NASHUA, N.H. – The U.S. military is in dire need of money, effort, and resources to reverse a trend toward neglect, mediocrity, and obsolescence in the face of aggressive world adversaries like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, according to a report released last month from the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.
The report, 2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength, says the U.S. Air Force is very weak, the Navy and Space Force are weak, and the Army is marginal in their abilities to fight effectively in future two-front wars. Only the U.S. Marine Corps and nuclear forces are considered to be strong.
The key question is why. The answer involves a years-long failure to introduce new weapon systems to replace old ones, upgrade existing systems effectively, and provide adequate funding for warfighter training.
"The common theme across the services and the U.S. nuclear enterprise is one of force degradation caused by many years of underinvestment, poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of budget sequestration (cuts in funding) on readiness and capacity," the report says.
"Because of the rising costs of fuel, munitions, and repair parts, and the lack of qualified maintainers and maintenance facilities, much of the progress in regaining readiness that had been made in 2020 and 2021 has been lost in 2022," the report continues. "The forecast for 2023 is likewise gloomy, given a proposed defense budget for 2023 that will not be sufficient to keep pace with ongoing and dramatic inflationincreases in."
Of all the military services, the Air Force is the worst off, rated as very weak in its ability to meet national military goals. Poor mission readiness and the physical location of combat aircraft would give the service a difficult time responding rapidly to a crisis, Heritage Foundation analysts say.
The Air Force has "problems with pilot production and retention, an extraordinarily small amount of time in the cockpit for pilots, and a fleet of aircraft that continues to age," the report states. "The Air Force currently is at 86 percent of the capacity" necessary to fight two wars simultaneously, analysts say.
The service "is short 650 pilots, the average age of its fighter aircraft fleet is 32 years old, and pilots are flying barely more than once per week across all types of aircraft," the report states. New aircraft like the F-35 and KC-46 are being introduced, but the pace is too slow."
The Navy, meanwhile, is more than 100 ships short of an ability to fight a two-front war. "The Navy needs a battle force of 400 manned ships to do what is expected of it today," the report states. "The Navy’s current battle force fleet of 298 ships and intensified operational tempo combine to reveal a service that is much too small relative to its tasks."
This trend will be difficult to turn around. "If its current trajectory is maintained, the Navy will shrink further to 280 ships by 2037," the report says. "Current and forecasted levels of funding will prevent the Navy from altering its decline unless Congress undertakes extraordinary efforts to increase assured funding for several years."
The Army is in slightly better shape. "Though the Army has sustained its commitment to modernizing its forces for great-power competition, its modernization programs are still in their development phase, and it will be a few years before they are ready for acquisition and fielding," the report says.
In sum, the Army is aging faster than it is modernizing, and has only 62 percent of the force it should have, analysts say. The good news: 25 of its 31 regular brigade combat teams are at the highest state of readiness.
"The U.S. military is a growing risk of not being able to meet the demands of defending America's vital national interests," the report concludes. It will be up to Congress and future administrations to decide how best to deal with these continuing military problems.
The executive summary of the 2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength is available online at https://www.heritage.org/military-strength/executive-summary.