WASHINGTON—For the first time, The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength finds that as currently postured, the U.S. military is rated “weak” and at significant risk of not being able to meet the demands of a single major regional conflict while attending to various presence and engagement activities.
Heritage released the 2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength on Tuesday. The release comes as the military faces a full-blown recruitment crisis and two successive years where the Biden administration submitted defense budget requests below the rate of inflation.
The military has seen a general erosion of capacity, capability, and readiness, but readiness and capacity issues across the force, particularly in the Air Force and Navy, have become so significant that the military’s ability to fulfill its primary mission is in jeopardy. Worsening the challenges for the force further are inflation and budget cuts, which account for a total loss of $59 billion in funding between 2018 and 2023 and are compounded by the limited assistance American allies can contribute to our shared security interests.
Meanwhile, America’s key adversaries—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—are advancing their military capabilities and intimidating U.S. partners. This can be seen by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and China and North Korea’s continued intimidation of neighboring countries such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.
The Index of U.S. Military Strength is a comprehensive, authoritative assessment of America’s military power, the operating environments around the world relevant to America’s vital national interests, and the threats posed to the United States by our adversaries. The Index gives each service a “capacity,” “capability,” “readiness,” and “overall” rating on the following scale: very weak, weak, marginal, strong, or very strong. Overall ratings are highlighted below:
Army: Marginal. The U.S. Army is aging faster than it is modernizing, receiving an overall “Marginal” rating. A force only about 62% the size it should be earns the service a “weak” rating for capacity. Funding uncertainties may threaten abilities to realize its goals.
Navy: Weak. The Navy is rated “weak,” declining from “marginal” in 2022. Competitors are quickly narrowing the technology gap in their favor as the Navy’s ships decrease in numbers and abilities. Uncertainty that the administration and Congress will provide funding to combat these significant deficiencies leaves much up for question.
Marine Corps: Strong. The Marine Corps rating remains “strong” from the 2022 Index rating. The score remains for two reasons: 1) The threshold for capacity decreased from 36 infantry battalions to 30 battalions in acknowledgment of the Corps’ argument that it is a one-war force that also stands ready for a broad range of smaller crisis-response tasks, and 2) because of the Corps’ extraordinary efforts to modernize and enhance its readiness during the assessed year. Lack of adequate funding has driven the Corps to pay for its modernization efforts at the expense of capacity, resulting in a reduction of infantry battalions to just 22 this year with plans to reduce to 21 in fiscal year 2023.
Air Force: Very Weak. This Air Force rating is a downgrade from an assessment of “weak” in the 2022 Index. Aging aircraft and poor pilot training and retention continue to degrade the ability of the Air Force to generate quality combat air power needed to meet wartime requirements. It would be difficult for the Air Force to respond rapidly to a crisis and dominate airspace without increased pilot training and numbers of fifth-generation weapon systems.
Space Force: Weak. The Space Force rating is measured as “weak” not due to lack of expertise but because capacity of the service falls short of the demands placed on it. While the Space Force has transitioned missions from other services without interruption in support, it does not have enough assets to track and manage the explosive growth in commercial and competitor-country systems being placed in orbit. The force also lacks defensive and offensive counter-space capabilities.
Nuclear Capability: Strong. Bipartisan commitment to the modernization of the entire nuclear enterprise retains the grade of “strong.” However, the reliability of the U.S. delivery systems and warheads is at risk as they age. Future assessments will need to consider plans to adjust America’s nuclear forces and account for the doubling of peer nuclear threats.
Heritage Foundation President Dr. Kevin Roberts, made the following statement:
“While America’s adversaries, particularly the Chinese Community Party, make chilling strides to challenge American leadership on the world stage and surpass our nation militarily, the professional political class is consumed with branding climate change as a national security crisis, injecting divisive ideology into the military, and undermining military readiness.
“Biden’s reckless, naive foreign policy continues to embolden our adversaries, while his domestic agenda undermines the strength of our military. There is no question that under his failed leadership the strength of our military has hit an all-time low.
“Politicians have no excuses. This Index and Heritage’s solutions for restoring military readiness provides lawmakers with every tool needed to ensure they protect America’s interests. If we want to fight to save America’s future, we must have a military ready to protect our interests at home and abroad.”
Retired Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, Heritage senior research fellow and editor of the Index, made the following statement:
“Heritage publishes the Index of U.S. Military Strength to help lawmakers understand the state of our military and the challenges we face. As our adversaries enhance their defense programs and nuclear capabilities, the Biden administration continues to prove they lack the capability to provide for the common defense at the most basic level: funding. As we face an increasing list of nuclear-capable adversaries and the provocative regimes in Beijing and Moscow, the Left continues to jeopardize the safety and security of Americans. Now, nearly all of our military branches are suffering as a result, and the men and women who serve in them put at increasing risk. If this trend continues, we will not be able to meet the demands of defending our national interests.”
Since the inaugural 2015 edition of the Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation has documented a steady decline in various aspects of U.S. military strength and the 2023 Index makes clear that improvements are desperately needed across the services. The Index, a one-of-a-kind assessment, serves as an invaluable guide in educating both policymakers and the American public about the state of U.S. military readiness, and how prepared the United States is to face the changing threats in an increasingly dangerous world.
The entire 2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength is available here.
In addition, Heritage’s Center for National Defense has numerous policy recommendations for addressing the Index’s assessment of the U.S. military. They include:
Improvements to the fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.
Increasing funding for the military services, offset by savings as described in Heritage’s Budget Blueprint.
Increasing the number of shipyards and identify ways to increase the Navy’s manpower and firepower through a more integrated long range shipbuilding plan to better deter China.
Adhering to U.S. Marine Corps Commandant’s Force Design 2030 Blueprint.
Removing unreasonable limitations on the procurement of the F-35 fighter.
Addressing the military recruitment crisis by exploring ways to incentivize and motivating young people to serve, and ensuring the military recruiters have the resources and access they need to be more effective.
Changing the downward trajectory of the U.S. Army.