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Who let the chiefs out?

The Joint Chiefs have spoken, and have told the Congress that "we are on the brink of creating a hollow force." Them's fightin' words. The mantra of "hollow force" goes back 40 years to the "bad old days" of the 1970s, when we transitioned from a conscript to a professional military. Turbulence there was, in those days. But the allegation, shall I say, rings "hollow" today. It smacks more of budget politics than truth.

It seems to be part of an orchestrated campaign, following the January 1 agreement, to stop sequester or at least draw a line in the sand for a Congress which seems increasingly benign about the consequences of the across-the-board cuts that might happen March 1, if there is no spending agreement.

But it is not truth. We are nowhere near a "hollow force" today. Au contraire, after more than 10 years of war, we have just about the most ready, sharpest point of the military spear we have seen since the military went professional in the 1970s. Returning forces will tell you; they are not tired, wrung out, depleted. They are ready, well-tuned, and probably better prepared for the conditions of the new warfare of this century than ever before.

And they are numerous, too. We've been out of Iraq for a year now and Afghanistan is coming down fast, even faster than expected. We increased the ground force by about 100,000 to deal with rotation in those countries; we are coming back down from that rotational buildup, but will retain sizable forces.

So the chiefs have offered absolutely no evidence that a readiness crisis is at hand, because it is not at hand. What they are really saying is "don't cut, please don't cut our budget." Budgetary politics as normal.

And there is a kind of budgetary sleight of hand going on here. They were careful in their letter to say that there might be a cut of more than 20 percent in operating budgets as a result of a sequester and extending the current continuing resolution through the whole year. But check the elusive, always important issue of the baseline from which they are measuring: that 20 percent is from the operating budget request the president sent up last February for this fiscal year.

But the president's budget requests sought an increase of nearly 10 percent over the previous year's funding level. So part of that 20 percent, nearly half, is just not getting what you asked for, but dealing with level funding. The services don't like that; no wonder they protest.

Methinks they doth protest too much. Add to that legerdemain the reality that we are about to reduce forces in Afghanistan at an accelerated pace. Overseas Contingency Operations, which funds Afghanistan, is two-thirds operating funds. And these funds are entirely fungible with the rest of the services' operating funds. In the last couple of years, Congress has found billions of unspent Afghan operations dollars to use for other purposes, due to underspending there. I have no doubt they will find the same this year. This will provide more flexibility for the operations cuts the chiefs are screaming about.

This is a management problem, not a readiness crisis. The last decade has given us the most over-ready military we have ever had. What the services are actually doing -- what Deputy Secretary Carter asked for last week -- is nothing more than due diligence and the first step toward sensible planning for a drawdown. This is hyperbole and budget politics, but it is not reality.

Service Chiefs Letter to Senate Armed Services Committee

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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