Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaking on Monday
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaking on Monday // Department of Defense

Hagel’s Korean War Lesson from a Hollow Force

After a considerable downsizing of the military following World War II and the nation’s desire to “bring the boys home,” the U.S. military suffered a major defeat in the Battle of Osan, the first battle of the Korean War.  

Sixty years later on the anniversary of the end of the so-called “Forgotten War,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, faced with steep budget cuts and the end of two major ground wars, gave a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention warning Washington not to “repeat the mistakes of the past.”

“With $37 billion in mandated budget cuts that began on March 1 under sequestration, we are witnessing the largest single-year reduction in the defense budget since the drawdown after Korea,” Hagel said on Monday in Louisville, Ky. “Unless the law changes, the Department will have to absorb $52 billion in cuts next year, and a total of $500 billion in cuts over the next decade. This is in addition to the $487 billion in reductions over 10 years that we are already implementing under the Budget Control Act of 2011.” 

There’s a historic precedent to reducing the size and scope of the military after major combat, but along with that comes another historical truth: a hollow force often means major defeat in early battles of the next conflict. In Korea, Task Force Smith was defeated in part because of post-WWII cuts to the military.

This is not lost on Hagel, who fought in Vietnam. While he left the military in 1968, he watched as the Army he fought with in what was then America’s longest war become a shadow of itself in the decades that followed. At the VFW convention, Hagel told his fellow veterans to help raise awareness that budget cuts are hurting military readiness.

“You all have fought and put your lives on the line for this country,” Hagel told them. “You did so with the expectation that you would be given the equipment, training, and support you needed to succeed.  Many of you — especially those veterans of the Korean War — have seen the costs, measured in precious American lives, that come with sending a hollow force into battle.”

“We cannot repeat the mistakes of the past,” he said.

Maintaining readiness has been the department’s biggest challenge under sequestration, which is likely to roll into next fiscal year. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has long warned of a hollow force and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told Congress this week that “we will not be able to find the money we need to achieve the level of sequestration cuts without a dramatic impact in our readiness.”

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