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A Recipe for a Hollow Force

[Editor’s Note: CDR Slack graduated from the Naval Academy in 1978 and following nuclear and submarine training reported to ETHAN ALLEN. He subsequently served as Radiological Control Officer on HUNLEY and as Engineer Officer of NR·l. After a tour in 0P..(J2 in the Pentagon he served as Executive Officer of RICHARD B. RUSSElL. He is ordered as Commanding Officer USS OHIO (SSBN 726)(Blue).]

The Challenge

How does a major multi·billion dollar corporation redefine its operating strategy, expand its product line, fulfill growing customer expectations and downsize from a projected annual budget of $109 billion to a revised annual budget of $69 billion without impacting its productivity?

The question posed is not a graduate level business school case study, it is real life. The corporation is the U.S. Navy. The dollar figures are not hypothetical, they are harsh reality and optimistic at best. The future readiness of the Navy and threat of returning to a hollow force, both hinge on how this difficult question is answered .

Assuming the organization is nominally efficient, there is insufficient room to horizontally cut $40 billion through belt tightening and reorganization initiatives alone. The fat is gone, weeded out during programming and budgeting reductions over the last three years. Today’s budget cuts are cutting muscle, yet mission requirements, while adapting to the new strategy articula· ted in , . From the Sea remain basically unchanged. In fact, relative to the shrinking force structure, the requirements are growing.

A key question that must parallel any downsizing initiatives is what requirements can we (must we) do without? The pace of Navy downsizing forces focus on the bottom line with insufficient attention focused on what requirements are most important to fulfill the Navy mission and what requirements the Navy, Joint Staff and National Command Authorities are willing to give up to achieve the downsizing objectives. To meet the programming guidance provided by OSD some previous mission taskings (requirements) must be eliminated and any emerging requirements must be matched with zero sum offsets .

.,.From the Sea committed the Navy to a new strategy. In the rush to downsize, there seems to be an impUclt assumption that the new strategy and associated threat is less demanding, less imposing and hence less expensive to counter than bipolar confrontation once posed by the Soviet Union. Before downsizing blazes forward, this assumption needs to be carefully evaluated and either explicitly accepted or rejected. The resources required by the Navy are fiscal, personnel, force structure, infrastructure and overhead, are based on requirements. Hence, any approach to answer the postulated question on how to downsize, must first and foremost define the requirements driving Navy operations. Next the resources needed to satisfy the defined requirements must be compared to resources available. If the result is a deficit, then the lowest priority requirements need to be eliminated until resource-vs-requirement parity is achieved.

Assessment of the Critical Assumption

The bipolar threat of the Cold War era provided a focused threat and enabled concentration of forces against a single enemy with reasonably well defined capabilities. The regional threats now providing the centerpiece of naval strategy are less defined, less conventional and more dispersed. One could argue that the task is now harder, not easier. Flexibility and dispersal call for a depth in forces, not consolidation.

Littoral warfare also presents new challenges not found in blue water conflicts. Shore based air power, non-nuclear powered submarines, mines, high speed missile-firing patrol boats and shore-fired missile batteries, to name a few, are present in this new environment. Additionally, the near-shore acoustic and electromagnetic environment is more complex, cluttered and harder to model and predict.

All-out war between superpowers is no longer likely and has been replaced with potential for multiple hot spots requiring capable, mobile forces able to respond on short notice. Large standing forces that take months to deploy are not likely to fit into future contingencies. Accordingly, the flavor of future forces will emphasize mobility and agility. The entire defense force structure needs to be reviewed in light of this change, and dollars should be spent on national defense priorities unconstrained by service boundaries.

Finally, the naval strategy calls for independent, flexible, mobile forces able to respond rapidly from international waters. All services except the Navy require access to foreign sail in order to operate forward. Only the Navy-Marine Corps team offers a non-intrusive self sustaining presence and combat capability.

It would appear, therefore, that requirements to accommodate the new threat have at least maintained status quo, if not grown, when compared to requirements for Cold War containment. It is difficult to imagine how shrinking forces will be able to combat a growing list of requirements. Downsizing cuts the flexibility and depth of the organization, opposing the precepts of our new strategy. The critical assumption is flawed, and hence the rush to match dollars without recognizing the growth in requirements is setting the Navy dangerously onto the shoals of a hollow force.

Admiral Kelso summed it up well before Congress when he testified, “Accomplishing all these changes [personnel and force structure reductions] while continuing to fulfill what seems to be an ever expanding demand for naval forces bas not been easy … ” 1 If we are to continue downsizing, as we must, a balance between downsizing forces and downsizing requirements must be retained.

