The myth of the hollow force

As they walked into the Hart Senate Office Building on Sept. 29 for one of the most anticipated national security hearings of recent years, the Joint Chiefs of Staff carried a message that officers of their generation had hoped never to deliver. All five men, survivors of the Vietnam War and of the dismal ``hollow force'' of the 1970s, had helped rebuild the military into the force that went on to win the Cold War and the lopsided victory in Desert Storm.

The message the armed services chiefs brought this day was that America's all-volunteer military-perhaps the finest force the United States had ever fielded-was in decline. Without a watershed increase in defense funding of more than $125 billion over the next five years, the chiefs said, the services' increasingly acute problems-with falling recruitment and retention of personnel, aging equipment, crumbling bases, and over-stressed units-would gut the U.S. military, rendering it once again a "hollow force."

"In short, without relief," Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "we will see a continuation of the downward trends in readiness, from decreased mission-capable rates, depot-maintenance backlogs, and shortfalls in critical skills."

The chiefs' delivery of the bad news led, immediately and inevitably, to the next traditional step: the assigning of blame.

Was the Clinton administration to blame, as many Republicans charged, for continually underfunding and overusing the U.S. military? Or did the Joint Chiefs bear responsibility for silently toeing a flawed Administration line and not sounding the readiness alarm sooner? What blame should the Republican majority shoulder for packing the defense budget with unrequested pork and refusing to close unneeded bases?

A closer look at defense trends suggests that all of the major players share the blame for the perceived readiness woes. But that closer look also suggests that those woes can easily be overstated and that they were, in part, a calculated risk taken by Pentagon planners, who predicted, correctly, that major threats to U.S. national security were unlikely in the years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (See box, pp. 2908-09.) Furthermore, to focus attention on recent slides in readiness is to overlook the fact that this military is conducting the most competently managed and smoothest demobilization, or "drawdown," of the 20th century. In the third year of that drawdown, the American military was still strong enough to crush Iraq in Desert Storm.

It is true that a new infusion of money may be needed to close the gap between the smaller defense budgets of recent years and the unprecedentedly high demands on today's military force. Defense Department sources confirm that next year President Clinton will probably request an increase in annual defense spending of between $10 billion and $20 billion.

But thanks in no small part to the performance and sacrifices of the U.S. military during the past decade, America can take that step from a position of unchallenged power and prosperity. The nation is at peace and is unrivaled by other major powers, and U.S. budget coffers are brimming.

In fact, the Pentagon's most serious immediate problem-the sagging rate of personnel retention-is in part just the flip side of the nation's most robust economic expansion in the 25 years since the end of the draft. Ironically, the Pentagon helped purchase that prosperity, and helped bring on its own retention troubles, with the "peace dividend"-the money freed up by the demise of the Soviet Union. Not only has defense spending as a percentage of GDP declined by roughly a third since 1989, but the Defense Department has shrunk by 223,000 jobs-or two-thirds of the 331,000 jobs cut from the federal payroll since 1994.

Not a Hollow Force

Despite the readiness alarms, senior military leaders make a strong case that the present drawdown, compared with the disastrous military downsizings that followed World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, has been the most successful of the century. Amid a very tough recruiting environment, for instance, the Defense Department last year still exceeded its ambitious goal that 90 percent of recruits have high school diplomas and 60 percent score above average on aptitude tests. Twenty years ago, only about 70 percent of recruits had finished high school.

"The military is underfunded today," Lt. Gen. Robert S. Coffey, deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army, Europe, said in an interview this summer at his headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany, "and that forces you to make difficult decisions between near-term readiness and modernization, and [it makes you] sharpen your pencil and try to wring efficiencies out of the system. But we're not even close to the hollow force days of the 1970s," he said. He contrasted today's Army with its 1970s counterpart, in which discipline problems, drug abuse, and racial strife were rampant. "We still have the best front-line equipment in the world, our young leaders are excellent, and our soldiers are disciplined."

So how can the U.S. military be the world's best, yet still have readiness problems? Part of the problem is an expansion of the term "military readiness." Those in the debate have unhelpfully used it to cover the entire grab bag of defense issues, from frustrations over lagging pension benefits and inadequate spare parts to concerns about a rapidly aging arsenal.

