America's hollow military

By Charles Bloomer
web posted April 10, 2000

"Hollow" was the description used for the military in the late 1970s. After the Vietnam War, America cut its military forces with no apparent plan other than to cut. The result was a demoralized military without the means to carry out even minor missions. This hollowness became apparent after the failure of the attempt to rescue American hostages held in the US embassy in Iran. Today, with the end of the Cold War, we are once again cutting our forces without regard to the consequences.

Currently, the national security strategy of the United States is to be able to fight two regional wars simultaneously. It is becoming increasingly obvious that that strategy is not achievable with today's level of military readiness. In fact, the United States does not currently have the capability to carry out an operation comparable to the Gulf War.

In fact, the current military condition is such that the basic planning assumption for our strategy has now been changed from fighting two simultaneous confrontations to responding to engagements separated by at least 45 days. Our military is over-extended, under-manned, and inadequately equipped.

Since the end of the Cold War, our forces have been cut in half, cut 35 per cent since the Gulf War. The Army has been cut from 18 active divisions to 10. The Navy has seen its fleet shrink from nearly 600 ships to fewer than 330. The Air Force lost half of its 24 fighter wings. The number of active duty personnel is now lower than in 1950.

Training time has been cut by lack of funding for fuel, ammunition, and troop movements. We are sending our troops into harm's way without sufficient training and experience.

All the services, with the exception of the Marines, are having difficulty meeting their recruiting goals. The Air Force is short at least 800 pilots, and that shortage is expected to grow to 2,000 by the year 2002. The Navy is experiencing similar shortages, with mid-level officers and trained Petty Officers leaving the service in droves. In 1998, the Fleet was short 7,000 sailors to man its ships.

Retention and recruiting problems are complex. The robust economy explains part of the shortfall in recruiting and keeping trained service members. But other factors are also important. Morale is low among active duty troops. Many service members do not have much faith or confidence in the military leadership. Service members do not believe that the military leadership is looking out for them. Many military people resent the social engineering that is being pushed down their throats. They resent spending more time in sensitivity training being told how to deal with women and homosexuals in their ranks than they spend training in their combat specialties. Pay is low. In 1999, about 13,000 military families received food stamps and 8,200 received state-supported child-care assistance. Even among more skilled mid-level ranks, the lure of better paying jobs with more desirable working conditions in the civilian sector is tempting.

Operational tempo – OPTEMPO – has increased significantly in the past 10 years. The services have seen an unprecedented 48 overseas missions since 1990. These missions include 5 "continuous presence" operations in the Gulf as a result of our on-going crisis with Iraq, plus peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, humanitarian missions in Africa, nation-building in Haiti, and drug interdiction support in South America. These operations are in addition to our commitments to NATO and Korea. More of our military people are away from home, and for longer periods of time. Ships deploy more often and for longer periods with less homeport time between deployments.

The cuts in the defense budget and the increased OPTEMPO are taking their toll on equipment. The services cannot maintain the equipment they do have. A lack of spare parts means that cannibalization is rampant. Older equipment is not being replaced to ensure that our troops have the finest technology available. The older equipment is wearing out and is becoming more and more difficult to maintain. The average age of fighter and ground attack aircraft is over 20 years. The B-52 will be 75 years old by the time it is retired. The Army recently reported that 40 per cent of its helicopters are not combat capable.

So far we have been lucky. Despite the increased demands on our military, despite the cuts and shortfalls, despite the lack of spare parts, despite the aging equipment, we have managed to avoid any major fiascoes. So far we have not had a repeat of the ill-fated attempt to rescue hostages from Iran that doomed Jimmy Carter's attempt at re-election.

But our military today is as hollow as it was in the late 1970s. Senior military leadership refuses to acknowledge the hollowness. The Pentagon continues to report that our military forces and equipment are in fine shape. In actuality, the defense chiefs are making compromises that will have dangerous long term effects on our ability to defend our interests.

For example, the Army is transforming itself from a force designed to fight a large land battle in Europe to a lighter, more mobile force able to respond to peace enforcements quickly. On the surface, this sounds reasonable. The rationale is to avoid a repeat of the six-month buildup that was required to get people and equipment in place for Desert Storm. But the plan has obvious flaws. First, the United States has a Marine Corps designed to be a rapid reaction, highly mobile force. The move by the Army to a more mobile, lighter force duplicates the mission of the Marines. Secondly, the heavy equipment required to conduct an operation similar to Desert Storm would still have to be available – transported, in place, and supported. If the Army is not going to be involved with the heavy artillery and tanks required to fight a war, who is? And third, if the Army is going to reorient itself to respond to "peace enforcement" missions, who will respond to the real crises – the combat of war, not the enforcement of peace?

The Navy's shipbuilding plan will not allow it to maintain its fleet at the 300 ship level. Ships are being decommissioned faster than they are being replaced. Our submarine fleet is being reduced to about 50 submarines, down from the Cold War high of 150. The world-wide reach of our carrier battle groups is being compromised by the lack of ships able to deploy and patrol the diverse hot spots that threaten our interests.

Our military capability, our ability to defend ourselves and our interests, is being effectively hollowed out by self-serving politicians. The president and members of Congress are selfishly pursuing a "peace dividend", gutting our military capabilities in order to divert more money into the domestic programs they think will get them re-elected. The Pentagon is delaying or canceling new weapons systems, telling the services to make do with what they have, in order to meet the requirements of ever increasing budget shortfalls.

This short-sighted view is dangerous. Last month, General Thomas Schwartz, commander of US forces in Korea, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that North Korea is the "country most likely to involve the United States in a large-scale war….The situation on the [Korean] peninsula remains volatile, unpredictable, and dangerous." At the same time, China said it would boost its military spending by over 12 percent this year, matching the increase of last year. In the last few weeks, Russia, still a major nuclear power, elected a hard-line former KGB colonel as president. These do not sound like the types of potential adversaries against which the appropriate response would be an Army reconfigured to respond to "peace enforcement" missions, or an inadequate fleet, or an Air Force flying 75-year-old bombers.

Peace enforcement cannot occur until the peace has been won.

We the People constituted the government in order to "provide for the common defense" and "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity". Our government is failing to do so. We tolerate a hollow military at our own peril.

© 2000 Charles Bloomer Mr. Bloomer can be contacted at

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