Will the Evolving Process Mature in Time

The OPNAV reorganization and increased fleet involvement are steps in the right direction, yet parochialism, stovepipes, and rice bowls persist. Concomitant with the OPNAV reorganization came a change in the planning, programming and budgeting process. Seven Joint Mission Area (JMA) and two Support Area (SA) Assessments are supposed to be requirements-based assessments to define and prioritize what the Navy needs to carry out its assigned missions in the respective warfare/support mission areas. An Investment Balance Review integrates the results of the individual JMA/SA assessments and focuses the process of integrating resources with requirements while a Resources and Requirements Review Board is meant to be the top level decision forum to ensure a proper, executable balance has been achieved.

The Chief of Naval Operations Executive Steering Committee provides final mediation and four star oversight of the outcome. Other recent initiatives, the DOD Bottom Up Review and a retook at the roles and missions of the four services, demonstrate an understanding for the need to set requirement priorities, and then to fund the top of the list and accommodate downsizing to meet fiscal guidance from the bottom of the list.

The learning curve is still fairly steep and any new system will experience growing pains. Extreme fiscal pressures, however, are subverting the purity of the process and driving decisions in advance of requirement prioritization. Resource downsizing is already outpacing requirements downsizing. Requirements must shrink in a downsizing Navy and offsets must be identified when new requirements ore added. Extreme discipline will be required or the end product may be affordable, but may not be the optimum balance to accomplish the priority objectives and taskings of the organization.

Before deciding on what to cut, a fundamental decision of how much is enough needs to be made. The JMA/SA assessments should be providing this input. Secretary Aspin recognized there was more to do than resources available and articulated this well before a Senate subcommittee, “In the last analysis it’s essentially a political judgement about what level of comfort …you [Congress] feel about the various capabilities that we should build into the defense budget. “1 Similarly, Admiral Kelso recognized the need for careful downsizing when he stated, “If our future plans are overly optimistic regarding how fast and to what extent we can draw down the Navy, the people who will pay the price are our sailors, the most important element of a ready Navy. “3

Avoiding: the Hollow Force Must Become More Than Rhetoric Senior  leadership  has  articulated  a  strong  commitment  to avoiding a return to the hollow force.  It appears, however, that the whirlwind pace of change and downsizing may be clouding the big picture, illustrated by subtle inconsistencies evolving between theory and practice.

The threat of a hollow force has become the theme de jour, however rhetoric must be replaced by action. To define the indicators of the hollow force, and outline the causes and lessons learned in the seventies is not enough; actions speak louder than words. Overuse and misuse of hollow force jargon will dilute its meaning and effectiveness.

The CNO stated, “Eliminating training and education would be a false economy that would result in less capable units and decreased readiness. “4 Contrary to this vision, the training and education establishment has been directed to slash between $2.8 and $6.4 billion dollars across the Future Year Defense Plan (FYDP). This is a glaring example of downsizing to fiscal targets as opposed to requirements-based downsizing, and erodes a key mission area that contributes directly to readiness.

It is appropriate to focus on a concise cautionary list taken from CNO testimony before congress.

“We characterize the difficulties coming out of the 1970s as hollow force, defining that term as:

Insufficient quality manning
Inadequate individual training
Inadequate training resources (ammunition and fleet services)
Limited steaming and flying hours Shortage of on board replenishment spares, and
Deferred maintenance. “‘

Perhaps a copy of these symptoms should be posted conspicuously for all who form budget policy to consider.

Secretary Aspin has emphasized, “We do not- underline “not” five times – do not want to have a repeat of the hollow force situation when we downgraded, when we downsized the military after Vietnam; we do not want to have a hollow force.6 We need to ensure this strong statement is backed up with actions and forceful decisions based on indicators and lessons that have been learned before.

Requirements Reduction Lags Force Structure. Personnel and Budget Reduction

Many current downsizing decisions are based almost exclusive-ly on fiscal considerations. The people, dollars and force structure are shrinking, but the requirements have yet to be eliminated. This approach calls on Navy people to do more with less, or more succinctly stated, work harder and longer. This reduces quality of life, reverses years of effort and commitment to look out for the well-being of our sailors, and in the past has led to the exodus of skilled officers and sailors needed to operate the fleet. Also this approach challenges the precept of Total Quality Leadership, which stresses working smarter not harder or longer.

Admiral Kelso testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Dramatic reductions in force structure have been accompanied by heavy demands for naval forces from the Unified Commanders. “7 When requirements grow or force structure declines, OPTEMPO is driven higher, hedging on a commitment to quality of life for Navy people.

