How Strong is the United States Military?

Heritage Explains

How Strong is the United States Military?

After a long needed boost in defense spending, does the United States military have what it needs to protect our interest at home and abroad? Heritage just released it's 2019 Index of U.S. Military Strength, an annual deep dive into our military's capabilities. On this episode of "Heritage Explains," Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow in Heritage's Center for National Defense and editor of the Index, walks us through some of the reports most important findings.


RONALD REAGAN: “Deterrence means simply this, making sure any adversary who thinks about attacking the United States or our allies or our vital interests concludes that the risks to him outweigh any potential gains. Once he understands that, he won't attack. We maintain the peace through our strength. Weakness only invites aggression.”

MICHELLE CORDERO: Stakes were high in the Cold War era, and the idea of nuclear war was very real and frightening. Thankfully, back then, America had the troops, equipment and the powerful allies it needed to confront the Soviet expansionism on multiple fronts while still keeping lesser threats at bay.

>>> Read The Case for Rebuilding The U.S. Military

But today, according to Heritage's Index of U.S. Military Strength, the military is one third smaller. And though we have more advanced weaponry, we're operating in a world that's just as dangerous as what we faced during the Cold War. And in, many cases, more complex. For years, our own generals have been warning us that our military is running on empty.

GEN. RAY ODIERNO: “We simply cannot take the readiness of our force for granted. If we do not have the resources to train and equip the force, our soldiers, our young men and women, are the ones who will pay the price potentially with their lives. It is our responsibility, the Department of Defense and Congress, to ensure that we never send soldiers into harm's way that are not trained, equipped, well led and ready for any contingency to include war.”

CORDERO: Tanks, ships, and jets, just like a car for example, only last so long. Not to mention the military must also account for technologies that move at a rapid pace. Thankfully, the military recently received a long needed boost.

FOX NEWS ANCHOR: “Rebuilding America's military. President Trump unveiled the administration's 2019 budget proposal yesterday. It includes more than $686 billion in military spending. Among the earmarks, funds to modernize equipment, buy ten new combat ships as well as bumping production for the F-35 and the F/A-18 aircraft."

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: "In the budget, we took care of the military like it's never been taken care of before. In fact, General Mattis called me, he goes, 'Wow. I can't believe I got everything we wanted.' I said, "That's right, but we want no excuses. We want you to buy twice what you thought for half the price." Our military was totally depleted and we will have a military like we've never had before."

CORDERO: So where does our military stand now after that boost? Heritage has just released its 2019 Index of Military Strength, the only non-governmental and only annual assessment of its kind. Dakota Wood, who served America for two decades in the United States Marine Corps, is a Senior Research Fellow for defense programs and the Editor for the Index. Thank you so much for joining us, Dakota.

DAKOTA WOOD: Oh, it's wonderful. Thanks for having me.

CORDERO: Good news or bad news this year? How strong is our military right now?

WOOD: Well, if you had an A through F grading scale, we're going to give it a C. So a scale of three on one to five. We call it marginal because we think the mission of the military being to protect America and its interests is pretty important. So if you're pulling in a C on that report card, that's kind of marginal. We'd pretty much like it to be better. Some gains over the past year, but still a long way to go.

CORDERO: At a 101 level, can you tell us what that marginal rating means?

WOOD: Sure. History is everything in this kind of business. What we did was we've looked over a half century or more of major wars that the U.S. has been involved in. We said, "How much military was needed to fight and win one of those wars?" You'd like to be able to do that. Because America is a global power with global interests, we've got interests in Europe and the Middle East, the Asia Pacific Region, if all you had was enough to fight and win one war, and it took everything that you had, then you wouldn't be able to address interests anywhere else in the world.

So that marginal score, our assessment is the current U.S. military could fight and win one major war, but it would be globally sourced. In other words, you'd have to take the whole military from everywhere it's at in the world and concentrate it in one place and you wouldn't have anything leftover to do anything else. So we say the American military needs to have the capacity to do two major wars because that allows you to do one and then all the other things that you're wanting to do on a daily basis.

