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The danger of a 'hollow force'

Hollywood almost always treats American service members as heroes -- sometimes comic, mostly serious -- but one notable exception was 1986's "Heartbreak Ridge." In that movie, Clint Eastwood's Medal of Honor-wearing Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway is one of the last combat veterans in the post-Vietnam, all-volunteer Marine Corps, back when "USMC" stood for "Uncle Sam's Marijuana Club." Highway bucks his lily-livered officers and delivers some traditional Marine Corps motivation to his no-good, unfit, disrespectful band of misfit recruits, eventually molding them into a combat unit just in time for action in Grenada. The message of the movie was clear: Today's worthless young punks, even those in uniform, are a disgrace to the heroes that came before them, and only someone like a Gunny Highway -- not the officer corps, not the Defense Department, and not politicians -- can put the military back on track.

"Heartbreak Ridge" depicts the era of the much-feared "hollow force," and critics of President Obama's planned $400 billion in defense cuts warn that they'll send us right back there. But as Sandra Erwin writes in the June issue of National Defense, there's almost no chance the American military will look like it did after Vietnam, and saying so doesn't help anyone.

Wrote Erwin:

A more levelheaded view is that moderate cuts are inevitable and even necessary. The new defense secretary set to replace Gates, Leon Panetta “has a chance to bring much-needed discipline to a Pentagon budget that has spun out of control,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of international relations at American University and a federal budget expert. “The cuts could be an incentive to design a military force that is globally superior, more focused, less bureaucratic and tailored to the missions it will face,” Adams wrote in a Washington Post editorial. He contends that the defense budget could be cut by $1 trillion, or 15 percent below current projections over the next decade, and the U.S. military still would be the world’s most powerful. “This is the fourth scaling back of defense spending since the 1950s. It is predictable, normal and, like the others, driven by fiscal concerns and the end of wars,” said Adams. A build-down, he believes, would not make the military weaker, but leaner and more efficient.

... Yes, the defense budget has peaked; and some reductions will occur. But there is no evidence that any planned cuts will be so extreme to merit the “H” label. The Obama administration’s proposed cuts are modest, and essentially put the Pentagon on a flat budget path, which is still a real contraction after a decade of largesse. Warnings against hollowing out the military ring less of genuine fear but rather loudly of demagoguery.

If you wanted to take an optimistic view, you could argue that many of the corrosive qualities that afflicted the military after Vietnam will be absent in the post-Iraq and Afghanistan era. Americans invariably say they "support the troops," and as Adm. Mullen consistently points out, many of them are more or less oblivious to today's wars. Compare that to the enormous protests against Vietnam and the deep-seated anti-draft, anti-military sentiment  in much of the country. Also, this time the military doesn't need to transition from a force of draftees to volunteers.

But a pessimist could argue that the all-volunteer force has been so successful because of how much Congress has been willing to spend since 9/11. It  has been so generous with the troops, in fact, that Gates and Mullen beg lawmakers not to increase troop pay, and the Pentagon brass even wants DoD to be able to charge more for Tricare for working-age retirees. If the flow of money leveled off or began to decrease as DoD decreased the size of the Army and Marine Corps, it could start a chain reaction that might cost the military some of its best talent -- especially if the economy improves. You could also argue that after Vietnam, the U.S. at least had an existential enemy in the Soviet Union, which eventually justified the "There's A Bear In The Woods" buildup under Reagan. As commanders plan for the world after Iraq and Afghanistan, they're casting about for a new strategic direction -- so much so that the Army doesn't even know what kind of threats to build its new vehicles to defend against.

What do you think -- can the U.S. military slim down and retain its ability to fight and win? Or does it risk winding up with a hollow force?

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