To a degree not well understood, military readiness or unreadiness also lies in the eye of the beholder. Opinions about preparedness vary widely from service to service, from unit to unit, and even between different generations of service members. Military organization structures and readiness-reporting systems designed for the Cold War may well overstate some readiness problems, misidentify the causes of others, and exacerbate the strains of a high tempo of operations.

Finally, a number of persistent misconceptions about the U.S. military have clouded the readiness debate in recent years. Anecdotes depicting grossly underfunded troops who are poorly prepared for war and thoroughly demoralized by the inanities of peacekeeping duties make for compelling headlines. The reality, however, is more nuanced.

"The U.S. military as a whole is in a time of change and flux," Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, who recently retired as commander in chief of Allied Forces, Southern Europe, said in an interview in Naples, Italy, "and some of the challenges we face today are more difficult than during the Cold War. But if we're not ready, I sure as hell don't know about it. I go out to ships all the time, and I find sailors and Marines that can respond almost instantly to crisis, as we recently did when we steamed into the Adriatic off the coast of Kosovo. The kids today are brighter and better than we were when I was a young officer," Lopez went on. "They're challenged more, and they're up to the challenge. So I feel as good about the U.S. military as I've ever felt."

Indeed, interviews with more than 40 military experts and service members, from the four-star Joint Chiefs to young troops on the front lines in Bosnia, suggest that the present force is far from hollow. Recently, in places such as Bosnia, Liberia, Albania, Iraq, Korea, and the Persian Gulf, American troops have conducted with aplomb the kinds of complex operations that routinely confounded the hollow force of the 1970s.

Much of the stress that is causing mid-career personnel to depart the U.S. military ranks is less the result of mismanagement than a sign that the upper echelons have had trouble adjusting to a smaller-size force and to the realities of the post-Cold War period. The stress also is a clear warning that Washington's political and military elite have yet to answer a fundamental question that is curiously absent from the present readiness debate: Ready for what?

"I think people tend to underestimate the challenge the military faces in operating in this murky world somewhere between peace and major combat," retired Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in an interview. "In terms of training, doctrine, and mind-set, you have to be prepared for peacekeeping and war-fighting and virtually everything in between, and that puts a constant strain on you. Clearly, however, not all of our forces have to be on the same razor's edge of readiness we maintained during the Cold War, when we could need everyone at a moment's notice," he noted. "And all of the services still have significant tweaking to do of their organizations and personnel systems to better handle both wars and operations other than war."

In the meantime, Shalikashvili believes that the unexpectedly high operations tempo and the Pentagon's inability to realize savings through base closings have indeed led to some short-term readiness problems. "But in my view, the situation today is clearly not comparable to the hollow force of the 1970s," he said. "To prove that, all you have to do is visit a carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf, or an air squadron in Aviano, Italy, or troops on the ground in Bosnia."

Two Faces of Readiness

Air Force Capt. Christopher DeColli and his C-130 aircrew put a human face on the question of military readiness. Because C-130 crews supply the kind of tactical airlift that serves as the lifeline for virtually every overseas military operation, they are exactly the type of Air Force unit feeling the strain of a deployment rate that has quadrupled since 1991. Air Force planes have flown many more sorties in support of no-fly zones over Iraq, for instance, than were logged during the entire Korean War.

On a recent flight to Bosnia, DeColli explained why both he and his co-pilot are likely to join an alarming 64 percent of mid-career Air Force pilots opting to leave the service at the end of their present tours. Even a $110,000 bonus for committing to another five years isn't enough money to persuade him to stay.

"I think a lot of us are just getting tired," said DeColli, who after returning to the United States from a 45-day tour in Europe will leave home later in the year for a planned exercise and then go to Saudi Arabia for another 45-day tour. In recent years, the crew members have also seen an erosion in their military benefits, as well as a growing gap between military pay and the six-figure salaries dangled by civilian airlines. The 1960s-vintage C-130 transport they are flying, meanwhile, is "older than the Mercury capsule," according to DeColli.

