At Yakota Air Base in Japan last week, President Donald Trump told an audience of American service personnel, “We dominate the sky, sea… land and space.” Certainly since the first Gulf War in 1991, America could rightly proclaim that its military was the finest, most capable and best equipped force on the globe. That legacy still exists—but only for the time being.
The irony is that 16 years of war and continued military operations can only be sustained with defense budgets that are substantially larger than what we are prepared to spend. While both Armed Services Committees of Congress have recognized this necessity with a recommended defense budget of more than $700 billion this year, given proposed tax cuts and a national debt of $20 trillion, the chances of approval are small. And the chances of sustaining that budget absent another major war are nil.
Two insidious cancers are attacking the U.S. military and the Department of Defense. And both are largely outside the purview of the Pentagon.
The first is uncontrolled internal real cost growth of about five to seven percent a year for every item in the budget from people to precision weapons to pencils. The Defense Business Board has been sounding this alarm for several years, but no one outside the Pentagon or the two Armed Services Committees is listening.
Real costs for people, health care, technology, operations and maintenance are increasing at such a rate that in 10 years they will double what they are today. That means that an additional $30-50 billion a year are needed just to keep even.
Second, the decision-making-budgeting approval and oversight processes are nightmarish. The failure to approve annual budgets and the default position of continuing resolutions to fund defense make rational planning impossible. Oversight has metastasized into a condition that often paralyzes sensible program management with too many unnecessary and costly rules and requirements. Sequestration mandates arbitrary across the board cuts as if we can procure 10 percent less of a warship, tank or fighter jet.
It is a wonder that the Pentagon functions as well as it does and this is a tribute to the perseverance and patience of the people serving in the department. The result is a military force that is overstretched and becoming less prepared, trained and capable of conducting their assigned missions. The scathing indictments of this lack of skill sets and professionalism in the Navy investigations of two ship collisions last summer are symptomatic of this decline. The result is headed to a “hollow force.”
Following wars when armies and navies are usually demobilized, clearly for understandable reasons, military readiness and fighting power decline often dramatically. This happened after two world wars. After Vietnam, while the Cold War was very much alive, the military was not provided the resources to sustain its readiness, fighting power and morale. In the words of former Army Chief of Staff General E.C. (“Shy”) Meyer, the U.S. military became a “hollow force” and unready to fight.
Now, a similar fate awaits the U.S. military. The nation has three choices. First, it can take the path of least resistance and do little to halt this condition from arising. Second, it can pay whatever is needed to sustain our military at high levels of readiness including replacement and modernization of the weapons and systems of war. Third, it can put in balance this huge mismatch between and among strategy, operational requirements, force levels and budgets in one of two ways.
Strategy, operational requirements and force levels would have to be defined in terms of a realistic assessment of what funding will be available. The sub-choice is either a larger, less ready and less capable but not a completely hollow force or a smaller, well prepared and well equipped military.
In an ideal world, only choices two and three are acceptable. But spending more money is politically unlikely and making tough tradeoffs that mandate substantial changes to strategy and force levels are difficult at the best of times. These choices are not made any easier when the U.S. must modernize and replace its nuclear triad at a cost that could easily reach more than $2 trillion over the next decade or two.
Until the administration is willing to recognize and act on this looming crisis—and no administration wishes to be in such a position—while also refraining from loose rhetoric that exaggerates our military strength and ignores what lies ahead, beware but prepare for a hollow force.
Dr. Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-2016) and is currently Senior Advisor at Washington D.C.’s Atlantic Council, Distinguished Senior Fellow and Visiting Professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His next book Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts will be published next week and argues how to avoid a hollow force. The writer can be reached on Twitter @harlankullman.