The Hollowing of the US Military

March 23, 2015

us army

“This is the most uncertain time I’ve seen in our national security since I’ve been in uniform…… (yet) in the summer of 2013, only 10% of the (understrength) Army was ready to deploy. ” Chief of Staff of the Army General Raymond Odierno

Over the past four decades, the military has experienced the challenges of drawdowns and war, but now stands “Hollow”.  Though the drawdowns of the post-Vietnam period were difficult, the post-Iraq and Afghanistan drawdown is dangerous and something we must fix. As someone born in the 1960s to a Vietnam veteran and career Army officer, who grew up on military bases, and then served as an Army officer for the past quarter century (Active duty and reserves), I would like to offer some perspective. Though I speak to the US Army, the other branches of the military have followed parallel experiences.

The post-Vietnam drawdown period was a traumatic period for the US Army and military. The size of the Army went from over 1.5 million in 1968, to just over 750 thousand by 1974. This was after eight years of war, in which the junior leadership of the Army was decimated. To add to the challenge, the Army went from the draftee force of the 1950s and 1960s to the all-volunteer force at the end of Vietnam in 1973. Unfortunately, pay and benefits commensurate with ensuring a quality force of volunteers was not forthcoming in the 1970s. Public respect for the military coming out of Vietnam was reprehensible and added to the resulting morale problems in the force. Drug use, discipline problems, and lowered standards became commonplace in the 1970s Army. By 1980, Chief of Staff of the Army, General “Shy” Meyers, called the Army “Hollow” when testifying about the paltry 1981 defense budget being proposed by Jimmy Carter. The results were tragic: The Iranian hostage crisis and failed “Desert one” mission to free the US hostages in Iran. The USSR invasion of Afghanistan. Cheating and ethics scandals among military leaders. The list is sad and long.

Fortunately, the Hollow Army was rebuilt after the election of Ronald Reagan and his decision to win the Cold War. Reagan brought optimism, leadership, and a focus on national defense to his budget proposals. He was intent on crafting a military which would eventually win the Cold War. Importantly, Reagan demanded higher pay and increased standards necessary to recruit and retain high-quality volunteers. The National Training Center, the Joint Readiness Training Center, Top Gun, the “Airland Battle Doctrine”, the new systems of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, M1 Tank, Apache Helicopter, were but a few of the means to achieve the end. The public respect for the military rebounded, and those in the military felt the support of the nation they loved and served.

After the Cold War and the overwhelming victory of Desert Storm by “Reagan’s military”, the military went through another substantial drawdown. This was not as drastic as post-Vietnam, but involved cuts of around 300K Army troops down to 10 active duty divisions (from 16 divisions) and around half a million Army troops). Despite some relatively minor problems of a “zero defects” mentality resulting from the 1990s drawdown, emphasis on warfighting continued as in the 1980s. At the time of the 9-11 terror attacks, around 75% of the Army was trained, equipped and ready to deploy.

Following September 11, 2001, the US moved to wartime footing. Unfortunately, the wartime footing did not include the decision to make any significant troop increases. We started the war at around half a million troops, but only increased to around 570,000 with the same 10 divisions.  As the war dragged on, and went from Afghanistan to include the invasion of Iraq and occupation, the same troops were making all the sacrifices. A major sacrifice was the same people making multiple, long duration (12-15 months). A refrain I can remember while deployed: “Military is at war, and America is at the mall”.  More importantly, this overuse of a small number of troops (conducting small scale counter-insurgency) caused a degrading of conventional warfighting skills. Additionally, soldiers and equipment were being worn out, with modernization lagging the defense budget was focused on the wars.

The withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, brought a new round of downsizing. Not only did the Obama administration decide to reduce the number of Army troops from 570 thousand to around 490 thousand (with similar downsizing among the other branches), but also brought huge cultural challenges to the force. First, the administration dropped the long standing policy barring open homosexuality in the military. Within months came the administration’s mandate to gender integrate the combat arms and even special operations.

Unfortunately, the downsizing and “cultural” decisions were made with faulty assumptions about the national security environment. Specifically, the assumption we would be done with wars, and the military would “pivot” the focus to the Pacific. As we now know, the “enemy” had a vote with Crimea, Ukraine, North Korea, and now with the Islamic State seizing much of Syria and Iraq. As General Odierno would state in January 2015, we now have the “most uncertain time I’ve seen in our national security”. To top it all off, the sequester went into effect in 2013 and the Army has been slashed below 490 thousand moving to around 470 thousand and could go as low as 420 thousand.

With the international challenges and uncertain security environment, the military is now dangerously “Hollow”. In addition to ground troops being at pre-World War II levels, according to General Odierno we are only at 50% of our prior modernization budget. Under a third of ground combat units are now trained and ready to deploy to combat.

With the parallel challenges of the new “cultural” mandates with the snowballing cuts, the military is at a substantial risk of losing the “Warrior Ethos”.  The “Warrior Ethos” as a morale issue is hard to objectively quantify, but as many famous generals like Napoleon and Patton have expressed, it is the most important quality to an Army. A quality which is the foundation of our national defense and one which cannot be quickly resurrected.

Our nation’s military is nearing life-support for performing the missions it may be called to in these uncertain times. Those defending us deserve our support, and we as a nation cannot afford a “Hollow” force.  It is time to be strong again!

God Bless America, Bill Connor


Lieutenant Colonel (Promotable) Bill Connor of Orangeburg SC is a decorated 24 year Army and combat veteran. He is an expert in counterinsurgency combat. Connor spent 12 years (1990 – 2002) of full time service as an Airborne Ranger, holding various commands such as Ranger Company Commander and General’s Aide. Connor recently made the Colonel’s List and will soon take the official rank as full bird Colonel.  Since leaving full time service, Connor has continued to serve in the National Guard (2003 – 2008) and has served in the Army Reserve 2008 – present.

Connor volunteered for combat duty in Afghanistan where he served as Senior US Advisor in Helmand Province and American military liaison to British forces in Afghanistan. For his service during deployment, Connor was awarded the Bronze Star. He currently is Director of the Army’s Command and General Staff College (ILE) in S.C., and is a member of the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team.

Connor, along with partner W. Thomas Smith Jr. founded National Defense Consultants LLC, a partnership providing clients with military analysis ranging from geostrategy to special operations; counterterrorism; ground, Naval, and air combat; military leadership and military law. Connor is also the author of the book “Articles from War”

Connor is a graduate of The Citadel and the University of South Carolina (USC) School of Law where he earned a Juris Doctorate degree. He is an attorney and Law Partner for “Horger and Connor, LLC where he has earned an “AV Preeminent” rating, the highest peer evaluation rating of ethics and ability for an attorney practicing law in the United States.

Connor is a former candidate for the US Senate, (2014) as well as having run for S.C. Lieutenant Governor (making the runoff election in the Republican primary 2010.) Connor also served as National Security Advisor for presidential candidate and GOP nominee runner-up Rick Santorum.

Connor recently served as GOP Chairman for South Carolina’s sixth district. Currently he serves as the Chairman of the Board of Orangeburg Christian Academy, and on the State Board of “Youth Challenge”.

Connor has been a contributing author for The South Carolina Conservative Dot Com since 2012.






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