The Heritage Foundation has released its 2017 Index of US Military Strength, an objective survey of US military infrastructure, its ability to operate in different regions of the world and an assessment of threats currently faced by the US. This year Heritage found that threats to the US were high while the ability of the US to meet them was “marginal” to “weak.”
Heritage notes that the military is assessed on the basis of being able to accomplish three core missions: Defense of the homeland, successful conclusion of a major regional war and protection of freedom of movement through areas in sea, air, space and cyberspace in which the world conducts business. Since WWII, US leaders have consistently worked to maintain a military size that could fight two major regional contingencies (MRCs) at the same time.
The different branches of the US military were rated on capability, capacity and readiness. The Navy, Air Force, Marines and nuclear forces were rated as “marginal” by Heritage while the Army was rated as “weak.” Heritage notes that the Navy is deferring maintenance and facing delays in modernization. The Air Force has a fleet of 1,159 tactical fighters, but lacks the ability to fly all of them due to shortages of pilots and experienced maintenance personnel. Current operations and shortage of funds for the Marine Corps mean that the USMC has only two-thirds of the units that it needs. US nuclear forces depend on older weapons systems while competitor countries are upgrading and expanding.
The Army’s weak rating is the result of trading strength and modernization for the current readiness. Even so, Heritage says that only one-third of army units are at acceptable readiness levels. Budget cuts have forced the Army to increase its reliance on contract maintenance. Brigade combat teams and combat aviation brigades have been reduced by about a third due to budget shortfalls. Heritage says, “The Army is smaller, older, and weaker, a condition that is unlikely to change in the near future.”
In the index, Heritage also rates the threats that the US military is likely to face. There are six threats that Heritage considers “high” risks. Russia and China are both expanding their militaries and acting aggressively. North Korea reportedly has a missile that can deliver a nuclear warhead to the US and is also working on submarine-launched missile technology that would allow it to park missiles off the shores of American cities. Iran is another potential nuclear threat in spite of President Obama’s deal. Terrorism in the Middle East and in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region round out the largest potential threats.
The bright spot in the Heritage assessment is America’s ability to operate around the world. A strong network of allies in Europe and Asia bolsters US capabilities. These regions are rated as “favorable” to US operations. The Middle East is rated as “moderate” where US advantages are being offset by unstable governments and a reduced presence due to the withdrawal from Iraq.
The change of course signaled by the recent presidential elections may provide a boost to US military budgets. Nevertheless, National Defense Magazine notes that, because of the debt crisis, any increase in military spending will likely be small without entitlement reforms. Such reforms would be fought by the Democrats and possibly by Donald Trump as well. As a candidate, Trump opposed conservative plans to restructure entitlement programs.
In summary, the world is a dangerous place with maturing threats from a number of different countries and terrorist groups. Budget cuts have forced the US military to trade modernization to meet future threats for the ability to maintain current readiness. The Republican victories this year may provide an opportunity to get military readiness back on track.