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CRS: A Historical Perspective on "Hollow Forces"

Authors: Andrew Feickert, and Stephen Daggett
January 31, 2012


This Congressional Research Service report describes the potential pitfalls of improperly managed defense budget cuts by recalling the notion of the "hollow force" in U.S. military history--a superficially battle-ready military force that, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be inadequately prepared.

Senior Department of Defense (DOD) leaders have invoked the specter of a "hollow force" to describe what could happen to the U.S. Armed Forces if significant cuts to the defense budget are enacted. While some Members and staff might be familiar with the "hollow force" and its causes, newer Members and staff might not have a similar understanding of the conditions that led to the "hollow force" and what actions were taken to improve the condition of the U.S. Armed Forces.

After a several years of rapid growth in defense budgets, measures to reduce federal budget deficits have led to projections of a substantial decline in military spending over the next decade. As a result of limits on discretionary spending in the Budget Control Act of 2011, DOD is considering how to absorb a reduction of $450 billion to $500 billion in planned programs through FY2021. Senior defense officials have said that such reductions can be managed, but they also warn that that trade-offs among defense programs will require a reassessment of priorities, and that deeper cuts would weaken critical capabilities. A common theme is that, unless reductions are managed prudently, budget cuts of the magnitude required, let alone larger cuts, would risk creating a "hollow force." The term "hollow force" refers to military forces that appear mission-ready but, upon examination, suffer from shortages of personnel and equipment, and from deficiencies in training.

Historically, there were two periods--post-Vietnam and again in the 1990s--when the term "hollow force" was used to describe the U.S. armed forces. In the case of post-Vietnam, a variety of socio-economic factors as well as funding decisions played a large role in the overall decline in readiness, particularly the decision to develop new weapon systems rather than funding other requirements. The 1990s hollow force, however, did not suffer from the socio-economic problems that characterized the post-Vietnam force. Instead, the military of the early and mid-1990s was being deployed on a frequent basis for a variety of contingency operations and was viewed by some as being "overcommitted" relative to its size and resources. This overcommitment was further exacerbated by recruiting and retention concerns and a lack of funds to finance new weapon systems due to DOD decisions to emphasize readiness-related funding.

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