Americans have many expectations of their government, but foremost among them is that it will keep them safe. Indeed, in a recent survey, respondents ranked defense as the government’s highest priority.
Unfortunately, the just-released third annual edition of The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength has sobering news for them.
The index provides a benchmark against which to measure the ability of U.S. forces to defend enduring national security interests at home and around the globe.
Each edition assesses the global security environment and U.S. military strength over the past year. Collectively, they indicate an alarming trend. The costs and consequences wrought by years of inadequate defense funding, combined with a high operational pace across the armed services, are seriously compromising our national defense.
The index uses the ability to fight and win two wars nearly simultaneously as a benchmark by which it measures U.S. military strength. This benchmark, first used by the military after the end of the Cold War, serves to deter potential adversaries who might find an opportunity to act while the U.S. is engaged in another conflict.
Based on an exhaustive review of the Department of Defense’s own studies and of historic force deployments, the index editors concluded the following measures as necessary to fulfill this ability:
Navy: 350 ships (current level: 272)
Air Force: 1,200 active component fighter aircraft (current level: 1,113)
Army: 50 brigade combat teams current level: 31)
Marine Corps: 36 marine infantry brigades (current level: 23)
Despite serving as the military’s standard for decades, the concept of a two-war capable force has recently been criticized as excessive. Heritage believes these critiques are situational, that America’s military requirements should be based on America’s strategy, interests and the threats — not the current budget situation.
The services and the public agree. According to Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Mark Milley, “The only thing more expensive than deterrence is actually fighting a war, and the only thing more expensive than fighting a war is fighting one and losing one.”
The true value of preventative measures, however, is difficult to estimate. The price of comprehensive home insurance may place greater strain on a family budget month-to-month, but it is pocket change to a family that has just watched its house burn to the ground. If you wait until you see the first plume of smoke, it will always be too little, too late.
The same is true for the military. It takes time, money and commitment to build and maintain a fighting force of the size and strength our country needs.
Having a military of the proper size is just one part of the solution. The military must also be ready with the right numbers of people, training, weapons and supplies. Yet America’s military is suffering from shortages in all these areas.
The Air Force is currently short 700 fighter pilots. While it may only take a day to distribute pink slips, it takes two years for an individual to become an operational fighter pilot, and seven years for a pilot’s skillset to fully mature.
The Army’s main combat platforms — its tanks, fighting vehicles and helicopters – are now decades old, with no replacement programs in sight. And a recent rise in the number of aviation accidents, some of which have been directly tied to the lack of training hours, reflects the stress of a military underfunded and overused.
Worse, the decline in U.S. military strength has coincided with a rise in global threats, and the modernization and expansion of the Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean militaries. Although the threat of a large scale war between near-peer competitors is inconceivable to many, it is important to consider whether an America’s unwillingness to properly prepare for a major war could in fact increase the risk of its occurrence.
Unlike an unfortunate but unintended house fire, U.S. adversaries can and will act opportunistically. A continued decline in the size and strength of U.S. forces will invite aggression.
With years of documented damages inflicted by budget cuts, the next administration must immediately work to stop the bleeding, using the wisdom of our first president, George Washington: “If we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known, that we are at all times ready for war.”
Rachel Zissimos is a researcher in the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation.