A Pentagon implosion looms

Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
U.S. Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis warns that the military is in grave danger of becoming a hollow force. File Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI
U.S. Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis warns that the military is in grave danger of becoming a "hollow force." File Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI | License Photo

Few Americans, especially in Congress, understand that the most pernicious and potentially most dangerous threat to the United States military is not North Korea, Daesh, Iran or even Russia or China. Instead, this threat is homegrown, ironically arising from the law and the way the Department of Defense is forced to conduct its business.

In a letter to Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, with copies to other members dated Sept. 8, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis specified reasons why the U.S. military is in grave danger.


Citing the harm done to the U.S. military by a combination of continuing resolutions, as opposed to passing a real defense budget; sequestration that imposes mandatory and arbitrary cuts; and budget caps that limit defense spending, Mattis bluntly informed Congress that without relief "our air, land and sea fleets will erode." The secretary's understatement speaks volumes. In fact, the U.S. military is at great risk of becoming a "hollow force," that is a force incapable of carrying out its missions and infected with low morale.

Following Vietnam, as happens after every war, the U.S. military imploded into a hollow force. The consequence is that when it was ordered into action, it often failed. Desert One, the raid to free 54 Americans held hostage in Tehran in 1980 was the textbook case of military failure. Had war broken out in Korea or against the Soviet Union, it would not have gone well. Fortunately, deterrence and containment prevailed and the hollow force did no lasting damage to the nation.

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The first two decades of this century, however, have been filled with continuing violence and conflict in which American military forces have been actively engaged in combat for the past 16 years. That fortunately was not the case from 1975 until after Sept.11. And there are no guarantees that future years will be any less testing.

With a nominal annual defense budget in excess of $650 billion, the obvious question is how can this happen? How can the most formidable military in the world be at risk of an implosion? The answers rest in a system that is irrational at best. And to some, the system has become insane.

The effect of CR's means that no new starts are allowable and budgets are frozen at prior years' levels. Sequestration requires automatic and arbitrary cuts to all defense programs to remain under budget caps -- a process so detrimental to good planning that only the KGB or the Islamic State could have created it Finally, and not mentioned in Mattis' letter, is the destructive effect of uncontrolled internal annual real cost growth of about 5 to 7 percent.

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Today, this cost growth amounts to between $30 billion and $50 billion a year and applies to every item in defense from people to precision weapons to pencils. The driving causes are the increasing expense of people from compensation to retirement; healthcare; technology; and unanticipated cost growth across most defense programs. This means that just to stay even, if these costs are not controlled, the Pentagon will need an additional $30 billion to $50 billion a year. And at 7 percent, costs double every 10 years.


This leaves three, and only three, choices.

First, the nation can spend what is needed to maintain the current active duty force of about 1.2 million at high levels of capability, readiness and morale. That will require an annual budget well over $700 billion a year along with increases to cover this explosive uncontrolled internal cost growth.

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Second, the nation can continue on the current course that inevitably will produce a hollow force putting the nation's defense and security at substantial risk.

Third, if a hollow force is to be avoided, both missions and tasks the Pentagon is meant to fill, as well as numbers of active duty and reserve and national guard forces must be reduced or cut in keeping with future budget realities.

But no matter which course of action is taken, uncontrolled internal cost growth must be contained. However, if CRs, sequestration and budget caps remain, it will be virtually impossible for the Pentagon to avoid the fate of becoming a "hollow force" -- an outcome that must receive far greater public attention.

If the United States is to maintain a military that is capable and ready to fight, immediate action is essential. Given a political process that is broken, the outlook is not good. Mattis will have to do far more than write letters for Congress to recognize this looming Pentagon implosion and prevent it from ever happening.


Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, 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 in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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