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John J. Bastiat / November 5, 2019

Military Readiness Isn’t What It Should Be

A Heritage Foundation study reveals the U.S. is only “marginally able” to defend its interests.

The Heritage Foundation just completed its 2020 Index of U.S. Military Strength, a comprehensive annual assessment of U.S. defense capabilities, and as usual the news isn’t good. Based on its historical dedication to in-depth assessments of U.S. defense strength, Heritage credibly touts its Index as the only “non-governmental” (read: “not exceedingly biased”) annual assessment of U.S. military strength. This year’s summary: “As currently postured, the U.S. military is only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.”

Sadly, the only surprise related to this report would be if anyone were surprised at its conclusion. At base, of course, the report is merely a witness to nearly a decade’s worth of inattention and neglect during the Obama regime, a result only recently begun to be rectified.

The report begins by outlining the long-standing objectives related to the use of U.S. military force: “Over the past few decades, three vital interests have been specified consistently and in various ways by a string of Administrations: Defense of the homeland; successful conclusion of a major war that has the potential to destabilize a region of critical interest to the United States; and preservation of freedom of movement within the global commons (the sea, air, outer-space, and cyberspace domains) through which the world conducts its business.” The report then discusses the well-settled means recommended to achieve those objectives: “The many factors involved make determining how big the military should be a complex exercise, but successive Administrations, Congresses, and Department of Defense (DOD) staffs have managed to arrive at a surprisingly consistent force-sizing rationale: an ability to handle two major wars or major regional contingencies (MRCs) simultaneously or in closely overlapping time frames.”

The primary regions assessed are Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The Index notes that while conditions in Europe are “favorable” — meaning an MRC is unlikely — those in the Middle East and Asia are not so sanguine. Specifically, while the likelihood of an MRC in the Middle East is “moderate,” general political stability in the region continues to be “unfavorable.” That’s putting it mildly. Asia, meanwhile, is “favorable … in terms of alliances, overall political stability, militarily relevant infrastructure, and the presence of U.S. military forces.” But this overall assessment, while sounding upbeat at first blush, is substantially offset by further characterizations of several Asian state actors. Indeed, the report flatly identifies Russia, China, North Korea and Iran as “aggressive” threats to vital U.S. security interests. Further the capability of each is assessed as “formidable” (the highest category) or nearly so, “gathering” (the second-highest capability, in the cases of Iran and North Korea).

To support these characterizations the Index points to Russia’s provocations in Ukraine and other Eastern-European nations, its active support of separatist forces in Ukraine, its regular performance of “provocative military exercises and training missions” and its aggressive sales and exports of arms to countries hostile to the U.S. The Index also cites Russia’s “sabotage [of] U.S. and Western policy in Syria and Ukraine” as well as its “investment in modernizing its military,” even as it continues to gain combat experience in both regions.

The report also singles out China as “the most comprehensive threat the U.S. faces,” categorizing its capability as “formidable” and its behavior as “aggressive.” China continues to modernize and grow its military capabilities even as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) metastasizes well beyond China’s territorial waters and lands. The PLA’s provocative activities include numerous comprehensive military exercises near very tense borders, live-fire maneuvers near Taiwan, probes of South Korean and Japanese air defense identification zones, and countless episodes globally of Chinese cyber-combat, espionage, and computer-network exploitation.

Of course the usual suspects — Iran and North Korea — continue to also pose menaces to world peace, as do terrorist threats around the globe (notably in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). But with the “normalization of deviation” DOD has been forced to accept — that is, the resigned acceptance of a defense force incapable of fully addressing the span of security threats to the U.S. — these threats are simply acknowledged in the report for the clear and present dangers they are. That said, though none of these threats should be taken lightly, each should be taken in stride: Meeting the two-MRC requirement would also address the threat posed by any single regional conflict generated by one of these actors.

And how should this two-MRC challenge be met? Through a lengthy analysis, the Index practically translates “two-MRC capability” into a standing U.S. joint defense force of 50 Army brigade combat teams (BCTs), 400 Navy battle force ships with 624 strike/fleet-defense aircraft, 1,200 Air Force fighter/bomber/ground-attack aircraft and 36 Marine battalions. How does DOD currently stack up against this levy? Not so well.

Using the three metrics of “capability” (a force’s modernization level), “capacity” (the size of the force), and “readiness” (the force’s ability to mobilize and employ), each of the four war-fighting Services was assessed as “marginal.” U.S. nuclear capability — itself the umbrella under which a great deal of implied conventional U.S. military capability vests — was also assessed as “marginal.” Even this is a charitable assessment, given the fact the “bulk of the current nuclear arsenal was first developed in the 1980s” but — cynically speaking — at least it’s consistent with the rest of the picture.

Finally, the report acknowledges the practical reality faced by our defense forces, namely, “that unless a dramatic change in circumstances occurs, such as the onset of a major conflict, a multitude of competing interests that evolve during extended periods of peace and prosperity will lead Administrations and Congresses to deemphasize investing in defense and instead to favor domestic programs. Consequently, garnering sufficient support to increase defense spending for a two-war-capacity force is problematic.” Still, as the report ominously warns, “This political condition does not change the patterns of history, the behavior of competitors, or the reality of what it takes to defend America’s interests in an actual war.”

For our part, this year’s Index strikes us as spot-on, especially in its appraisal of the near-term, practical prospects of achieving the military strengths needed to meet the two-MRC requirement. Still, Step One, as the saying goes, is that “acceptance is the first step to recovery”: This problem will not be fixed until it is first identified and then acknowledged. Our good friends over at Heritage have consistently helped to raise the military-preparedness flag over the years, this year being no exception. Let’s hope that this administration, unlike the last — or virtually any Democrat administration since Truman — will acknowledge the immediacy of the problem and act accordingly, notwithstanding this current period of qualified peace and prosperity which, historically speaking, is likely to be relatively brief.

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