An honest look at U.S. military strength
Is the United States Military strong or weak? The Heritage Foundation has fired a shot across the bow with its “2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength.” The Index concludes that the U.S. military in its current posture is “weak.” The Pentagon might not like the report. But, my guest, Dakota Wood, is calling things as they are rather than the way people would like them to be.
“Nobody likes their baby being called ugly. But the facts are what they are.” -Dakota Wood
The 2023 Index starts with an assessment of the operating environment from Europe to the Indo-Pacific. Dakota explains that the Index is looking at American military power within a two major-regional conflict (MRC) framework. The Index analyses enemy threats through the lens of “intent and capability.” The focus is on Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and terrorist groups like ISIS. The Index then shifts to a detailed overview of each U.S. military branch in terms of capacity, capability, and readiness. After grading each branch individually, the Index comes up with an aggregate grade of “weak.” This is not an indictment on any individual service member or unit. Mr. Wood explains that this is a combination of years of underfunding, misuse of resources, and a “profound lack of seriousness.”
The Framework of the 2023 Index
The Index analyzes U.S. military strength within the framework of two major-regional conflicts (MRCs). The question is can the U.S. military successfully fight two major wars in two separate theaters at the same time?
This two MRC construct has its roots in the Second World War. The U.S. fought in both the European and Pacific Theater simultaneously. As a result, the Index uses the American experience in World War II as a model. It also integrates historical data in the post-World War II era. As a result, the Index looks at U.S. military relative to where it has been historically since World War II.
Overall, the Index is a report card. It is a snapshot of current U.S. military strength. The report is principally for lawmakers and their staff. It is also for the American taxpayer. Finally, the report pulls from open source documents. There is nothing that The Heritage Foundation includes that a strategic competitor cannot also find.
The Global Operating Environment
The Index claims that the global operating environment is “favorable” to the U.S. Mr. Wood explains that this is due to our freedom of movement. America also has many strong allies in Europe and the Pacific. Since we can move to most parts of the world without being contested, the operating environment is given a favorable rating.
The report looks at four nation-state threats and also several terrorist groups. The nation-states include Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. The Index breaks down both the intent and capability of each nation state. For example, with a country like Russia, the Index sees their ability to use nuclear weapons combined with their aggression as posing a major threat to America. While they have not performed well on the battlefield in Ukraine, Mr. Wood explains that they still have large material resources and a strong weapons inventory. Thus, they cannot be discounted despite recent operational and tactical failures.
The Index focuses on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over the past 20 years, China has shifted their inward focus outward. They are in the process of tripling their ballistic missile capabilities. The Chinese Navy has gone from 210 to 360 ships with plans to get to 400. Their aircraft is being upgraded from fourth to fifth generation. For the U.S. military to oppose the PRC, we have to move thousands of miles from our shores. Overall, the PRC has demonstrated aggression, willingness to prepare for war, and the “most profound threat to [American] military power.”
U.S. Military Branches:
The Army is aging faster than it is modernizing. In order to be prepared for two MRCs, the Index asserts that the Army needs 50 brigade combat teams (BCTs). It currently has 30. Additionally, about 25 BCTs demonstrate sufficient readiness. In terms of BCTs, the Army is 50% of where it needs to be. This means that it could engage in one MRC, but not two. Mr. Wood also points out that a lot of Army training is focused on the company level. He questions whether the focus of training should be at a higher level to be prepared for a conventional fight against a near-peer competitor. The Index rates the Army “marginal.”
At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy had around 580 ships. Today, that number is just under 300. It is expected to move lower and shrink to 280. Furthermore, the Navy continues to maintain its heavy operational tempo. The ships and manpower have declined, but everything else has remained the same. This is a problem for the Navy. Training standards have dropped. Recruiting standards are dropping. The infrastructure to build new ships is not there. The infrastructure to repair old ships is equally bad. The Index rates the Navy as “weak.”
How did the Air Force earn a “very weak” grade? In a nutshell: Old planes and less training. The average air force fighter jet is 32 years old. Their average tanker plane is 60 years old. The average pilot is lucky to receive 120 flight hours of training per year. This is down significantly from 200 hours that pilots would receive during the Cold War. Additionally, F35 pilots are lucky to get 75 flight hours of training. Inspection and readiness standards have declined. Pilots are passing flight school at nearly 100% rates. Why is that? The Air Force is short 650 pilots.
The Marine Corps is rated “strong.” However, I would throw a caveat in there. The Marine Corps has decided to be a one war force. By design, the Marines are focused on one MRC and not two. If they were trying to be engaged on two fronts, then they would be like the Army. Nevertheless, the Marine Corps does not want to be the Army. They are actively trying to get back to their naval roots. The Marine Corps seeks to be an expeditionary force with the capability to project power from the sea. Mr. Wood says that the Marine Corps has done a good job phasing out old equipment and modernizing the equipment that they currently need. Furthermore, Marine Corps training has helped keep the force ready. As a result, it possesses a good balance of capabilities, readiness, and capacity.
The Index is not meant to be a feel good report. It is meant to raise awareness about the state of our military as it is. There is obviously a lot of significant improvements to be made. There are causes for concern for the Navy and Air Force especially. The numbers do not look good. Comparing the Navy and Air Force to China paints an even bleaker picture.
Regarding the “weak” rating, the Index concludes, “This is the logical consequence of years of sustained use, underfunding, poorly defined priorities, wildly shifting security policies, exceedingly poor discipline in program execution, and a profound lack of seriousness across the national security establishment even as threats to U.S. interests have surged.”
It is time to get serious!
Find the “2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength” at www.Heritage.org/military
About my guest:
Dakota Wood is a Senior Research Fellow, Defense Programs, Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation. He served America for two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps. His research and writing focuses on programs, capabilities, operational concepts, and strategies of the U.S. Department of Defense and military services to assess their utility in ensuring the United States has the ability to protect and promote its critical national security interests. Mr. Wood originated and currently serves as the editor for Heritage’s “Index of U.S. Military Strength.”
Episodes on China’s Political Warfare:
Episodes on the U.S. Navy: