” Mills said he is not “overly concerned” that the Marine Corps will not have adequate resources to do its job. “I say that from experience,” said Mills. “I can remember times when it was tough to get fuel for vehicles to go to the field to train, so you walked; when it was tough to get ammunition to shoot for training, but you made do.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told a recent gathering of defense contractors that he expects some budget pains, but he is still certain that the Army will have proper resources to be dominant in the future. “I’ve been trying to convince people to stop wringing their hands at this point about money,” he said. Inside the Beltway, he said, contractors and lawmakers are fretting about the fate of the Abrams tank or the Bradley vehicle production lines. But rather than obsess over line items in the budget, Army leaders should start thinking about how to reshape the Army for post-Iraq and Afghanistan world, Dempsey said.

Yes, the defense budget has peaked; and some reductions will occur. But there is no evidence that any planned cuts will be so extreme to merit the “H” label. The Obama administration’s proposed cuts are modest, and essentially put the Pentagon on a flat budget path, which is still a real contraction after a decade of largesse. Warnings against hollowing out the military ring less of genuine fear but rather loudly of demagoguery.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget

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