Hollow Research

Defense analysts question congressional study downplaying cuts

February 23, 2012

Defense analysts dispute a recent Congressional report that purports to demonstrate why nearly $1 trillion in mandated defense cuts will not leave U.S. forces underprepared, or, as the report puts it, "hollow."

The study, authored earlier this month by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), has been touted in recent weeks by left-wing bloggers and pundits who believe it offers definitive proof that the Obama administration’s proposed cuts will not do long-term damage to the military’s readiness.

At issue is the use of the term "hollow force," shorthand for a military that looks good on paper but cannot accomplish the tasks it is asked to do. The authors of the CRS study intend to discredit the notion that the impending cuts could leave the U.S. military unable to wage war effectively.

The CRS report builds on previous criticism of the invocation of the term "hollow force"; for example, Cato's Benjamin H. Friedman wrote in late 2011 that "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." After the publication of the CRS report, he told the Free Beacon that "if … we redefine hollow force as, 'not as expensive as Heritage, FPI and AEI would like,' then sure, we not only will soon have a hollow force but always have."

Other military experts disagree with that contention.

The report "defines ‘hollow force’ so that the force isn’t hollow," said James Carafano, a defense expert and former speechwriter for the Army Chief of Staff. "If you use CRS’ definition, you’re never going to go hollow. It’s a bit of a silly kabuki dance."

Carafano, who serves as a top defense expert at the Heritage Foundation, said the report employs historical sleight of hand, obfuscating an issue that is "actually much more nuanced."

"It’s like saying you’re not going to die from a heart attack and then you die from cancer," he said.

The 19-page report, which was compiled by CRS military experts Andrew Feickert and Stephen Daggett, outlines the origins of the term "hollow force," attempting to link the historical uses of the phrase to modern circumstances.

It argues that current conditions do not warrant the use of the term as it was applied in earlier decades. Using criteria established during the post-Vietnam and post-Cold War eras, the report concludes that the expression "hollow force" "would be non-applicable" today.

"Most of the conditions that existed in the 1970s do not exist today," the report states. "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," as it did after Vietnam.

Daggett and Feickert did not return requests for comment.

Experts questioned this approach, arguing that modern defense cuts are not analogous to past situations.

"Although the report may be technically correct that the military won’t go hollow as it did in the 1970s, it’s interesting but irrelevant," said Carafano.

Other foreign policy professionals agreed.

The report is "unbalanced," said Robert Zarate, policy director at the Foreign Policy Initiative and a former Congressional aide. "It strikes me as an apologia for those who want to relentlessly cut the defense budget."

The CRS’ findings also fail to comport with recent warnings from the nation’s top military leaders.

"A non-strategy-based approach that proposes cuts without correlation to national security priorities or core defense capabilities will lead to a hollowed-out force, similar to those that followed every major conflict since World War I—a U.S. military with aging equipment, extremely stressed human resources, less-than-adequate training, and ultimately, declining readiness and effectiveness," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz explained during a recent Congressional briefing.

The new cuts could total around $500 billion if Congress and the Obama administration fail to act. This would more than double the $487 billion in cuts over the next decade that already passed into law as part of the August debt-limit deal, which put in place the so-called "sequestration."

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has also expressed concerns that cuts to the defense budget could cause catastrophic damage to U.S. forces.

"I am prepared to say that sequestration would pose unacceptable risk," Dempsey recently told lawmakers. "Sequestration leaves me three places to go to find the additional money: operations, maintenance, and training. That’s the definition of a hollow force."

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has also gone to great lengths to highlight the dangers of these potential cuts.

Yet sequestration does not receive a single mention in the CRS report.

"I was honestly shocked that this report made no explicit mention of sequestration, which will remain current law until the president and Congress change it," said Zarate. "Nor was there any substantial discussion of the effects of sequestration on U.S. armed forces."

The report also fails to consider the state of the Navy and Air Force, both of which have struggled to maintain aging and overworked equipment.

"The U.S. military faces a readiness crisis," Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Pentagon official who specializes in defense issues, recently wrote.  "Across all the services, long-standing readiness problems are worsening; breakdowns are happening more frequently."

The Navy also "continues to put on a brave face in the middle of a growing readiness crisis," Eaglen wrote in a separate article. "While not new, this alarming trend was highlighted again this week when Navy officials announced that, for the second time in seven months, the USS Essex, a Marine Corps amphibious assault ship, has failed to meet a commitment at sea due to equipment failure or maintenance issues."

Updated February 27, 2:00 p.m.