Heritage Foundation Unveils 10th Annual Index of Military Strength

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Heritage Foundation Unveils 10th Annual Index of Military Strength

Jan 24, 2024 6 min read

WASHINGTON—For the second year in a row, 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 2024 Index of U.S. Military Strength on Wednesday. The release comes as America’s key adversaries—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—are advancing their military capabilities and intimidating U.S. partners. 

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.” Based on the historical use of its ground forces in combat, the Army has less than two-thirds the forces it would need in its Active Component to handle more than one major regional conflict (MRC). Although the Army has made progress in its readiness for action, it is still aging faster than it is modernizing and continues to shrink in size as it struggles to recruit young Americans to join the service—a situation that is proving extraordinarily hard to remedy.  

  • Navy: “Weak.” The Navy needs a battle force of 400 manned ships to do what is expected of it today. Its current battle force fleet of 291 ships reflects a service that is much too small relative to its tasks. Compounding the shortfall in capacity, the Navy’s technological edge is narrowing relative to peer competitors China and Russia. In addition, the Navy’s inadequate maintenance infrastructure prevents ships in repair from returning to the fleet in a timely manner, and the loss of steaming days needed to train crews to levels of proficiency diminishes readiness.  

  • Air Force: “Very Weak.” An Air Force able to manage more than a single major conflict would necessarily require 1,200 active-duty, combat-coded fighter aircraft. Currently, the service has 897—three-quarters of the requirement as assessed by this Index. The result is an Air Force that probably is able to handle only a single major conflict, and that only by resorting to global sourcing, leaving it unable to do much else.  

  • Marine Corps: “Strong.” The score for the Marine Corps was raised to “strong” from “marginal” in the 2022 Index and remains “strong” in the 2024 Index for two reasons: because the Corps’ capacity is measured against a one-war requirement rather than two (to which the other services are held) and because the Corps sustained its efforts to modernize (which improves capability) and enhance its readiness during the assessed year. Of the five services, the Marine Corps is the only one that has a compelling story for change, has a credible and practical plan for change and is effectively implementing its plan to change.  

  • Space Force: “Marginal.” While the capacity of strategic-level communications, imagery, and collection is growing, the Space Force is not capable of meeting current—much less future—on-demand, operational, and tactical-level warfighter requirements. The USSF’s current visible capacity is not sufficient to support, fight, or weather a war with a peer competitor. The mission sets, space assets, and personnel that transitioned to the Space Force and those that have been assigned to support the USSF from the other services have not missed an operational beat since the Space Force stood up in 2019. However, there is little evidence that the USSF has improved its readiness to provide nearly real-time support to operational and tactical levels of force operations or that it is ready to execute defensive and offensive counterspace operations to the degree envisioned by Congress when it authorized creation of the Space Force.  

  • Nuclear Capabilities: “Marginal.” Until recently, U.S. nuclear forces needed to address one nuclear peer rather than two. Since every other military operation—and therefore overall national defense—relies on a strong nuclear deterrent, the United States cannot afford to fall short in fulfilling this imperative mission. The change in threat warrants a reexamination of U.S. force posture and the adequacy of our current modernization plans. Failure to keep modernization programs on track while planning for a three-party nuclear peer dynamic could lead to a further decline in the strength of U.S. nuclear deterrence in future years. 

The Heritage Foundation’s Rob Greenway and Dakota Wood, released the following statement: 

"The 2024 Index of U.S. Military Strength sounds a loud alarm on the decade-long saga of our military's decline—a perilous path marked by years of overextension, deployments, and a lack of prioritizing defense spending on what is needed to fight and win America’s wars. 

 

Regrettably, many Americans are oblivious to the urgent reality of our military's weakened state, a far cry from the robust force envisioned by Ronald Reagan. The tenth edition of The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength serves as a stark warning. Faced with mounting threats and a new Cold War with China, our weakened military amplifies global dangers. Yet, the chance to restore American military might remains—if we heed the urgency and act decisively."

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 2024 Index makes clear that improvements are desperately needed. 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 2024 Index of U.S. Military Strength is available here

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