The Hollowing of the U.S. Military

Family Security Matters


“This is the most uncertain time I’ve seen in our national security since I’ve been in uniform. … [Yet] in the summer of 2013, only 10 percent of the [understrength] Army was ready to deploy.” – Gen. Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the Army

For the past four decades, the military has experienced the challenges of drawdowns and war, but now stands “hollow.” Though the drawdowns of the post-Vietnam period were difficult, the post-Iraq and Afghanistan drawdown is dangerous and something we must fix. As an Army officer for the past quarter century (both active duty and Reserve) who was born in the 1960s to a career Army officer and Vietnam veteran, and having grown up on military bases, I would like to offer some perspective. Though I speak to the U.S. Army, the other military branches have followed parallel experiences.

The post-Vietnam drawdown period was a traumatic period for the Army and the military overall. The size of the Army went from over 1.5 million in 1968, to just over 750,000 by 1974. This was after eight years of war, in which the junior leadership of the Army had been decimated. Adding to that challenge, the Army went from the draftee force of the 1950s and 1960s to the all-volunteer force at the end of Vietnam in 1973.

Unfortunately, pay and benefits commensurate with ensuring a quality force of volunteers was not forthcoming in the 1970s. Public respect for the military after Vietnam was reprehensible and added to the resulting morale problems in the force.  Drug use, discipline problems, and lowered standards became commonplace in the 1970s Army. By 1980, Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. “Shy” Meyers, referred to the Army as “hollow” when testifying about the paltry 1981 defense budget being proposed by Jimmy Carter.

The results were tragic: The Iranian hostage crisis and subsequent failed “Desert One” mission to free the American hostages in Iran. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  Cheating and ethics scandals among military leaders. The list is sad and long.

Fortunately, the “Hollow Army” was rebuilt after the election of Ronald Reagan and his decision to win the Cold War. Reagan brought optimism, leadership, and a renewed focus on national defense to his budget proposals. He was intent on crafting a military which would eventually win the Cold War. Importantly, Reagan demanded higher pay and increased standards necessary to recruit and retain high-quality volunteers. The National Training Center, the Joint Readiness Training Center, Top Gun, the “Air-Land Battle Doctrine,” and the new systems of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the M1 Tank, and the Apache Helicopter were but a few of the means to achieve the end. The public respect for the military rebounded, and those in the military felt the support of the nation they loved and served.

After the Cold War and the overwhelming victory of Desert Storm by “Reagan’s military,” the services went through another substantial drawdown. This was not as drastic as post-Vietnam, but it involved cuts of around 300K Army troops down to 10 active duty divisions (from 16 division) and around half a million Army troops.  Despite some relatively minor problems of a “zero defects” mentality resulting from the 1990s drawdown, emphasis on warfighting continued as in the 1980s. At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, around 75 percent of the Army was trained, equipped and ready to deploy.

Following 9/11, the U.S. moved to wartime footing. But the wartime footing did not include the decision to make any significant troop increases. We started the war at around a half-million troops, but only increased to around 570,000 with the same 10 divisions. As the war dragged on, and went from Afghanistan to include the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the same troops were making all the sacrifices. A major sacrifice was the same people making multiple, long duration (12-15 months).

A refrain I can remember while deployed was “the military is at war, and America is at the mall.” More importantly, this overuse of a small number of troops (conducting small scale counterinsurgency operations) resulted in a degrading of conventional warfighting skills. Additionally, soldiers and equipment were being worn out, with modernization lagging the defense budget was focused on the wars.

The withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, brought a new round of downsizing. Not only did the Obama administration decide to reduce the number of Army troops from 570,000 to around 490,000 (with similar downsizing among the other branches), but also brought huge cultural challenges to the force. First, the administration dropped the long-standing policy barring open homosexuality in the military. Within months came the administration’s mandate to gender integrate the combat arms and even special operations forces.

Unfortunately, the downsizing and “cultural” decisions were made with faulty assumptions about the national security environment; specifically, the assumption we would be done with the wars, and the military would “pivot” the focus to the Pacific. As we now know, the “enemy” had a vote with Crimea, Ukraine, North Korea, and now with the Islamic State seizing much of Syria and Iraq. As General Odierno would state in Jan. 2015, we now have the “most uncertain time I’ve seen in our national security.” To top it all off, the sequester went into effect in 2013, and the Army has been slashed to below 490,000 moving to around 470,000 and could go as low as 420,000.

With the international challenges and uncertain security environment, the military is now dangerously “hollow.” In addition to ground troops being at pre-World War II levels, according to General Odierno we are only at 50-percent of our prior modernization budget. Under a third of ground combat units are now trained and ready to deploy to combat.

The parallel challenges of the new “cultural” mandates with the snowballing cuts, the military is at a substantial risk of losing the “Warrior Ethos.” The “Warrior Ethos” as a morale issue is hard to objectively quantify, but as many famous generals like Napoleon and Patton have expressed, it is the most important quality to an Army. A quality which is the foundation of our national defense and one which cannot be quickly resurrected.

Our nation’s military is nearing life-support for performing the missions it may be called to in these uncertain times. Those defending us deserve our support, and we as a nation cannot afford a “hollow” force. It is time to be strong again.

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