The Hollow Army

James Fallows has a piece entitled, “The Hollow Army: The U.S. military is stretched to the breaking point—and one more crisis could break it” in the current Atlantic Monthly.

The United States spends more on armed forces than do all other countries combined; the resulting arsenal is more than a match for any opposing power and for nearly any conceivable coalition of foes. No one disputes that American military supremacy is an international reality. But our military has become vulnerable in a way that is obvious to everyone associated with it yet rarely acknowledged by politicians and probably not appreciated by much of the public. The military’s people, its equipment, its supplies and spare parts, its logistics systems, and all its other assets are under pressure they cannot sustain. Everything has been operating on an emergency basis for more than two years, with no end to the emergency in sight. The situation was serious before the invasion of Iraq; now it is acute.


The basic problem is that an ever leaner, numerically smaller military is being asked to patrol an ever larger part of the world.

“Unanticipated U.S. ground force requirements in postwar Iraq,” a report for the Army War College noted late last year, “have stressed the U.S. Army to the breaking point,” with more than a third of the Army’s total “end strength” committed in and around Iraq. “Operation Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath argue strongly,” the report said, “for an across-the-board reassessment”—that is, for an increase of U.S. force levels.

Meanwhile, barely noticed, the United States still has some 75,000 soldiers in Germany, 41,000 in Japan, 41,000 in Korea, 13,000 in Italy, 12,000 in the United Kingdom, and so on, down through a list of more than a hundred countries—plus some 26,000 sailors and Marines deployed afloat. The new jobs keep coming, and the old ones don’t go away. Several times I have heard officers on Army bases refer mordantly to the current recruiting slogan: “An Army of One.” The usual punch line is, “That’s how many soldiers are left for new assignments now.”

This is a good piece well worth reading in its entirety.

I agree with most of Fallows’ analysis if not all his conclusions. For example, he notes that two of our Army divisions are in the process of postwar retrofitting and are therefore in a low readiness category. He then says, “In a pinch all these units could of course fight and win.” Well, if “in a pitch” means “if called upon to do so,” yes. Frankly, there’s nobody that the U.S. could conceivably be called upon to fight in the next couple of years that we couldn’t defeat with our worst units–that’s the level of overmatch we currently enjoy.

The problem isn’t with near-term combat readiness but with sustainability. A small, all-volunteer force can only be asked to do so much. For going on fourteen years now, our elite units and several undersupplied support units have been in near-constant high opstempo. I’m surprised that it’s sustained itself this long without mass exodus, although, granted, “stop loss” put a temporary end to that option recently.

The problem isn’t one easily solved, since I don’t believe we can sustain a radically larger force and staff it with the same caliber of folks that we have now. Even though the pay levels are much higher than they’ve ever been historically, attracting people who will be willing–or even psychologically able–to put up with the rigors of military life is difficult.

Solving this problem isn’t going to be easy. Some things that would help:

  • Further drawing down our forces in Western Europe. Aside from maintaining a token “good will” presence, there’s really not much need for the U.S. Army to be in Germany anymore. An Air Force presence sufficient to project power regionally should be maintained.
  • A radical realignment of the Active-Guard-Reserve force. The 1973 policy of putting most of the combat service and service support units for sustained combat operations in the Reserve Component has been overtaken by events. Shift more military police, civil affairs, psychological operations, linguists, combat engineers, and similar personnel onto active duty and transfer some armor and heavy artillery units into the RC.
  • A temporary increase in staffing of critical, high use units. Rather than creating new “flags,” simply upgrade by adding company-sized units under existing command structures.

Rumsfeld and company are already making–or at least talking about–all of these. Finally.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Toppenish says:

    Perhaps the USFK in Korea should be cut down as well–they’re doing pretty much a thankless task amongst an unappreciative people. I doubt if South Korea would have sent soldiers to Iraq if ours weren’t in Korea but it’s hardly an equal trade.

    As I see it, our main reason for staying in Korea is to prevent an ensuing nuclear arms race in East Asia that could likely follow a pullout. Perhaps this could be still be accomplished with fewer of our troops there.

  2. dj of raleigh says:

    Return the Draft.
    As unpopular as it is, a draftee army will not overthrown us.
    Have no deferments for school, etc.

  3. McGehee says:

    As unpopular as it is, a draftee army will not overthrown us.

    And I suppose we’re in danger of being overthrown by the volunteer army? WTF?

    Bringing back the draft would just play into the hands of the radical anti-American types in this country who “support our troops when they shoot their officers.”

    Nice try, “dj”

  4. Jalal Abu Jarhead says:

    That does seem to be a rather, erm, odd suggestion.