CORDERO: It seems over the past decade or so it's been really hard to get additional funding for our military. But Congress, under the Trump administration, recently did bump up defense spending. Can you help explain a little why we aren't where we need to be, then, if we're getting additional funding?

WOOD: If you looked at the pace of inflation and you took, let's say, a 1985 dollar and you put it into today's dollar and you just went up for inflation, we're spending today in constant dollars about the same that you would have been spending on the defense budget during the Ronald Reagan presidency. And that's always kind of the high water mark for folks who are interested in defense. Unfortunately, the cost of manpower, health care, the cost of the equipment that we need to use because of advances in technology that our enemies would be using, the increase of those costs is about 4% or 5% above the rate of inflation.

So just like if you were getting a pay raise in line with inflation, you'd think everything is good to go. But if your health care expenses or the price of a gallon of gasoline is above inflation, you're actually losing ground. What we've seen over the last 10 or 15 or 20 years, manpower, health care, munitions, the airplanes that are needed today to fight in a modern battle environment, those have all dramatically come in above the rate of inflation. So these additional expenditures you talked about just haven't allowed us to keep pace with that. We're actually losing ground over time. As you use the military, it's wearing things out. You need to replace them. So these costs have been increasing over the last decade or two.

CORDERO: Talking more a little bit about our country's history of defense spending. You're saying that there's a certain point during the Reagan administration when it seems to be where we're at pace with now even though it's not equal. Are there highs and lows that we've experienced?

WOOD: Yeah. When we're in a big war ... There's World War II, I mean, the whole country's in, right? But Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, we ramp up in order to be able to win that war. As soon as the war is over, everybody wipes their brow and says, "I want to get back to actual living," and so you see this dramatic decline in spending after these periods.

During the Cold War, because we were up against the Soviet Union on a global basis, there was kind of this rationale of kind of having some steady funding to have the people and equipment, trained personnel in many place of the world. When the Soviet Union collapsed there toward the end of the 80s, early 90s really, that was facilitated by Ronald Reagan saying the post Vietnam military, which had really fallen into decline, we're going to build that back up so we've got a really strong force that buttresses our diplomatic initiatives and these other sorts of things. Soviet Union collapse, the happy decade of the 90s, there is no even near peer competitor anywhere in the world.

Then we had 9/11 that happened and so that lack of expenditures during the 1990s, the military we had at kind of the bottom of that bathtub was thrown into constant combat operations. It's been on an operational footing for the last 18 years, 17, 18 years.

CORDERO: So lots of wear and tear.

WOOD: Lots of wear and tear. Even if you have an airplane flying over Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria, if it never drops a bomb on anybody, you're still flying the airplane. And airplanes are built for a certain number of flight hours and then they're just done, right? So we've been flying these planes, sailing ships, deploying people and it's wearing out the force. And the amount of funding we've applied against it just has not kept pace with the workload that we've placed on the military.

Made worse when we had the Budget Control Act in 2011. I don't know if the listeners may recall but the idea was to find a little over a trillion dollars in savings across the federal budget. The poison pill was if you don't come into an agreement, your super committee from both parties were going to cut defense spending dramatically. And it's supposed to be so painful that it motivates you to find these other savings. So the super committee failed to find the savings, these intentionally injurious or painful cuts were applied to the military at the same time it's operationally employed in the Middle East and in South Asia. So it's had this double whammy of constantly being worked and yet its funding has been cut pretty severely.

It got so bad that both parties have had bi-partisan budget agreements and bumped up funding in these two year increments. But, again, it's kind of to stem the bleeding, but not allowing it to really get healthy. A little bit of a different is we've pulled out of Iraq, much reduced in Afghanistan, so there's a bit of breathing room. Additional money that was made available in 2018 and then next year for 2019 is helping them to get a bit healthier in maintenance, readiness, replenishing munitions, bombs and bullets, those sorts of things. But that agreement comes to an end after 2019 and we go back to those really painful cuts. So it's going to require Congress to really search their hearts, I think, and decide what kind of military we need to have.