In just four years, from 1990 to 1994, our battle force has shrunk by 25 percent, a reduction of 133 ships. Concurrently, naval forces continue to respond routinely and on short notice around the globe. Operation Southern Watch, Restore Hope and Provide Comfort all occurred within the past year in addition to presence requirements in WESTPAC, CENTCOM and EUCOM, and counter narcotics taskings in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Eastern Pacific.

A lesson learned from the 1970s is the need to fund adequately for maintenance availabilities and spare parts critical to material readiness. Yet today, maintenance availabilities and spare parts are being deferred to balance the near term bottom line. Maintenance backlogs have grown to over 150 airframes, 250 aircraft engines, 30 unfunded ship availabilities and 3 deferred overhauls .

Maintenance of real property (MRP) is also under funded, even by commercial industry standards. In the shore based infrastruc-ture, critical repair’ backlog exceeds $2 billion and the backlog is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year, the result of continued underfunding at only 25-30 percent of requirements. Total MRP backlog is nearly twice the critical backlog. Without these needed repairs, the capital plant is decaying, ultimately driving up long term costs to replace facilities that have degenerated beyond economical repair. The Air Force appears to have a firmer grasp on this concept based on the immaculate appearance of their infrastructure. It is time to fully fund maintenance of Navy shore infrastructure and downsize the inventory of property, plant and equipment to one that is affordable to properly maintain.

In short, current day requirements are being funded beyond fiscal means, damaging a delicate balance between near term operating funds and reinvestment in capital plant and equipment accounts. Unless there are prospects for a windfall in the out years, bow waving maintenance to the future is negligent disregard for the lessons of a hollow force .

Manpower is well on the downslope to 400,000, and deployed ships are already reporting critical manning shortfalls. Mission requirements for these ships have not subsided. Shipboard Billet Allowances have been horizontally reduced to 90 percent ofM+ 1, wartime mobilization manning, yet required operational capabili-ties/ projected operating environments (ROC/POEs) have not changed. Headquarters staffs are being similarly reduced an arbitrary 5 percent per year at the same time those staffs are being tasked to play a greater role in requirements validation, program-ming, budgeting, and numerous data calls for base realignments and consolidation.

Over the past three years, Navy military end strength has been reduced 90,000 people. Requirements, expressed as valid billets, exceed end strength by over 28,000, posing a dilemma for detailers who must decide which billets to man. This is a case of the cart before the horse and results in large part from horizontal skimming as opposed to conscientious decision making to termi-nate a billet based on elimination of a requirement or vertical cut of a function. Organizational effectiveness simply cannot be retained if resources are cut before deciding and prioritizing which requirements to do without.

Alternative Approaches to Downsizing

A number of options exist to tackle the process of downsizing. A partial list would include:

  • Horizontal skimming across functions until weak elements fail and fall off (survival of the fittest)
  • Fair share downsizing, reduce all functions of the Navy a proportional amount
  • Arbitrary vertical cuts to meet prescribed fiscal guidance-a form of requirement-based downsizing by mission priority. All requirements can be expressed in terms of stand alone, fully priced modules which can be listed in order of national task priorities.

All but the last alternative should be discarded as irresponsible approaches to one of the largest management challenges Navy leadership has faced in the last few decades. Horizontal skimming hollow forces with a deleterious impact on quality of life and ending in slow death.

Proportional downsizing may sustain balance, but it will not sustain the ability to accomplish an undiminished list of requirements. If it were truly possible to execute a proportional reduction, this approach may avoid the hollow force and prevent imbalance from hedging one part of the force at the expense of another (such as deferring or delaying maintenance to pay for operations or force structure). It does not retain the same capability as the old force.

Vertical cuts help preclude hollow forces, but they do not ensure an organization remains mission capable unless the right programs are retained in the proper mix. Fiscal guidance can be achieved by any number of vertical cut combinations, indicating that vertical cuts, while preferable to horizontal skimming, are not of themselves the end-all solution to responsible downsizing.

A prioritized requirements driven approach that defines mission requirements in terms of all the resources needed to accompJish that mission is proposed as an effective approach to the downsiz-ing dilemma. The module would include personnel, force structure, overhead, infrastructure, research and development, operations and maintenance, training and education, and capital plant repair and replacement associated with a given mission requirement. The current OPNA V process closely approximates this approach.

If done correctly, the self-sufficient requirement modules, covering all current requirements would be ranked in priority order. When fiscal guidance is received, those lowest ranking modules which exceed resources available would be deleted and national policy makers would be made aware that those requirements are no longer executable and have been stricken from available taskings.

In addition to being clearly linked to requirements, the defined modules would preclude a hollow force by fully funding missions committed for accomplishment and eliminating the modules that are unaffordable.

Obstacles to Success

It is imperative that Navy planners, programmers and top leadership develop a process which deals with downsizing in a rigorous, requirements based manner. Despite best intentions, even a fool proof system faces numerous obstacles from both within the organization and without. Rice bowls, fenced pro-grams, special interests and stovepipes have long eluded consideration in discussions on downsizing, and parochialism has been an obstacle to decision making for the greater good of the organization. Too often, programs which once fulfilled a noble purpose outlive their usefulness. Stovepipes need to take on new visibility and be placed under the control of the supported Regional Line Commander. Empowering the customer will enhance prioritizing requirements and should help overcome some of the obstacles posed by special interests.

There is a propensity for instant results in the downsizing environment. Too often, preliminary study results which show potential savings are instantly adopted as real wedges in the FYDP. This has two negative effects; first, study results and implementation results are two different things, but cuts, once levied. are hard to recoup and hence a priority program may end up underfunded from this premature cost saving accounting. Second. lower echelon organizations become reluctant to discuss potential plans openly for fear items on the table for discussion and debate will become fait accompli savings in advance of any formal decision making. More discipline is needed before those in green eye shades capture potential savings to accommodate fiscal shortfalls.

Explosive growth in regulations at both the federal and state level, as well as accelerating litigation. also challenge the mission of the organization. A most vivid example is the rapid growth in environmental compliance projects that have become essential to continued operation of Navy ships and bases, both in CONUS and overseas. In addition to the direct cost represented by these requirements, there is an indirect cost from compliance forced on industry and suppliers which is passed along to the Navy as a customer.

The military has long been a proving ground for social change, and during the Cold War build up. the shortage of qualified personnel required establishing many social services to attract and retain personnel with special limitations. Substance abusers. single parents. perpetrators of family violence and others with non deployable limitations need to continue to have the opportunity to serve. but must not be allowed to linger without evolving to full up rounds. World wide assignability is the standard for naval personnel. The return on investment of social rehab/support programs needs to be evaluated to determine whether these special interest programs still qualify for priority protection in a fiscally stringent environment.

Finally the politics of pork grinds on. Military leadership may put forth elaborate plans, based on defense guidance and prioritiz-ed requirements, but they may lack a politically correct district balance. Reserve end strength. base closure, overseas mainte-nance and selected acquisition programs are ripe targets for congressional meddling. A prime example can be found in the heretofore weak support for operations and maintenance accounts, although fortunately, the tide is turning. This account is not clearly linked to district spending and hence often lacked Congressional championship to avoid being whittled away as a convenient source of amorphous pork offsets. Shore base downsizing. which has lagged downsizing in other accounts, is subject to extreme political pressure, and required establishing a non partisan commission to overcome the power of politics. In some instances, the objectives of downsizing, and defining an optimally balanced efficient organization, is at odds with the objectives of politicians which include providing jobs in their districts. This external micromanagement of how limited resourc-es are applied in fulfilling the organization mission impacts the process of downsizing.


We cannot maintain the same productivity with significantly fewer resources. To sustain a strategic advantage, we must focus on core competencies we can afford to do well and fund them fully. Lesser priority taskings must be divested .

It is not enough that we meet our bogey and match program spending to dollars available. We must also articulate what we can no longer afford and stop doing it, or the expectation will remain that we can carry out all our previous missions, plus new requirements for environmental compliance, contingency response, humanitarian assistance and forward presence despite less resources.

More than bold statements and dogmatic reference to the hollow force is required to prevent its return. We all bear some responsibility for the future of our Navy. This requires a modification to our age old can do spirit, and will require para-digms to be broken. “That’s the way we’ve always done it” is inadequate justification for charting our future. The time has come for brutal honesty, stating conditions as they are. No commander wants to say he cannot complete an assigned mission, but there are limits especially if we are to honor commitments to quality of life for our people. Driving people to longer hours to do more with Jess is an irresponsible solution.

Unless we get a firm grasp on a process to downsize requirements and national defense commitments at the same time we downsize resources we may return to a hollow force . It is time that good watch standers recognize the symptoms of a hollow force has a cancer-like effect, resulting in casualty and sound the General Alarm to notify and muster all hands to combat the looming casualty. Parochialism, rice bowls, fenced programs, and stovepipes have no place in the damage control tool bag. Clear deliberate actions must be taken now to match requirements with resources. The survival of our Navy and the well being of our nation depend on the outcome of this challenging, real-world case study.

Downsizing emphasis must focus on prioritized warfighting requirements subsequently transcribed to resource requirements. If this approach is not chosen, the force will hollow, people will be frustrated with working conditions and by trying to do too much with too little, there will be mediocrity across the board. It would be much better to retain a ready force fully funded to accomplish a smaller but clearly defined mission.

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