The Congressional Research Service has a message for those who suggest planned defense budget cuts and military compensation curbs will return America to the "hollow force" era of the 1970s.
Such references, in light of current force quality and the amount of money used to modernize weapons, infrastructure and benefit programs over the past decade, might be deemed "inappropriate," CRS advises in a new report, "A Historical Perspective on 'Hollow Forces.' "
A delicate issue in preparing the report must have been who to caution. The authors, defense specialists Andrew Feicket and Stephen Daggett, direct their advice to "military leaders." But the specter of a hollow force seems more often to be raised these days by lawmakers, particularly by Republicans who suggest the Obama administration is willing to allow readiness to fray. CRS exists to serve Congress, however, not to chastise it.
Five of seven suspected causes for the sorry state of the armed forces after the Vietnam War, while transitioning to an all-volunteer military, are "non-applicable" to today's military, the report says. The current force isn't buffeted by low public support, severe recruiting and retention challenges, lousy pay, obsolete equipment or inadequate maintenance dollars.
If there's an issue with troop morale today it's due mostly to frequent deployments, a problem that is easing, the report says. And while an era of smaller budgets has arrived, the current inventory of modernized equipment "appears relatively robust," the report says.
"Most of the conditions that existed in the 1970s do not exist today," it says. "It also is unlikely ... even in the case of drastically reduced military funding and a smaller military, (that) recruit quality would decline, pay and benefits would be drastically cut or U.S. public support for the military would significantly decline," all of which happened after Vietnam.
Republicans criticize the administration on two fronts regarding defense spending in the next decade. They don't like how $488 billion in cuts through 2021 are to be implemented, as outlined by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in late January, though Congress did agree to the overall size of these cuts in last year's Budget Control Act.
They also don't like Obama holding lawmakers to an onerous deal struck last August: that if a bipartisan "super committee" couldn't reach agreement by last Christmas on cutting at least a trillion dollars more of the federal debt, then a "sequestration" of automatic cuts would begin in 2013. About half of that cut would be applied to defense over 10 years unless Congress agrees on a different response to the super committee debacle.
On Panetta's plan for the first set of cuts, to draw down ground forces by 100,000 and rely more on unmanned systems and Special Forces units, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said impact will be "far deeper than Congress envisioned in the Budget Control Act because of strategic choices the president has made."
On the sequestration cuts, McKeon seeks to derail them. He backs the Down Payment to Protect National Security Act, which would protect military budgets by continuing to freeze federal salaries and cutting the workforce by 10 percent over 10 years by refusing to fill job vacancies.
"Last year, when the Super Committee failed, I pledged that I would not be the chairman who would preside over the hollowing out of our military. I renew that commitment today," McKeon said Jan. 26.
Five days later, CRS released its report suggesting "hollow force" is a hot button term being used today inappropriately, at least by some.
"An informed discussion may be best served by military leaders avoiding reference to a 'hollow force' and adopting a more measured approach to inform Congress and other decision makers about their concerns for the future state of the U.S. military," the report says.
It notes that Gen. Edward C. Meyer, then Army chief of staff, introduced the term "hollow Army" during May 1980 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. Pay and benefits had eroded so dramatically that the Army a year earlier had missed its recruiting target by 15,000 and the Navy was short 20,000 petty officers. Six of 10 Army divisions stateside were deemed "not combat ready."
Obama's 2013 budget request, to be released Feb. 13, will propose higher Tricare fees for all military retirees. It also will assume full military pay raises in 2013 and 2014 but smaller increases starting in 2015.
CRS notes that basic pay has climbed by 35 percent since 2001.
"When increased housing allowances, subsistence allowances and enlistment and re-enlistment bonuses are added, total take home pay has increased even more. And when increases in retirement benefits, due to Tricare for Life medical benefits and concurrent receipt of military pay and veterans disability benefits, are considered, military compensation has grown more than 55 percent above inflation since fiscal year 1998," the report says.
Yet, CRS cautions against reducing military compensation to address budget deficits.
"Congress might want to consider carefully how such changes would affect the quality of the force [if] the economy recovers and private employment prospects for potential military-age recruits improves, making the military a less attractive employment option," it says.
But a hollow force? Cultural and economic conditions facing today's military "bear little resemblance" to the post-Vietnam era, CRS concludes. So while significant budget cuts could "have a major impact on force structure and weapon programs," senior military leaders will determine how resources are allocated, and avoiding that hollow force "may be expected to remain an overarching priority."
The authors might have added that "hollow force" will continue to be heard, loudly and often, in the upcoming budget debates.