Other services should follow Navy’s lead on warning of hollow force

US Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Walter

The Military Sealift Command fast combat support ship USNS Supply sails next to the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush during a replenishment in the Atlantic Ocean. Jan. 8, 2013.

Article Highlights

  • America’s Navy is struggling to meet growing demand while resources continue to decline.

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  • Military families are feeling the strain as the number of deployments alongside tour lengths for sailors & Marines grow.

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  • It’s time to spotlight the readiness shortfalls across the services, not just the politically safe problems of the future.

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America's Navy is struggling to meet growing demand while resources continue to decline. Ships and sailors are operating at reduced readiness levels across the fleet as band-aid fixes of the past cannot hold up any longer. And military families are feeling the strain as the number of deployments alongside tour lengths for sailors and Marines grow and lengthen. In the past, sea deployments averaged six or seven months. Now they are typically eight or nine months.

Admitting you have a problem is only the first step, however.

Navy officials should be applauded for being honest about the state of the force. The leaders of their sister services should similarly speak up so policymakers are fully informed as the impact of budget cuts they already approved trickles down into the force. This is important because, thus far, politicians have largely been warned about problems that could happen if they execute sequestration. What they hear much less of is how dire things are right now.

The Navy's troubles follow a recent 28-star letter from all seven of America's Joint Chiefs to Congress warning of readiness challenges. The difference is that the chiefs are claiming the U.S. military is "on the brink of creating a hollow force" whereas, according to Navy officials, a large part of the force is already hollow or getting there.

Frontline operators are surely some of the first to see signs of a hollow force. The chiefs are often the last to know. So it is telling when the commander of all naval surface forces said last week when asked about the prospect of a hollow force:

When a combatant commander says a ship's supposed to leave on deployment and it doesn't leave on time for whatever reason, then we know we've probably gotten there. And there's ships right now that aren't doing it.

Not only are ships not departing port on time to meet commander and national requirements, but maintenance is suffering and training is deteriorating. These problems are only set to grow in the coming months as Washington makes decisions about the remainder of this year's federal government budget.

It is time to spotlight these shortfalls across the services and hear more detail from the Army and Air Force about current readiness setbacks, not just the politically safe problems of the future. Otherwise, the chiefs may have no one to blame but themselves if they are not more candid about how the past three years of declining resources have caused major disruption long before the threat of sequestration and additional spending cuts were realized. 

Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.


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About the Author


  • Mackenzie Eaglen has worked on defense issues in the U.S. Congress, both House and Senate, and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and on the Joint Staff. She specializes in defense strategy, budget, military readiness and the defense industrial base. In 2010, Ms. Eaglen served as a staff member of the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission established to assess the Pentagon's major defense strategy. A prolific writer on defense related issues, she has also testified before Congress.


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