Many see worrisome parallels between the 1970s and the 1990s, with the US military on the verge of another hollow force. What follows is a quantitative portrait of the Air Force, providing a context for assessment. It examines a fifteen-year period—Fiscal Years 197489—that sweeps from the bitter end of the Vietnam War through the Reagan rearmament program to the triumphant denouement of the Cold War.
The year 1974 was the first without a draft and the first since 1965 without armed conflict in Vietnam; 1989 saw the last big Reagan budget and the symbolic finale of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The accompanying charts lay out what the hollow force (and the rearmed “Reagan force”) really looked like. They also display the basic direction of critical trend lines.
Figure 1 puts the Air Force budget in a broader historical context. It shows that expenditures peaked initially in 1967 at $110 billion (in 1994 dollars). With the wind-down of the Vietnam War, Air Force spending dropped in the 1970s and began to grow steadily again in 1980.
Although the largest budget and force structure cuts were made in the beginning and middle of the 1970s, the worst problems—which engendered the term hollow force—did not emerge until the late 1970s, a time of low but stable budgets.
Expressions of concern about the hollow force generally centered around personnel, training, and logistics.
The All-Volunteer Force began in Fiscal 1974 with major pay increases and a commitment to quality. However, as the 1970s progressed, recruitment and retention of a high-quality force became difficult. Civilian unemployment decreased, and military pay failed to match inflation and private-sector pay. Figure 2 shows cumulative losses in military pay due to inflation (“CPI gap”) and differences between military and private-sector pay (“Ed gap”). Major military pay increases in 1981-82 restored military-civilian comparability, and pay increases generally matched inflation in the 1980s.
The late 1970s saw big drops in reenlistment rates. A significant factor, particularly among second-term personnel, was an erosion of benefits. In addition to pay caps, there were also real and threatened cuts in basic benefit areas.
Concern about this led many to lose faith and leave the service. Figure 3 compares reenlistment rates to the civil unemployment rate for men aged twenty-five to thirty-four. As unemployment rose, reenlistments rose. As the job market improved, reenlistments fell. However, reenlistments in the 1980s were not as sensitive to the job market.
Losing trained and experienced personnel was bad enough, but the late 1970s also saw a drop in the quality of new recruits. Figure 3 shows a general decline in the number of recruits with high school diplomas. Quality also declined in terms of Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) scores. The AFQT classifies recruits on a scale of trainability—Category I being the highest, Category IV the lowest. Figure 4 shows the percentage distribution over the period. The numbers of Category IV trainees peaked at nine percent in 1979 and 1980.
Almost certainly because of recruiting woes, disciplinary problems rose during the hollow force period and in its immediate aftermath. Figure 5 shows overall USAF rates for administrative punishments and courts-martial. After decreasing until 1977, both rates rose rapidly, peaking in the early 1980s.
Flying Training Issues
Insufficient flying hours have been cited as another characteristic of the hollow force. The flying hour program is the Air Force’s most prominent training indicator. Flying hours are no guarantee of readiness in and of themselves, but they are the quantitative prerequisite for high-quality training. The flying hour program allows aircrews to maintain basic proficiency and hone specific combat skills. It not only helps to train aircrews but also provides a de facto readiness program for maintenance and logistics personnel who prepare aircraft for flight.
The overall flying hour program for Fiscal 1974-89 is shown in Figure 6. The totals include not only training flights but also operational flying, such as airlift channel missions. The flying hour program stabilized in Fiscal 1976 after a steep drawdown and decreased further to a low of 3.1 million hours in Fiscal 1978. The program grew modestly over the 1980s to a peak of 3.5 million hours in Fiscal 1985.
Figure 7 provides more data. The average number of flying hours per crew per month (HCM) for airlift and bomber/tanker crews are shown to be stable throughout 1980-89. From the beginning of the Reagan buildup to 1989, aircrews in the tactical air forces (TAF) show a marked gain of twenty-five percent. Rates for Military Airlift Command, Strategic Air Command, and the TAF are shown for 198089. Though data are unavailable for years prior to 1980, anecdotal evidence is that the HCM rates were lower. This claim is bolstered by tracking the annual flying hours per TAF aircraft in the 1970s, displayed in Figure 8. Flying hours per aircraft increase at a rate similar to that of HCM in the 1980s.
