The Hollow Force Myth

jkitfield@njdc.com

When the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before Congress last September, saying that the U.S. military faced a readiness crisis, the nation's senior military leaders provoked a storm of controversy and recriminations. How could America's all-volunteer force--once believed to be perhaps the finest military force the United States had ever fielded--be reeling from increasingly acute problems with recruitment and retention, aging equipment, crumbling bases and over-stressed units? Without a watershed increase in funding of more than $25 billion annually, the chiefs concurred that within five years the military would once again be rendered a "hollow force."

As the flag officers testified, the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing room crackled with tension. Lawmakers from both parties were looking for somewhere to place the blame for the apparent calamity that had befallen military forces after a seven-year drawdown. Was the Clinton administration to blame, as many Republicans charged, for continually underfunding and overusing the military? Or did the Joint Chiefs themselves bear the responsibility for silently toeing a flawed administration line and not raising the readiness alarm sooner? What blame should the Republican majority shoulder for packing the Defense budget with unrequested pork and refusing to allow the Defense Department to close unneeded bases?

A close look at the record suggests that all the major players share the blame for readiness woes. They also should each take a step back, breathe deeply and . . . pat themselves on the back for a tough job competently managed.

While a correction is needed to close a gap between Defense spending and a historically large and active peacetime military force, America can take that step from a position of unchallenged power and prosperity. Thanks in no small part to military performance and sacrifices during the past decade, the nation is generally at peace in the world and unmatched by competing nations, and U.S. coffers are brimming.

In fact, the Pentagon's most serious immediate problem--sagging retention and recruitment--could easily be viewed as the flip side of record employment and the most robust economic expansion in the 25-year history of the all-volunteer force. Ironically, the Pentagon helped purchase that prosperity with the "peace dividend." Not only has Defense spending declined in real terms for 14 straight years, but also, of the 331,000 jobs cut from the federal payroll since 1994, fully 223,000 have come out of DoD.

The good news is that, given the strength of the economy, even if Congress and the administration decide to increase Defense spending by the $25 billion to $30 billion being discussed by the Joint Chiefs, it still would amount to less than 3.5 percent of the gross domestic product. Spending levels in 1986 consumed 6.4 percent of GDP.

Nor is today's force even remotely on par with the decrepit and demoralized "hollow force" of the post-Vietnam War 1970s. In fact, a strong case can be made that after the eviscerating military reductions that followed World War II, Korea and Vietnam, the current post-war drawdown has been the most successful of the century.

To bridge the rhetorical chasm between talk of a readiness crisis and claims in some quarters that the U.S. military remains the world's best, it's important to clear up misconceptions and myths that have clouded the readiness debate in recent years.

Myth No. 1:It's a Readiness Crisis

In fact, it's a modernization crisis. Current problems with military readiness are short-term symptoms of a chronic and long- diagnosed gap between modernization funding and a historically large and active peacetime military with a rapidly aging arsenal. For years the Pentagon has lived on borrowed time, making Draconian cuts (more than 66 percent since 1986) in procurement funding, while essentially living off the shiny new arsenal of tanks, aircraft and ships purchased during the Reagan defense buildup of the 1980s.

When the services were confronted with funding shortfalls last year, however, they decided to protect depleted procurement accounts and trim spare parts purchases, equipment maintenance and other readiness accounts. Today's readiness problems are thus an unambiguous signal that the procurement holiday is officially over.

Myth No. 2: DoD Is Grossly Underfunded

Not true by historical standards. As widely reported, since 1989, Defense spending has been cut roughly 30 percent. Critics have ominously noted that, at roughly 2.5 percent of GDP, Defense spending is at its lowest level since before Pearl Harbor. And the $21.7 billion that congressional Republicans have added to the administration's Defense budget requests since 1994, much of it for larger pay raises, was critical to helping stave off retention problems.

But are Cold War peaks the proper gauge for prudent Defense spending? If spending is averaged across all Cold War years (1946 to 1990), the United States spent roughly $310 billion annually in inflation-adjusted 1999 dollars, or about 15 percent more than the $270.5 billion budgeted for 1999. Even at current levels, the United States spends more on defense than the next 10 most powerful nations combined.