"I've missed five wedding anniversaries, my daughter's first tooth, and I'll be spending Christmas in the desert again," he laments. "The joke around our unit is that if they keep asking us to do more with less, eventually we'll be able to do everything with nothing. But what really frustrates my wife and I the most is our inability to make any long-term plans. The flying schedule changes so much, I never know what I'll be doing next week."

Career service members such as DeColli represent Exhibit A in the argument that a deployment rate that has risen three- or fourfold (depending on type of unit) from Cold War levels is seriously straining a force that has contracted by a third in this decade. That is especially true in this all-volunteer force, whose members are older, more apt to be married, and more likely to have children than service members at any time in the past. For instance, 74 percent of today's Air Force officers are married, as are 63 percent of Air Force enlisted personnel.

So, this relentless stream of short-term deployments must be to blame for the pilot defections that are expected to give the Air Force a shortage of 1,800 pilots by 2002. Well, yes. But Capt. DeColli and his aircrew tell only half of the story.

Take Air Force Capt. Bly Blaser and his C-130 aircrew, also recently interviewed on a flight over Bosnia. An Air National Guardsman based in the United States, Blaser is on a 21-day rather than 45-day overseas tour. Otherwise he wears the same uniform, flies the same aircraft, and conducts the same mission as DeColli. But Blaser's take on his part-time military life is very different from DeColli's take on his full-time one. It seems that the chance to do just a few of the real-world deployments that are wearing out DeColli is the very reason Blaser joined the Air Guard in the first place.

"I look at these road trips as kind of a reunion, because you see a lot of the same people you met on earlier deployments," said Blaser, who in recent years has deployed for operations in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia. "I mean, what other job lets you take 80 of your closest friends and their luggage on the road with you, and you get to land on short runways and throw 20,000 pounds out the back of your aircraft?"

Such enthusiasm suggests that the services are on track with their recent efforts to shift more of the burden of on-going operations to reserve forces generally eager to contribute. Nor is that enthusiasm for real-world missions limited to part-time reservists. Both DeColli and Blaser, stationed at stateside bases, were temporarily assigned to the active-duty 37th Airlift Squadron based in Ramstein, Germany. But the retention rate for aviators permanently assigned to the 37th-pilots who live in Germany full-time and bear the brunt of frequent missions to Bosnia and Iraq-is one of the highest in the Air Force.

"We've found that up to a point, morale increases when people are stressed and challenged by real-world missions," Lt. Gen. William J. Begert, vice commander of U.S. Air Forces, Europe, said in an interview at his headquarters in Ramstein. "When you're on the tip of the spear, you clearly understand that what you do has purpose," he explained. "That's a primary reason we believe that pilot retention [here] is the best in the Air Force."

Perception Gap

In fact, retention among units forward-based abroad, whether aircrews or soldiers, is high. It's at home, in stateside-based units, such as the C-130 crew headed by Capt. DeColli, that are deployed around the world to lend a hand on short notice, where retention is suffering.

The gulf between the attitudes of the two C-130 crew captains suggests that if the Air Force could better spread the burden of deployments, and make pilots' lives more predictable, the service could significantly lower the frustration level. That, in fact, is exactly what the service recently did, in announcing a major reorganization built around 10 Air Expeditionary Forces. The goal of the reorganization is to build a more predictable rotation system, like the Navy's and the Marine Corps', and introduce more stability into service members' lives.

"It took a while," said Gen. John P. Jumper, commander in chief of U.S. Air Forces, Europe, "before it became apparent to us that this is going to be the way we operate for a long period of time, and to learn that our Cold War configuration didn't deal well with today's reality." Jumper was explaining a plan to give airmen roughly 18 months' warning before each deployment.

Similarly, the Army-by reducing the typical year-long tour in Bosnia to six months and by starting this summer to rotate stateside units into Bosnia to relieve its two European divisions-has taken steps to distribute the burden of ongoing operations.