CORDERO: You recently wrote that our military is facing challenges that are dramatically different than it's faced in the past. What are some of the major difference and the challenges that we face aside from budgeting and aging equipment?

WOOD: Right. Global competition against the Soviet Union up through the 80s and into the early 1990s timeframe. Nothing in the 1990s in the terms of big competitors, and then it was just counter-terror operations and counter-insurgency operations post 9/11. And the last couple of years, you've seen Russia come back like gangbusters onto the global scene, you've seen China trying to use its wealth to really militarize its presence in the Asia Pacific Region.

Cold War days we had one capital to deal with, that was Moscow. Today, you've got a very aggressive Russia, so you've got Moscow there again. You've got Beijing with China. They'll have a 350 ship fleet sailing the South China Sea and East China Sea here in just about two years. You've got a nuclear North Korea, which didn't exist some years ago. And you also have Iran which is sponsoring various terror groups in the Middle East and causing all kinds of mayhem. So it's a very complicated world in many parts, many different regions. And the military has really been stretched thin to do current operations.

And I guess another reference point, Cold War, the army was 780,000 active duty soldiers. Today it's 480,000. 550 ships back then, we have 285 today. So those are just a few little reference points of how the small the military has gone and you got this big world and it's more complicated with more very capable actors.

CORDERO: One third of the size is, I think, what you reference.

WOOD: In some areas, absolutely. Just a year ago, only about a quarter of aircraft in the Marine Corps were even flyable. They've improved that now. It's about half. But still, I mean, half of your airplanes flyable, not even operationally available. Right? So you've got this smaller military, two thirds in some areas, trying to do the workload of a much larger military of 20 years ago.

And, again, with these new technologies, unmanned systems, long range precision guided munitions, very sophisticated anti-air defensive systems, it requires modern equipment to deal with that. Yet the Abrams Main Battle Tank was brought in in the 1980s, the Marine Corps' AAV was brought in in 1972. Average age of ships is in the 20s. The average age of an airplane in the Air Force is about 28 years. So it's old equipment. It's being used up on a regular basis and the few people, relatively speaking, in the military having to shoulder this global burden. That's why we need the additional funding above inflation to get it healthy and to keep it healthy so we actually deter bad behavior and we don't actually have to go to war.

CORDERO: The Index actually breaks down each branch of the military, how strong they are and which branch is the weakest. Which one did the Index find that they're most worried about this year?

WOOD: Most worry would be the Marine Corps. I mean, all the marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, they're doing great work, but if I need 100 people and I only have 60, it doesn't matter how good those folks are. They're still going to get worn out. Our weak rating on the Marine Corps really had to do with the capacity, the size of the service relative to the task we want it to fulfill and this old equipment. They're trying to modernize their air arm, but they don't have any new ground vehicles in inventory yet.

The other three services are that marginal, that middle rating and, again, plagued by readiness problems. They just don't have the funding or the maintainers to repair equipment once it breaks. When you've got broken equipment, you have less equipment that's operational and then as you're using that more, it wears out faster. So this lack of capacity and lack of adequate money to keep things working really inhibits training and competence and confidence of the force that it knows that it can do what it's been called upon to do.

CORDERO: Something else I've seen you write about has to do more with timing and the time that it takes to come out with some of these technologies that we're competing against. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

WOOD: Yeah. The history of major, calls it the MDAP, Major Defense Acquisition Program. So you want to buy a ship or an airplane, these are major things. And on average, it takes about 15 years to go from the idea, "I need this new thing," to when you actually get it into the force and actually use. That's a very long period of time. So if you delay these programs or you had a bad start, it wasn't managed well or you believe that some new technology that hadn't even been invented yet is actually going to work out as projected, which never happens, then you have these, again, these delays at getting a replacement in. So in that delay period, you're using this old equipment. It continues to age. And then like having an old car at home, eventually your maintenance costs start eating up the budget and you really have to set that aside and get a newer vehicle that's more reliable, less maintenance costs, and you can have it around for a longer period of time. We're in that old car mode at the moment where maintenance is just eating services alive.

CORDERO: I think in the Index, you guys reference 2050 is when we'd be able to get our Naval's fleet where it needs to be.