Today's military is not underfunded by historical, peacetime standards. However, the post-Cold War world is not shaping up like any peacetime period in American history. The rate of overseas deployments has roughly quadrupled since 1989 as the U.S. military patrols democracy's unsettled empire around the world.

Myth No. 3: Military Personnel Are Grossly Underpaid

In searching for the cause of recent retention problems in military ranks, fingers have been pointed at an estimated 13 percent gap between military and civilian pay, and an erosion in military pension and health care benefits. Critics have charged that many service members qualify for food stamps. Like so much of the "hollow force" debate, however, the perception of a grossly underpaid military is based partly on myth. While military compensation is almost certainly due for an adjustment, the picture is hardly as bleak as described.

For example, consider the food stamp crisis. In a recent study, the Pentagon discovered that less than 1 percent of the force, an estimated 12,000 service members, qualify for food stamps. Even that number is inflated, since free government housing given to young enlistees is not counted as compensation for the purpose of judging food stamp eligibility. Almost all of those service members who did qualify were young enlistees with five or more dependents who would likely have trouble making ends meet no matter what entry-level job they landed out of high school.

The estimated 13 percent pay gap also warrants closer scrutiny. The benchmark used to calculate when military and civilian pay was in balance is 1981, when the military received successive pay raises of 11.7 percent and 14.3 percent to eliminate what was then identified as a 7.3 percent pay gap. Without such an inflated benchmark, some experts have argued that the true pay differential is closer to 8 percent. A 3.6 percent pay raise in fiscal 1999 and a planned 4.4 percent raise planned for the year 2000--the biggest pay hike in 18 years--should help close that gap.

The perception of a pay gap also is distorted by the fact that calculations of military pay do not include many military benefits, including housing and food allowances, health care, commissary privileges and special pay such as re-enlistment bonuses and flight pay. Thus a Navy chief with 20 years of service receives basic pay of $28,732. If housing and food stipends, untaxed allowances and six months of sea duty pay are included, however, he or she makes $50,727, according to Navy Times.

Still, perceptions matter, and the administration and Congress undoubtedly need to find a way to counter the view in military ranks that people are poorly compensated and underappreciated.

"I think what you see is a general anxiety created by a long drawdown, where many quality-of-life programs such as the health care and retirement systems have come under attack from cost-cutters. It's all starting to weigh on service members," says Gen. Theodore Stroup, a former Army personnel chief. "Many people in uniform feel like the pact the country made with them when they joined the military is being broken."

Myth No. 4: The Problem Is Misguided Missions

Some critics have charged that overstressed forces are the direct result of the Clinton administration's promiscuous use of the military for ill-conceived peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and other missions. However, the notion that the military's problems could be solved with a little hard-headed discretion about future deployments, and a White House that could "just say no," probably is wishful thinking.

The problem is that one person's frivolous peacekeeping operation is another's response to a crisis threatening U.S. interests or involving unacceptable human suffering. The Clinton administration believed the wash of refugees on Florida's shores and brutal suppression by a military junta justified the Haiti intervention. The Bush administration believed similarly about the actions of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega and a famine in Somalia that threatened half a million people.

Certainly the Bosnian mission remains controversial, and its ballooning cost, from an originally estimated $2.5 billion to $9.5 billion so far, has strained DoD resources. It's also worth noting that not only did former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole support the Bosnian deployment, but he recently argued for a NATO military response to the crisis in Kosovo.

Senior Republican leaders, and Republican think tanks, have likewise endorsed measures targeting the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that would require a far-greater commitment of U.S. air power and possibly ground troops to the Persian Gulf region.

Meanwhile, both parties generally support operations that have recently taxed U.S. forces--from emergency evacuations of U.S. citizens from Albania and Liberia to the doubling of the U.S. military presence in the Gulf region in response to Saddam Hussein's most recent defiance of U.N.

James Kitfield is a staff correspondent at National Journal.

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