What Is A ‘Hollow Force’?

Senators want definition, measurements by February

(NAVY TIMES 29 JUL 13) … Rick Maze

The Senate Armed Services Committee wants the Defense Department to come up with a way to measure the so-called “hollowness” of the force to weigh the potential national security risks caused by budget cuts.

The senators want to go beyond the current readiness ratings system, which looks at personnel, equipment and training levels of major units. They want a measure that would establish service-by-service criteria for determining when national security is at risk and what steps would be taken to restore acceptable readiness levels.

By Feb. 1, the Pentagon must come up with “a definition of what constitutes a hollow force for each branch of the armed forces and a description of the criteria and metrics used to assess the existence and extent of a hollow force,” the committee said in the explanatory report accompanying its version of the 2014 defense authorization bill.

The deadline for the report could change, depending on when Congress finishes work on the 2014 defense budget.

Although widely used as a description of a military decimated by budget cuts, there is no current definition for what constitutes a “hollow force.”

The phrase was first used in the 1980s to describe a situation in which forward-deployed units were fully staffed but U.S.-based units were under-strength by about 17,000 troops. The result was a force that might have looked good on paper but was ill-prepared to carry out missions.

Although the Army coined the phrase, the Navy and Air Force had similar issues, highlighted by an Air Force fighter wing that reported only 34 percent of its aircraft were mission-capable and a Navy oiler, the Canisteo, that could not deploy because of shortages of experienced sailors for the engine room.

Some — but not all — ingredients of the 1980s “hollow force” remain in play today. Sequestration has deferred training and maintenance, which defense expert Steven Bucci of The Heritage Foundation said could lead to serious problems.

A key element of a hollow force is a shortage of experienced and trained people to carry out mission-critical tasks, Bucci said. While the services are cutting back on training, it takes time — about 18 months, he estimated — for skills to erode to the point where he’d consider the force to be hollow.

The services do not have units with empty billets today, Bucci said. Rather, they are cutting the force structure in a way that would leave a smaller but fully manned force.

A force that is fully trained but too small would not be considered “hollow,” but would nonetheless represent a risk to national security, he said.

Bucci, a former Army Special Forces officer who served as a military assistant to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said the nation “is not at risk right now,” but he added: “An already small force is going to get smaller.”

While not describing the force as being hollow, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said July 15 during a visit to Fort Bragg, N.C., that “damage” has been done to future military readiness.

“We have planes not flying, ships not sailing, soldiers not training,” he said. “We’re going through a very difficult time. I’ve had to make some difficult choices based on priorities.”

Air Force leaders had been describing their service as a “hollow” force since 2013 sequestration cuts in the operating budget forced grounding of many aircraft. After 90 days of downtime, the Air Force announced July 15 it was using $208 million of war-related contingency funding to get planes back in the air.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Navy pilot, said the Air Force’s decision that takes care of flying operations through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30 is “a Band-Aid solution that cannot be sustained.”

“The Air Force is cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from important programs so that it can continue to fund the minimum acceptable amount of training for combat squadrons,” McCain said. “This status quo cannot be maintained without inflicting serious and growing harm to other critical Department of Defense programs.”

Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst specializing in readiness and personnel issues at the American Enterprise Institute, said any measurement of hollowness is a “lagging indicator” because forces already are compromised by the time there is agreement on the problem.

Recognizing it in the current force requires new measurements, Eaglen said. “A modern-day hollow force will not look like that of the Carter years, where there were, for example, aircraft without engines,” she said.

“With plentiful war spending the last decade, the military has been able to cannibalize parts and systems from across the force and components to patch things up to ‘good enough’ condition with Band-aids. That does not mean all is well.”

Eaglen said warning signs include:

The inability of a majority of units to meet war plans without additional action, such as training.

Bureaucratic inertia that delays weapons modernization while not addressing such issues as excess bases and civilian workers.

“Ceding of historic ground in our military superiority” — such as accepting selective air superiority instead of seeking outright air superiority in all conflicts.

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