Avoiding the Hollow Force: Modernizing for the Future

“Hollow force,” a term coined in the post-Vietnam War era, describes a military that lacks the resources to field trained and ready forces, support ongoing operations, and modernize. With mandatory federal spending projected to increase significantly in the future, the armed forces could face tightening budgets that bring back the hollow force.

On April 28, 2006, the Heritage Foundation hosted a panel featuring Baker Spring of The Heritage Foundation, Dr. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute; Peter Swartz of the Center for Naval Analyses, and Capt. James Howe, Chief of Congressional Affairs for the U.S. Coast Guard. They discussed whether the U.S. military will be able to continue to modernize in light of the demanding operational tempo necessitated by the war on terror and expected future budgetary constraints.

In It for the Long War

Spring expressed concerns that America could be heading towards a hollow force unless the government stops underfunding crucial modernization efforts. Meeting the military’s resource needs requires three actions: maintaining overall defense budgets at four percent of gross domestic product; reforming entitlement programs that divert much-needed funds from defense spending; and rebalancing expenditures to increase investments in research, development, and procurement of equipment.

Thompson explained that the Army’s already aging equipment has been further stressed by “overuse, harsh environmental conditions, and enemy attacks” in Iraq. Those conditions have worn the equipment out about five times faster than projected. The Air Force has also seen its share of modernization crises, from age-related metal fatigue and underfunding. The Air Force bears the burden of a public perception that America’s airpower will always trump that of any enemy. According to Thompson, the supremacy of U.S. airpower is far from certain.

“Not many ships have been built in the past several years,” Swartz said in his approval of U.S. naval forces. Since 9/11, the Navy has focused on military readiness. A reallocation of funds within the Navy’s budget and occasionally from the budgets of the other armed forces has supported readiness — at the cost of modernization and acquisition.

Howe pointed out that Coast Guard forces have vastly expanded their homeland security responsibilities, which comprise 25 percent of daily operations. Before 9/11, homeland security responsibilities made up two to three percent of the Coast Guard’s daily operations. These expanded responsibilities require the modernization of Coast Guard ships, planes, and sensors.

No Time for Time Outs

The period after the drawdown of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq is not the time to decrease defense spending: The military’s modernization needs are far too pressing now and in the future.


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