"Hollow" Forces?: Current Issues of U.S. Military Readiness and Effectiveness

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Recent fears expressed by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and others about dramatic declines in the readiness of U.S. military forces echo concerns voiced widely toward the end of the 1970s. At that time, apprehensions about America's "hollow force" centered on the readiness of existing military capabilities--illustrated most dramatically by the mechanical failures that led to the aborting of the 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. Today McCain's charge that American forces "are going hollow" does not so much concern personnel or system readiness as it does the issue of whether America's overall military forces are too small--and thus inadequate to provide for the nation's security needs.

The term "readiness" has always been protean, and thus discussions about it potentially confusing. Sometimes readiness refers simply to the pace of training in tanks, planes, and ships; at other times, to the ability of forces to deploy quickly and perform initially as designed to do; at still others, it means something more like effectiveness against a specific enemy in achieving a specified objective such as an unconditional surrender. For purposes of the current debate about readiness, the broader definition--military effectiveness--seems to catch the essential concern.

Elements of Effectiveness

Defining readiness as effectiveness, however, raises other questions: what determines military effectiveness and how can effectiveness be measured? The answer to the first question depends in part on one's time frame. In the short term, over a period of a few years, it may be possible to alter effectiveness by changing strategic concept (does security entail thinking in terms of two wars or one? nuclear or conventional? stalemate or "victory"?), the rate at which forces are reduced (but not increased, which takes a lot of time), operational tempo, training, and stocks of munitions and secondary items of supply. As Senator McCain has pointed out, in the six months of Desert Shield leading up to Desert Storm, it was possible to draw on forces not originally included in Central Command's contingency plans because no other plausible military threat existed. Desert Storm planners were able to modify training, equipment, and munitions, improve procurement and logistical systems, even mobilize and deploy elements of the National Guard and Reserve.

But many key determinants of effectiveness cannot be changed in the short run. Among the stickier elements are force size and composition (unless the training and callup of reserve ground combat units can be improved quickly). Replacing current with next-generation weapons, equipment, and munitions takes time. So do big increases in airlift and sealift, especially if the added units must satisfy military specifications as to weight and size of equipment and rates at which it is unloaded in congested ports or over beaches. In other words, decisions made today about long lead-time items such as ships, submarines, aircraft, ballistic missiles, tanks, and (increasingly) well-trained personnel not only in the United States, but also in other countries, will affect performance and outcome many years hence. Accordingly, the Defense Department must always balance short-run against longer-term considerations.

Current Issues: Forces and Strategy

The current debate about readiness focuses on two such issues. The first is whether the Clinton administration's military forces are adequate to implement its strategic concept.

For all practical purposes, the strategic concepts used by the Bush and Clinton administrations are identical: both assume two virtually simultaneous wars, one starting in the Middle East, to be followed shortly by another on the Korean peninsula, and both require that U.S. and any allied forces effectively demolish opposing military capabilities. But Clinton's "Bottom-Up Review" requirements for the two contingencies are somewhat more modest than those of Bush's Base Force. …