‘Hollow force’ concerns surfacing

The Congressional Research Service has a message for those who suggest planned defense budget cuts and military compensation curbs will return America to the “hollow force” era of the 1970s.

Such references, in light of current force quality and the amount of money used to modernize weapons, infrastructure and benefit programs over the past decade, might be deemed “inappropriate,” CRS advises in a new report, “A Historical Perspective on ‘Hollow Forces.’ “

The authors, defense specialists Andrew Feicket and Stephen Daggett, direct their advice to “military leaders.” But the specter of a hollow force seems more often to be raised these days by lawmakers, particularly by Republicans who suggest the Obama administration is willing to allow readiness to fray. However, the CRS exists to serve Congress, not chastise it.

Five of seven suspected causes for the sorry state of the armed forces after the Vietnam War, while transitioning to an all-volunteer military, are “non-applicable” to today’s military, the report says.

The current force isn’t buffeted by low public support, severe recruiting and retention challenges, lousy pay, obsolete equipment or inadequate maintenance dollars. If there’s an issue with troop morale today it’s due mostly to frequent deployments, a problem that is easing, the report says.

Republicans criticize the administration on two fronts regarding defense spending. They don’t like how $488 billion in cuts through 2021 are to be implemented, though Congress did agree to the overall size of these cuts in last year’s Budget Control Act.

They also don’t like Obama holding lawmakers to an deal struck last August: that if a bipartisan “super committee” couldn’t reach agreement by last Christmas on cutting at least a trillion dollars from the federal debt, then a “sequestration” of automatic cuts would begin in 2013. About half of that cut would be applied to defense over 10 years unless Congress agrees on a different response.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, backs the Down Payment to Protect National Security Act (HR 3662), which would protect military budgets by continuing to freeze federal salaries and cutting the workforce by 10 percent over 10 years by refusing to fill job vacancies.

“Last year, when the Super Committee failed, I pledged that I would not be the chairman who would preside over the hollowing out of our military. I renew that commitment today,” McKeon said Jan. 26.

Obama’s 2013 budget request proposes higher TRICARE fees for all military retirees. It also will assume full military pay raises in 2013 and 2014 but smaller increases starting in 2015.

CRS notes that basic pay has climbed by 35 percent since 2001.

“When increased housing allowances, subsistence allowances and enlistment and reenlistment bonuses are added, total take home pay has increased even more. And when increases in retirement benefits, due to TRICARE for Life medical benefits and concurrent receipt of military pay and veterans disability benefits, are considered, military compensation has grown more than 55 percent above inflation since fiscal year 1998,” the report says.

The authors might have added that “hollow force” will continue to be heard, loudly and often, in the upcoming budget debates.