The Heritage Foundation Releases “2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength”

The Heritage Foundation Releases “2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength”

Nov 17, 2020 4 min read

WASHINGTON, D.C. –The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense released the “2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength” Tuesday during a special briefing with House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member William “Mac” Thornberry. Thornberry, who is retiring after 13 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was also honored with a new Heritage Foundation award for his service.

The report reaches a troubling conclusion about the state of the U.S. military and its ability to defend American interests: “In the aggregate, the United States’ military posture is rated ‘marginal’ and features both positive and negative trends…As currently postured, the U.S. military is only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.”

These findings come as America’s key adversaries – China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea – have all made clear advances in their military capabilities. A quick look at some of the findings of the 2021 Index highlight progress the military has made in important areas, but also key shortcomings that still remain:

  • The U.S. Army represents a mixed bag, receiving an overall “Marginal” rating, but a force only about 70 percent the size it should be earns the service a “Weak” rating for capacity. Of the 50 brigade combat teams (BCTs) necessary to successfully defend American interests, the Army can currently only field 35. However, the service earns a “Very Strong” rating for its efforts to rebuild Army readiness in recent months.
  • The U.S. Navy maintained its 2020 Index rating of “Marginal,” also, but the 2021 Index finds troubling trends, and scores the Navy as trending toward a “Weak” rating. The Index assesses that the service needs at least 400 ships to meet demand, and the current fleet of 300 aging ships and overstretched shipyards is simply inadequate to defend the nation’s interests.
  • The Marine Corps received a “Marginal” rating in the 2021 Index, an improvement from its 2020 Index rating of “Weak.” However, this rating was achieved not primarily because of major systemic improvements, but because the Index lowered the scoring criteria to account for the Corps’ most recently stated mission.

Heritage Foundation President Kay C. James, in the report’s preface, writes:

“We take that responsibility very seriously, and we hope that this report card on the U.S. armed forces helps decision-makers to be better informed and helps citizens to hold their elected representatives accountable for providing adequately for our nation’s defense. In doing so, we can all play our part in ensuring that America’s founding promises of peace, prosperity, and freedom remain promises kept—both for this generation and for generations of Americans yet to come.”

Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, director of Heritage’s Center for National Defense, and Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, Heritage senior research fellow and editor of the Index, released the following statement in light of the 2021 Index’s findings:

"Most Americans can agree – the U.S. government’s top priority should be to provide for the common defense through fully funding a military capable of successfully confronting and defeating America’s enemies. However, while our adversaries have spent the past two decades investing in their forces and taking advantage of rapidly advancing technologies, America has been forced to choose between solving a crippling readiness crisis and investing in modernizing the force to compete in the future. We can no longer settle for one or the other – we must do both. The Index provides clear data from which to start – it simply remains for our leaders to show the political will and necessary courage to ensure America never truly loses its status as the world’s foremost military power.

“We hope to never have to use such a force, but history is quite clear – when our military is mighty, our enemies are far less likely to engage in belligerent action against us or our allies. Investing in a strong military today paves the way for peace in the years to come.”

The Heritage Foundation was also proud to award Ranking Member Thornberry with its first inaugural “Guardians of the Gate” award for his many years of service supporting America’s men and women in uniform through championing policies that strengthened our military, improved the lives of American service members and made America stronger in the world.

Since the inaugural “2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength,” The Heritage Foundation has documented a steady decline in various aspects of U.S. military strength, and the 2021 Index, while showing welcome improvements in some areas, makes clear that those improvements are limited across the services. Even with advances in certain areas, the force is still insufficient to defend America’s interests and partners in a conflict involving multiple fronts around the globe.

The entire “2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength” is available here.

The “Index of U.S. Military Strength” is a comprehensive 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 2021 Index is the seventh annual assessment, and has served 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.

As the nation’s largest, most broadly supported conservative research and educational institution, The Heritage Foundation has been leading the American conservative movement since our founding in 1973. More than 500,000 dues-paying members support our vision to build an America where freedom, prosperity, opportunity, and civil society flourish.

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