Following eight years of reduced budgetary support for the U.S. military, at a time when threats have increased dramatically from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and terrorists, the ability of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to defend the nation has reached a near-crisis level.
The warning signs have been apparent for some time. In 2015, General Martin Dempsey, who was serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the U.S. military, noted that funding for the armed forces was at the “lower ragged edge” of what was necessary to keep the nation safe. The latest assessments of American strength confirm that the ability of the nation to protect itself is only marginal. Even more troubling, according to another report, is that the infrastructure necessary to rebuild the military to a more acceptable level is itself below par.
The Defense Budget
At the start of 2016r, Senator John McCain displayed consternation at the inadequate budget proposed by President Obama. “…the Senate Armed Services Committee received testimony from the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who said that he cannot recall a more diverse array of challenges and crises in his more than fifty years of service to the nation…at a time when U.S. military deployments are increasing to confront growing global threats, the President’s budget request is actually less, in real dollars, than what Congress enacted last year…rather than request an increase in defense spending that reflects what our military really needs, the President’s request [will cut] important defense needs – cutting 15,000 current Army soldiers and 4,000 sailors, reducing major modernization programs, and proposing a pay increase for service members much lower than what is needed to compete with private sector wages.”
Contrary to popular misconception, the U.S. defense budget, notes the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, is a relatively small percentage of the federal budget, and a minor part of America’s GDP. “…the FY 2017 Department of Defense budget [prepared as instructed by the Obama White House] … would be 3 percent of GDP, and 14.2 percent of overall federal spending. Overall, the share of defense spending as a percentage of GDP has declined steadily since the end of the Korean War. What makes the Obama drawdown of the Pentagon unique is that, unlike the aftermath of prior wars or the Cold War, the potential threat to the U.S. is rising, not diminishing.”
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) describes the state of U.S. defenses as “a force-planning construct that is woefully inadequate for the global and everyday demands of wartime and peacetime… Gone is any plan that foresees conflict taking longer than one year in duration or any contingency with a whiff of stability operations, long-term counterinsurgency or counter-insurrection, or nation building of the type seen in Iraq and Afghanistan… After six years of budget cuts and operational shifts, hard choices have in many cases turned into stupid or bad ones. Fewer resources and the lack of bipartisan consensus in favor of a strong defense have forced commanders and planners across services to accept previously unthinkable risks as they pick and choose which portions of the national defense strategy to implement… Unmentioned is that the risk to the force grows each passing year. It is now at crisis levels and promises unnecessarily longer wars, higher numbers of wounded or killed in action, and outright potential for mission failure.”
Defense One notes that it’s not just manpower and hardware that’s the problem. America is losing its lead in technology as well. “The Pentagon is worried that rivals are developing their capabilities faster than the U.S. is rolling out new ones. The edge is shrinking.”
The Heritage Foundation’s report on U.S. military strength presents a worrisome picture of an understrength military. “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 over time as the service members who individually gained experience leave the force, and it maintains direct relevance only for future operations of a similar type (e.g., counterinsurgency operations in Iraq 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 is still aged and shrinking in its capacity for operations.”
The Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute analyses of each branch of the military reveals the following deficiencies:
Army: The U.S. Army should have 50 brigade combat teams (BCTs); Currently, it has only 32. The force is rated as weak in capacity, readiness, and marginal in capability.“The Army has continued to trade end strength and modernization for improved readiness 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: 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 smaller, older, and weaker, a condition that is unlikely to change in the near future.”
What would this mean in the event of a major conflict? According to AEI “…a recent RAND war game found that U.S. European Command could not prevent Russian occupation of Baltic capitals within three days, leaving follow-on forces to fight through the Russian Kaliningrad exclave, which bristles with weapons and troops.”
Navy: The U.S. Navy should have 346 surface combatants; currently, it has only 273, and only one-third of those are considered mission-capable. The force is rated as weak in capability, and marginal in capacity and readiness. “While the Navy is maintaining a moderate global presence, it has little ability to surge to meet wartime demands. Deferred maintenance has kept ships at sea but is also beginning to affect the Navy’s ability to deploy. With scores of ‘weak’ in capability (due largely to old platforms and troubled modernization programs) and ‘marginal’ in capacity, the Navy is currently just able to meet operational requirements. 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.
According to AEI combatant commanders have only 62 percent of the attack submarines they need. It also is short of fighter planes. One example: Defense One reports “The U.S. Navy says it needs about 30 new Super Hornets, but it has only funded two in the Pentagon’s 2017 war budget. It has listed 14 planes as “unfunded priorities” and money would be needed for an additional 14 planes in 2018.”
Air Force: The U.S. Air Force requires 1,200 fighter/ground-attack aircraft, but has only 1,113, many of which are overaged. The force is rated as marginal in capability and readiness, but strong in capacity. “the USAF’s accumulating shortage of pilots (700) and maintenance personnel (4,000) has begun to affect its ability to generate combat power. The Air Force … lack of ability to fly and maintain its tactical aircraft, especially in a high-tempo/threat combat environment, means that its usable inventory of such aircraft is actually much smaller. This reduced ability is a result of funding deficiencies that also result in a lack of spare parts, fewer flying hours, and compromised modernization programs.”
According to AEI, budget contractions have resulted in the current Air Force’s dubious honor of being the smallest and oldest in its history…as F-15/F-16 retirements outpace F-35 production. Another recent RAND war game showed it would require more fighter air wings than the Air Force currently fields in total to defeat a surge of Chinese aircraft over Taiwan.