At least one critic thinks these measures don't go far enough. "I think the services deserve a lot of credit for recent restructuring efforts and more-creative use of the reserves, but in general, they've been slow in adjusting to the post-Cold War era," said Andrew F. Krepinevich, director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a member of last year's National Defense Panel, which Congress created to look over the Pentagon's shoulder. "There's been a reluctance," Krepinevich said, "to experiment with different approaches that might reduce readiness strains. The important point is that you can't just throw money at very complicated readiness problems and hope to solve them, any more than throwing money at complex social problems was a solution. Sometimes thinking smarter about how you operate is more important than thinking richer."

How service members perceive readiness is largely determined by where they're stationed, how many years they've been in uniform, and which service they're in. Members of the Air Force and the Army, branches that spent the Cold War decades planning to fight in place from bases in Germany, have had a tougher time adapting to a turbulent post-Cold War era than have Navy and Marine Corps units and personnel, who have long been accustomed to going on regular six-month cruises to forward ports.

Older service members, who lived through Vietnam and the drawdown of the 1970s, are more likely to take the current turbulence in stride than are young service members, who came of age in uniform in the free-spending 1980s and who are facing their first drawdown. Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., who as commander in chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Va., is responsible for 80 percent of all U.S.-based military forces, has struggled to bridge that "perception gap."

"Until recently," Gehman said in an interview at Atlantic Command headquarters, "senior leaders have been saying that readiness was fragile, but we were managing it very carefully; and the great troops we had were working very hard to fight some downward trends, and [the troops] felt that readiness was broken. I always felt that it was unhealthy for an organization to have the bosses saying one thing and the workers perceiving something else. Now we're all reading off the same script, and that's important, because the perception gap was probably more dangerous than actual readiness problems, that are really very tiny. Mission-capable rates have dropped somewhat, but nothing is broken. All of the officers of my generation lived through the horrific post-Vietnam 'hollow force,' and we swore we would never let that happen on our watch. This force is not hollow."

War and Peacekeeping

In truth, Cold War perceptions and definitions of military "readiness" have yet to catch up to 1990s reality.

U.S. military forces, precisely because they have proved so effective, have been regularly called upon in recent years to perform missions that span a spectrum between peace and war: peacekeeping in Bosnia, emergency evacuations of diplomats in Albania and Liberia, no-fly enforcement over Iraq, sword-rattling in the Persian Gulf and in the Taiwan Straits, humanitarian relief in Rwanda, and disaster assistance in Latin America and the United States. All of these contingencies are heaped upon the regular deployments for exercises and training that prepare U.S. forces for their primary responsibility of fighting and winning the nation's wars.

That break-neck pace has obviously taken a toll on U.S. military forces. But the Pentagon still judges the readiness of its units on their ability to meet a Cold War type of superpower confrontation.

"Unfortunately, the whole readiness debate has become a political football, with speculative and subjective observations masquerading as hard data," said Gregory D. Foster, the George C. Marshall professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. "We have a readiness system created to judge our ability to fight the wars of the past, but which gives virtually no insight into our readiness to conduct the kinds of strategic missions that make us effective in the post-Cold War era. In point of fact, the present system still doesn't address the root question: Ready for what?"

Ready for What?

In 1997's national strategic blueprint, the Quadrennial Defense Review, Pentagon planners and analysts made the most serious effort to date to address the question of what the U.S. military must be ready for in the post-Cold War era. They summed up their strategy as "prepare, respond, shape." They meant to prepare for the future through modernization; respond to current threats by readiness to fight two major-theater wars nearly simultaneously; and shape the international environment with forward deployments, coalition exercises, military-to-military contacts, port visits, and various other activities designed to stave off crises. In essence, to the conundrum posed by post-Cold War instability, the answer of the Pentagon's best minds was simple: Ready for everything.

Senior military leaders concede that what's behind today's readiness problems is the inability of current Pentagon structures and reporting systems to anticipate the wear and tear that the services' ambitious agenda inflicts on people and equipment. To relieve some of the strain, the Joint Chiefs recently called for a 25 percent reduction in multiservice exercises, and launched a Global Force Management System to limit deployments for particularly high-stressed units. The Navy recently reduced by 25 percent the number of two- and three-week training and exercise cruises that take sailors away from their families even in between their six-month forward deployments.

