Center for Strategic Communication

jcsFiring a shot across Congress’ bow in the fight for the future of the U.S. military, the nation’s highest ranking military leaders warned this week that across-the-board budget cuts will put the armed forces warfighting capabilities in serious danger.

In a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the officers, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and the top officers in the Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and National Guard, said the country faces a situation where it is unable to adequately fund the military at its current strength.

“Troops on the front lines will receive the support they need, but the rest of the force will be compromised,” the officers wrote in the Jan. 14 appeal for more control over how to allocate resources as defense funding gets squeezed – sequestration or not. A similar letter was sent to the House Armed Services Committee.

After more than a decade of operations in Central Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, military planners are grappling with how to recapitalize a combat-worn but battle-tested force at a time of mounting fiscal pressure on the federal government. The predicament is exacerbated by extreme political dysfunction around broad budget decisions and national security policy.

What the military leaders say they want to avoid is a “hollow force,” or a military that, for budgetary reasons, sees its battlefield edge dulled through cutbacks that result in reduced training and worn-out equipment. Trying to cover the costs of the current military with less money would do so, the officers warned. The phrase itself has its roots in the military’s difficult era during the 1970s following the end of the Vietnam War. (

The challenge faced by the U.S. today is tied to fundamental questions about what kind of military the country wants, and what kind it can actually afford. Is a smaller force that is fully resourced a better option than a larger one that is constantly fighting for its fiscal footing at home? Or should resources be drawn from other non-defense programs to fully fund a wartime military even after operations are winding down?

Each path carries its own risk. An underappreciated one is that of creating a sort of “hollow nation,” which would see the U.S. field the world’s preeminent military but fall below rising global standards in critical areas such as healthcare, education or infrastructure. Already, U.S. competitiveness, as measured by everyone from the World Economic Forum to Harvard Business School, is slipping year by year, which itself presents an urgent national security issue.

For lawmakers, the defense industry and the armed services, determining how scarce resources are spent during the next 24 months will be one of the biggest fights ahead inside the Beltway. To that end, the generals want to be “given the latitude to enact cost-saving reforms we need while eliminating the weapons and facilities we do not need.” Easier said than done. That may mean taking funds for military hardware or research and development, key areas for defense contractors and lawmakers keen on preserving related jobs, and instead using to keep U.S. forces battle ready. Such spending is usually oriented toward a payoff in the future, such as a new fighter jet or a breakthrough suite of sensors. However, the future of the U.S. military looks more likely to be shaped by today’s needs, than tomorrow’s wants.