Marine Corps: The USMC needs 36 battalions; it has only 24. It’s rated as weak in capacity marginal in capability and readiness. “The Corps continues to deal with readiness challenges driven by the combined effects of high operational tempo and low levels of funding. At times during 2016, less than one-third of its F/A-18s, a little more than a quarter of its heavy-lift helicopters, and only 43 percent of its overall aviation fleet were available for operational employment. Pilots not already in a deployed status were getting less than half of needed flight hours. The Corps’ modernization programs are generally in good shape, but it will take several years for the new equipment to be produced and fielded…the Corps has only two-thirds of the combat units that it actually needs, especially when accounting for expanded requirements that include cyber units and more crisis-response forces.”
The Nuclear Deterrent: [As the New York Analysis of Policy and Government has previously noted, Russia, for the first time in history, leads the world in nuclear weaponry.] The American nuclear arsenal is rated as weak in warhead modernization, delivery system modernization, and nuclear weapons complex, and marginal in readiness and lab talent It is only ranked strong in warhead surety and delivery reliability. “Modernization, testing, and investment in intellectual and talent underpinnings continue to be the chief problems facing America’s nuclear enterprise. Delivery platforms are good, 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 growing 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 heavily investing in a submarine-launched ballistic missile capability; and Iran has achieved a nuclear deal with the West that effectively preserves its nuclear capabilities development program for the foreseeable future.”
Russia has a larger nuclear capability than the U.S. China has more submarines and will soon have a larger navy. Both nations pose key threats to the U.S. Air Force, Notes the American Enterprise Institute. (AEI). “…the [U.S.] Air Force has weakened relative to its adversaries. As China and Russia produce and export advanced air defense and counter-stealth systems alongside fifth-generation stealth fighters, the [U.S.] Air Force treads water, buying small numbers of F-35s while spending ever-larger sums on keeping F-15s and F-16s operational – though those aircraft cannot survive on the first-day front lines of modern air combat…Simply put, the armed forces are not large enough, modern enough and ready enough to meet today’s or tomorrow’s mission requirements. This is the outcome not only of fewer dollars, but of the reduced purchasing power of those investments, rising unbudgeted costs for politically difficult reforms continuously deferred, and a now-absent bipartisan consensus on U.S. national security that existed for generations.
In prior times of military crisis, the once-mighty U.S. industrial infrastructure was capable of rapidly turning out new ships, tanks, and aircraft. According to the Alliance for American Manufacturing, (AAM) that may no longer be the case. “U.S. national security is at-risk due to our military’s reliance on foreign nations for the raw materials, parts, and products used to defend the American people…With the closing of factories across the United States and the mass exodus of U.S. manufacturing jobs to China and other nations over the past 30 years, the United States’ critically important defense industrial base has deteriorated dramatically. As a result, the United States now relies heavily on imports to keep our armed forces equipped and ready. Compounding this rising reliance on foreign suppliers, the United States also depends increasingly on foreign financing arrangements. In addition, the United States is not mining enough of the critical metals and other raw materials needed to produce important weapons systems and military supplies. These products include the night-vision devices (made with a rare earth element) that enabled Navy SEALs to hunt down Osama bin Laden. Consequently, the health of the United States’ defense industrial base—and our national security—is in jeopardy. We are vulnerable to major disruptions in foreign supplies that could make it impossible for U.S. warriors, warships, tanks, aircraft, and missiles to operate effectively.”
One example cited by AAM: “The United States is completely dependent on a single Chinese company for the chemical needed to produce the solid rocket fuel used to propel HELLFIRE missiles. As current U.S. supplies diminish, our military will be reliant on the Chinese supplier to provide this critical chemical—butanetriol—in the quantities needed to maintain this missile system. HELLFIRE missiles are a widely used, reliable, and effective weapon launched from attack helicopters and unmanned drones. They are a critical component in America’s arsenal.”
The reduction in defense preparedness has been a factor in the continuing shortage of middle-income level jobs. The cuts continue to defense-related employment continues. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Boeing Co. said [on Nov.15 that] it would cut another 500 jobs over the next four years from its defense and space business by shrinking work at its Huntington Beach facility in California and closing two smaller plants in Texas and Virginia…Boeing’s defense arm has cut thousands of jobs over the past five years, a faster pace than reductions at a commercial airplane arm that have climbed in recent months as it faced tougher competition from Airbus Group SE.”
National Review summarized the condition of the U.S. military by quoting U.S. service chiefs at budgetary hearings earlier this year: “General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff at the time, reported that ‘readiness has been degraded to its lowest level in 20 years. . . . Today we only have 33 percent of our brigades ready to the extent we would expect them to be if asked to fight.’ The chief of naval operations at the time, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, said, ‘Our contingency response force, that’s what’s on call from the United States, is one-third of what it should be and what it needs to be.’ The Air Force chief of staff, General Mark Welsh, said that if his airplanes were cars, ‘we currently have twelve fleets — twelve fleets of airplanes that qualify for antique license plates in the state of Virginia. We must modernize our Air Force.”
President-elect Trump has pledged to increase the U.S. military and modernize the nuclear arsenal. According to the Washington Post “Trump’s win is good news for the defense industry, especially when coupled with Republican majorities in the House and Senate,’ said Loren Thompson, a defense consultant who advises many of the nation’s top-tier contractors.”