Other Services Should Follow Navy’s Lead on Warning of Hollow Force

Long before the threat of sequestration and additional spending cuts are realized, the Navy started to feel the squeeze of budget cuts.

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USNS Rappahannock
USNS Rappahannock

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.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

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.

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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.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Are Cuts to the Defense Budget Necessary?]

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.