By DANA LIEBELSON
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has used some pretty hyperbolic language when describing the so-called "doomsday scenario" of additional defense cuts. He has said that slashing the Pentagon's budget would turn the U.S. military into a "ship without sailors, a brigade without bullets"--and my personal favorite--"a paper tiger." But there's one metaphor Panetta won’t be getting away with anymore: "hollow force."
Secrecy News recently reported that the Congressional Research Service (CRS), which provides policy and legal analysis to both the House and the Senate, has called Panetta’s use of the term hollow force “inappropriate” in a new report.
Panetta and senior Pentagon officials have used the term several times. For example, in a November statement on the Super Committee’s negotiations, Panetta said: “The half-trillion in additional cuts demanded by sequester would lead to a hollow force incapable of sustaining the missions it is assigned.”
Sequester, of course, refers to the automatic, across-the-board $1.2 trillion budget cuts over the next decade, which are supposed to kick in at the beginning of 2013 as a result of Congress’s failure to reach a deficit reduction deal last year (a group of Republican senators is working hard to avoid them).
But according to the CRS report, sequestration might not lead to a “hollow force” at all—because the term isn’t being used correctly. CRS said that it’s been used to describe U.S. armed forces only twice: post-Vietnam, and again in the 1990s. It refers to “forces that appear mission-ready but, upon examination, suffer from shortages of personnel and equipment, and from deficiencies in training.”
CRS pointed out that the surge of defense spending in recent times has led to modernization, and a force that appears “relatively robust”—making this term “inappropriate under the present circumstances.”
Former Pentagon budget analyst Chuck Spinney, who has authored several trenchant critiques on how the Defense Department spends more and more only to get less and less, provided POGO an alternative viewpoint. He challenged the CRS’s assumption that there is a direct relationship between spending and modernization. Spinney wrote that:
…the hollow force had nothing to do with budget cuts in 70s, it was a self-inflicted wound created by the pattern of cut decisions. And it looks like Panetta is going down the same pathway that was started in waning days of Vietnam. I was in Pentagon and we got orders to rob the readiness accounts to save the modernization budget during the cutbacks.
Additionally, the military, through mismanagement, has simply wasted a good deal of money. For instance, according to an Army-chartered study last year, since 2004, $3.3 billion to $3.8 billion, or 35 percent to 42 percent, per year of Army Development, Test & Evaluation funding has been lost to canceled programs. So just because the U.S. is spending, doesn’t mean that money is necessarily going towards modernization and forming a “robust” force, as CRS claims.
However, CRS said that it “is unlikely that even in the case of drastically reduced military funding and a smaller military, recruit quality would decline, pay and benefits would be drastically cut, or U.S. public support for the military would significantly decline.”
The bottom-line is the military’s had plenty of money, perhaps too much—and no crisis that justifies Panetta’s entreaty for more moolah. CRS’s conclusion is very much in line with what POGO has been saying all along. There are places where deep cuts can be made—like defense service contracting and bloated weapons programs—that will lead to fiscal stability, not apocalyptic catastrophe.
Dana Liebelson is POGO’s Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
Photo of Panetta via residio of Monterey: DLIFLC & USAG.