The New York Analysis of Policy and Government concludes its examination of the Heritage Foundation’s authoritative study of military threats to the U.S., and the ability of the Pentagon to respond to them, in this three-part series.
The Status of U.S. Military Power
Heritage found that that the U.S. should field:
Army: 50 brigade combat teams (BCTs); • Navy: at least 346 surface combatants and 624 strike aircraft; • Air Force: 1,200 fighter/ground-attack aircraft; and • Marine Corps: 36 battalions. Clearly, the current military falls dramatically short of those figures.
The common theme across the services and the U.S. nuclear enterprise is one of force degradation resulting from many years of underinvestment, poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of budget sequestration (cuts in funding) on readiness and capacity. While the military has been heavily engaged in operations, primarily in the Middle East but elsewhere as well, since September 11, 2001, experience is both ephemeral and context-sensitive. Valuable combat experience is lost as the servicemembers who individually gained experience leave the force, and it maintains direct relevance only for future operations of a similar type: Counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, for example, are fundamentally different from major conventional operations against a state like Iran or China.
Thus, although the current Joint Force is experienced in some types of operations, it lacks experience with high-end, major combat operations, and it is still aged and shrinking in its capacity for operations.
The Army’s score remained “weak” for reasons similar to those cited in previous editions of the Index. The Army has continued to trade end strength and modernization for improved readiness in some units for current operations. However, accepting risks in these areas has enabled the Army to keep only one-third of its force at acceptable levels of readiness, and even for units deployed abroad, the Army has had to increase its reliance on contracted support to meet maintenance requirements. Budget cuts have affected combat units disproportionately: Over the past few years, a 16 percent reduction in total end strength has led to a 32 percent reduction in the number of brigade combat teams and similar reductions in the number of combat aviation brigades. In summary, the Army is too small for the tasks it is assigned, its equipment continues to age, and it struggles to improve the readiness of its operating forces. Concerned by the prospect of a “hollow force” (i.e., units that exist on paper but are woefully understaffed), Army officials, instead of using a 2017 congressional authorization to increase end strength by creating more units, chose merely to increase the level of staffing in existing units.
The Navy’s readiness score returned to the 2016 Index’s score of “marginal.” While the Navy is maintaining a solid global presence (slightly more than one-third of the fleet is deployed on any given day), it has little ability to surge to meet wartime demands. As in 2016, the Navy’s decision to defer maintenance has kept ships at sea but also has affected the Navy’s ability to deploy. With scores of “weak” in capability (largely because of old platforms and troubled modernization programs) and “marginal” in capacity, the Navy remained just able to meet operational requirements in 2017. Continuing budget shortfalls in its shipbuilding account will hinder the Navy’s ability to improve its situation, both materially and quantitatively, for the next several years—an even larger problem considering that the Navy has revised its assessment of how many ships it needs to 355 instead of the 308 for which it has been budgeting in its 30-year shipbuilding plan.
Although the Air Force’s overall score remains the same as last year’s, a clearer picture of the USAF’s aircraft inventory yielded a significant drop in deliverable fighter capacity: The Air Force possesses 923 combat-coded tactical fighter aircraft, 236 below last year’s capacity assessment and 277 below the Index assessment of 1,200 needed to meet a two-MRC level of military strength. While the Air Force’s readiness score remained “marginal,” this assessed area continues to trend downward due to increasing evidence of training and maintenance shortfalls, as well as pilots’ own assessments of their forces obtained by The Heritage Foundation through personal interviews. Combined with a continued capability score of “marginal,” the Air Force’s overall military strength score continues to trend downward at a time when America’s dominance in the air domain is increasingly challenged by the technological advances of potential adversaries.
” The Corps continues to deal with readiness challenges driven by the combined effects of high operational tempo and low levels of funding. Aviation remained the largest challenge for the Corps in 2017 as maintenance and flight hour shortfalls combined with old platforms to cause the service to self-assess a dire state of readiness. The Corps’ modernization programs are on track, but it will take several years for new equipment to be produced and fielded; ground combat systems, in particular, are long overdue for replacement. Unlike in past years, the Corps did not publicly provide detailed information about the status of its active-duty force with respect to its state of readiness for combat. The Corps has said the deploy-to-dwell ratio for its active force has dipped below 1:2, revealing increased stress on the force. This, combined with a clear assessment of poor aviation readiness, drove the Marine Corps’ overall strength score from “marginal” to “weak” in 2017, making it the only service to drop to a lower category.
Warhead modernization, warhead/system testing, and adequate investment in the intellectual and talent underpinnings of the nuclear enterprise continue to be the chief problems facing America’s nuclear capability. Delivery platform modernization continued to receive strong support from Congress and the Administration during 2017, with major investments in next-generation bomber and ballistic missile submarine programs, but the force depends on a very limited set of weapons (in number of designs) and models that are quite old, in stark contrast to the aggressive programs of competitor states. Of continued concern is the “marginal” score for “Allied Assurance” at a time when Russia has rattled its nuclear saber in a number of recent provocative exercises; China has been more aggressive in militarily pressing its claims to the South and East China Seas; north Korea is investing in a submarine-launched ballistic missile capability; and Iran retains its nuclear infrastructure program as a key feature of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) meant to restrain Iran’s nuclear program. The aggressive pace of North Korea’s missile testing, which purportedly is tied to its nuclear aspirations, is of particular concern.