Detailed flying hour data for the TAF are depicted in Figure 9.
Another important measure of readiness is the aircraft accident rate. The accident rate for fighter and attack aircraft from 1974 to 1989 is shown in Figure 10. The rate rose sharply in 1978 and 1979, then declined throughout the 1980s.
Stories of aircraft grounded for lack of spare parts are a standard feature in descriptions of the hollow force. Aircraft are judged Not Mission Capable (NMC) on the basis of maintenance (NMCM) or lack of supplies (NMCS). A third category, Not Mission Capable—Both, includes aircraft grounded for maintenance and parts. This category was first tracked in Fiscal 1978.
Data for the period are shown in Figure 11. In the late 1970s, overall mission capable rates decreased, went nearly flat, then slowly improved during the 1980s. Although both areas improved, most improvement came in the area of maintenance. High NMCM rates can come from many sources: lack of test equipment, need to cannibalize aircraft for spare parts, lack of maintenance manpower for repair tasks, or inadequate training and experience.
General personnel problems addressed earlier, such as a lack of good-quality recruits, low reenlistment rates, and disciplinary problems, affect the quality of aircraft maintenance and should be seen as a backdrop to high NMCM rates. Lack of experience can also make a difference. Data from the late 1970s and early 1980s show a drop in the experience of enlisted maintenance Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSCs).
Figure 12 measures experience and competence. The top curve shows percent of enlisted maintenance AFSCs with four or fewer years in service. The bottom curve traces the proportion of the maintenance work force with ratings of unskilled or semiskilled. Taken together, these curves show an overall improvement in the level of maintenance skills from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. It seems that there is a two- to four-year lag between improvements in experience levels and improvements in mission capable rates.
In the 1970s, the Air Force introduced a new generation of fighter aircraft—F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s. Introduction of new aircraft partly diminishes the value of experience and requires the force to buy spare parts against a forecasted requirement, rather than a historical requirement. Poor forecasting can lead to inadequate funding and cause gaps in provisioning.
Figure 13 shows overall funding for initial spares and replenishment spares. It also shows funding for depot repairs. Funding for these three key logistics categories hit a low point in Fiscal 1974 after peaking in Fiscal 1967 at approximately $6 billion (measured in Fiscal 1994 dollars). Spare parts funding grew again, declined after Fiscal 1977, and then grew dramatically to a peak in Fiscal 1985, the height of the Reagan buildup.
The F-15 and its new F100 engine were frequently cited as textbook examples of a hollow force. The F100 was a significant technological leap over older engines. However, its problems included compressor stalls and cracked turbine blades. In 1978 and 1979, the production of turbine blades was a major issue. In addition, the F-15 was experiencing a cannibalization rate eight times greater than the average.
Increased spending on critical spare parts (shown in Figure 14) seemed to help fuel a rise in F-15 mission capable rates, as shown in Figure 15 for Fiscal 1977 through Fiscal 1989. (Data are not available for earlier years.) Data for the F-4 and F- 16 are included to permit comparisons. A two- to three-year lead time is generally assumed between the time parts are funded and the time they reach the warehouse.
Readiness can not be created overnight. Nor does it decline overnight. Readiness seems to decay gradually and ambiguously in a way sometimes difficult to manage in light of other priorities. The pressure to reduce costs creates a temptation to cut budgets for recruiting, or for aircrew training, or for the procurement of spares. It is difficult to show the precise damage caused by each decision. However, the history of this period is a testament to the fact that many small, often unmeasurable decisions can eventually lead to a “hollow force.”
Lt. Col. Daniel L. Cuda is an analyst in the Directorate of Programs and Evaluation at Air Force headquarters in Washington, D. C. The author wishes to acknowledge the significant contributions of Lt. Col. Philip A. Richard and Maj. Bruce W. Colletti to this article. This article was excerpted from a larger paper.