WOOD: Yeah, so I've mentioned-

CORDERO: That's a long time.

WOOD: It is. Under Secretary John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy under the Ronald Reagan years, he was trying to push for a 600 ship Navy and they got up in the mid 500s. Today, we have 285. The Navy has said to operate at some level of risk but to be able to kind of handle the demands place on it, they need a Navy of 355 ships. So going from 285 to 355 and the number of shipyards we have and the availability of funding to actually build new ships, even the ones we have designs for, it's going to take until the 2035, 2040 timeframe or later to get to that 355 ship Navy.

CORDERO: When you think about the risks that are facing the United States on a sometimes week to week basis with everything going on with North Korea, that's a little frightening to think that 2050 would get our Navy to where it needs to be.

WOOD: It is. You know, out of 285 ships, about a third of those are available on any day. We actually have somewhere around 90, thereabouts, 90 to 100 deployed globally. The ships that are signed to Seventh Fleet, which is out in the Western Pacific Region, it's about 50 to 60 ships. China will have 350 in two years. And then if you're a land power like China is, with those ships, perhaps the ships themselves are less quality in a sense of design compared to ours, but the weapons they have on the ships are very sophisticated and you can use land based anti-ship cruise missiles and land-based patrol aircraft that also carry anti-ship cruise missiles. So they've got a formidable inventory of equipment and we have just a small percentage of the fleet that's available at any one time.

So you think about the same kind of situation in the North Atlantic and the Baltic relative to Russia. Mediterranean, if you had to come in to the Middle East in support of Israel or something along those lines. The Indian Ocean or getting up into the Persian Gulf. So it's a small fleet that's really stretched. And, again, it just wears things out. You can't keep a ship out at sea indefinitely. It has to come home at some point. And when we have these extended deployments, when it does come home and you finally get it in the yards, it has a lot more repair than what had been the case otherwise. So it stays in the repair yard longer. That means that the next ship in the line isn't getting into the repair yard so its maintenance woes start to build up. So it's kind of this death spiral.

Secretary Mattis, along with the Service Chiefs, are trying to get that fixed. The additional funding, we've been able to make some progress, but not nearly enough to where we need to be. And, again, capacity. A larger military is really needed. And, again, that's just a call for more tax dollars.

CORDERO: It sounds like what you're .... To round out where we started and where we are now is that we have to make sure that Congress has the passion and the people have the passion to keep the spending up where it needs to be so that we're not in a place where we're scared and trying to catch up quickly.

WOOD: It's like an investment plan for a family or carrying insurance. What you're doing is making these investments against a future problem. So when you've got a near-term problem, my car broke down or I'd like to have some food on the table or something like that, usually the immediate needs push out future kinds of needs. In the world of military affairs, it takes a long time to grow a force, to train it, to build the equipment that we talked about. It just takes years to do that. So the longer you delay, when the conflict does happen, and it happens every 15 years or so, when you think about World War II, Korea was five years later, Vietnam about 15 years later, 15 years after that or so was Desert Storm, another 10 or 15 for Iraqi Freedom. So it's just like clockwork. When you have this delay, you find yourself with a small, unready force and now it's too late. You can't build that up.

So what we're proposing is that our Congress be a bit more foresighted and be disciplined and not fritter away the dollars that Americans send in to the Treasury. And that we, the role of the federal government in this area in particular, constitutional requirement to provide for the defense and the security of the United States, that this is an area where it really needs to be disciplined and it needs to be consistent. Allowing these short term demands and all sorts of subsidies is really harming the future and long term security and stability of the country.


CORDERO: Thank you so much, Dakota.

WOOD: Really enjoyed it. Thanks.

CORDERO: That's it for today's episode of "Heritage Explains". I'll link to Heritage's new Index in our show notes on iTunes and on heritage.org. Guys, when it comes to podcasts, liberals have cornered the market on highly produced explainers. Conservatives really need your support. Please jump on iTunes and leave a rating or a comment for Heritage Explains. It really does help. Thank you and we'll be back next week with a new episode from my co-host, Tim Doescher.