"When we devised the strategy of shape, prepare, and respond," Gen. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress, "we weren't really sure of the impact of the shaping part. We're now starting to see the impact of the shaping strategy on our total force, and we think it's responsible for many of the problems we've been seeing in the past four months."

While some Republican critics say that current military readiness problems are the result of the Clinton Administration's "promiscuous" use of the military for "ill-conceived" missions, the strongest proponents of these shaping operations are the four-star commanders in chief stationed around the globe. Charged with keeping the lid on regions bubbling with tensions, these regional commanders say the debate is simply "pay me now, or pay me later."

"We have a tremendous opportunity as the world's only superpower," said Adm. Lopez, until recently commander in chief of NATO's southern region, "to prevent future conflicts-which is the most important thing we can do for our grandchildren-but it requires us to remain engaged in the world in a very focused way. I simply cannot influence events in my theater if my forces aren't out there," he said. "So my message is simple: You have to pay for peace, but it's a hell of a lot cheaper, in terms of both money and lives, than having to fight a war."

Senior military leaders also question whether readiness-reporting systems designed for the Cold War tell the full story of today's all-volunteer force. Because Army mechanized units in Germany have been rotating to Bosnia for peacekeeping duty in recent years, for instance, some units there have fallen short of the training standard of 800 miles per year for every tank crew. To ease the strain on forces, Army planners in Europe have also cut back on major exercises. By traditional definitions, then, the two mechanized divisions in Europe are unprepared for war.

But Gen. Coffey, deputy commander of Army forces in Europe, doesn't see it so starkly. "I think truly measuring readiness is much more complex now than during the Cold War, because we have to be ready not only for high-intensity conflict, but also for a variety of peace-enforcement operations," he said. Coffey's tank crews, for example, averaged 634 miles in 1997, and 557 in 1996. "A lot of old veterans see those numbers and say we're not ready," he acknowledged, "but we've become more sophisticated in how we train. We can still do our wartime functions pretty damn well, but we're focusing more on troop-leading and problem-solving skills in complex situations, and our young leaders have responded very well."

Ready for Instability

Before leading a patrol out the gates of a barbed-wire-ringed outpost in Bosnia this summer, company commander Capt. Paul Begalka took his troops through a full pre-combat inspection. They discussed the mission, reviewed the intelligence, and rehearsed force-protection measures. They checked weapons and vehicles, and drilled communications and radio procedures. They consciously enacted every step in exact accordance with the procedures that Bravo Company, 11th Cavalry, would use in preparing for battle.

"We go out of our way to make procedures parallel, between high-intensity conflict and peacekeeping missions," said Begalka in an interview in Bosnia. "Guys talk about whether peacekeeping degrades our combat skills, or whether focusing on high-intensity warfare degrades your peacekeeping skills. I think they complement each other."

Begalka was part of the first U.S. unit to cross the Sava River into Bosnia in December 1995 and is now on his second tour there. The sheer challenge of moving an entire company of 70-ton M-1 Abrams tanks into the Balkans in winter, he believes, gave him and his troops invaluable training for any future deployment to war.

Begalka knows that, despite simulator training, his tank company's gunnery and field maneuver skills are degrading somewhat while they patrol Bosnia in comparatively small, jeeplike Humvees. The young captain is also sure, however, that after months of living hard and working long days together, and watching one another's backs, his company has bonded much more tightly as a unit in Bosnia than they would have back home.

"From the team-building and leadership perspective, you couldn't ask for a better situation," said Begalka. "My officers and [noncommissioned officers] know their soldiers in and out, and the soldiers themselves have bonded better than back home at garrison, where there are constant distractions. If we were ordered to war tomorrow, I think we'd be ready to fight."

No one, least of all Begalka, knows whether tomorrow the 11th Cavalry will be warriors, peacekeepers, or relief workers. Behind the finger-pointing in Washington over readiness lies a persistent lack of consensus on what missions the military should be prepared to do. Thus far in the 1990s, the nation has had it both ways: Less money has gone into defense budgets, while a globe-spanning, large, and active military stood ready for anything. The true message the Joint Chiefs delivered on Capitol Hill in September was that those days are officially over. Americans must soon make choices about which sacrifices and costs they will bear, or they will not long remain the world's sole superpower.

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