Analysis 09-20-2022


Is the United States Militarily Overextended?


As the world watched American helicopters evacuate American officials from the US embassy, in Baghdad last month, there was a serious question being raised; was America sliding into another Middle Eastern war?

For military types, the next question was, where would the US forces come from?  The American emergency reaction force, the 82nd Airborne, has been used to bolster forces in NATO, especially Eastern Europe.  US Special Forces are also engaged in Syria, Africa, Europe, and many other places where their presence is secret.

Then, there is China and the South China Sea, which has tied up America’s aircraft carriers and amphibious forces.

Normally, the US can rely on its allies, but NATO countries have also bolstered their forces in Eastern Europe.  And they are also facing their own problems like a cutoff of natural gas by Russia and even the serious problems with the NATO flagship, Britain’s HMS Prince of Wales, which was originally headed to the US for exercises with the F-35 fighter squadrons.

During the Vietnam War, one question asked in the Pentagon was if the US could fight two wars at one time – one in Vietnam and one in Europe?

Now the US faces three potential wars – one in Europe, one in the South China Sea and Taiwan, and one in the Middle East.

Except for Special Forces conflicts, the US isn’t in a fighting war.  However, the use of ammunition in Ukraine and the deployment demands on US forces are degrading the US military every day.  For instance, the US Army had to ground its entire fleet of 400 Chinook helicopters due to engine problems.  The Chinook is the Army’s largest heavy lift helicopter.

While there are no official US forces in Ukraine and the US isn’t at war with Russia, demand for ammunition for the Ukraine is as great as if the US were at war itself.  Pentagon officials told the Wall Street Journal that stockpiles of ammunition are running dangerously low – especially artillery ammunition supplies, which are described as “uncomfortably low.”

“The US has during the past six months supplied Ukraine with 16 rocket launchers, thousands of guns, much of that including ammunition has come directly from US inventory, depleting stockpiles intended for unexpected threats, a defense official said.”

An example of ammunition and weapons shortages was seen in the Ionian Sea three weeks ago, where the aircraft carrier USS Truman had to transfer some weapons and ammunition over the USS Bush, which was taking the Truman’s place in the Mediterranean.

As a result, the US has decided to send conventional 105mm howitzer rounds instead of the 155mm “smart” artillery rounds.  The Ukrainian Army had been firing about 3,000 rounds of 155mm rounds (not necessarily the smart rounds) a day and the US and NATO have donated hundreds of thousands of 155mm rounds to Ukraine.

The US military has requested $500 million to upgrade its ammunition factories.  However, this and contracts awarded to private companies for additional ammunition will take time to reach the front.

Another concern is the “wear and tear” on equipment, even in non-war situations.  Additional military exercises and longer deployments overseas wear out equipment and keep soldiers from maintaining it properly.  Two years ago, a Marine amphibious vehicle sunk in San Diego, killing its crewmen.  The investigation discovered maintenance had been rushed to get it ready for an overseas deployment.

The same is true with naval ships.  Aircraft Carriers are frequently extended on station overseas due to political needs.  But, for every day deployed overseas, the carrier will require one day for modifications, repairs, and installation of new equipment.  Then, a similar amount time will be needed retraining the air squadrons for overseas deployment.  That means that for every two years, an American aircraft carrier will spend about 8 months deployed, 8 months in repair, maintenance, and equipment upgrading, and 8 months in training for its next deployment.

The same is true for the amphibious task forces that can deploy F-35 aircraft.

The result is too few aircraft carriers and too many places that they need to be.

As of the end of August, there are three aircraft carriers deployed.  The USS Truman and USS Bush are in the 6th Fleet area of operations.  Despite the Chinese threat, only one aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan is in the Western Pacific at Yokosuka, Japan.  The USS Truman is in the Atlantic heading back to Norfolk, Virginia and will not be able to deploy for over a year.

The USS Bush is expected to remain at sea for 8 months.  It is the major warship in Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2), which includes Italian, Turkish, German Spanish, and French warships.

Two amphibious ready groups are in the South China Sea region (centered on the USS America and USS Tripoli).  Each ship carries about 20 F-35 fighters.

Should more fighting occur in the Middle East or China, or the war in Ukraine, the US Navy will be unable to deploy a nuclear carrier at all three areas of operations.

Another critical shortage is in manpower.  Every branch of the military is suffering from manpower shortages.  In fact, this is the worst time for military recruiters since the Vietnam War in 1973.  Only 9% of eligible American youth had any interest in joining and only one in four youth can meet the tough physical requirements.

Ironically, the United States Marine Corps (USMC), which has the roughest training is meeting its recruitment goals, which means that tough training doesn’t deter recruits.



So, what options are there for the US if a war breaks out?

Conflict in the Middle East is considered the least problem.  There are enough quick reaction forces in the region to protect and evacuate Americans.  There are also airfields in the area that can base American aircraft.

Of course, a conflict with Iran, is a different situation and would require also shifting US naval forces – probably from the Mediterranean.  However, transiting the Suez Canal would be risky for an aircraft carrier during a conflict.

Short of a war with Iran, the probable course for the US is to transfer an amphibious ready group from the Western Pacific.

The largest threat to world peace is the Ukraine.  Fortunately for the US, it has NATO allies and its bases.  It also seems that Russia isn’t as much of a threat as it was believed.  Russia is suffering from some of the same problems as the US, depleted stockpiles, and manpower shortages.

For decades, the US and NATO have practiced moving US forces to Europe with success.  There is, however, a shortage of combat forces on the ground now, although that is rapidly improving.  Deployment of an Amphibious Ready Group would help provide additional carrier aircraft and a Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The downside for the US is that Marine Expeditionary Units are not designed for fighting in a conventional land war in Europe as they are moving away from heavy equipment like tanks.

The final threat is China.  As with the war in the Pacific in WWII, it will primarily be a maritime conflict.  Australian, Japanese, and American forces will try to deny Taiwan to the Chinese, while disrupting Chinese use of their artificial islands in the South China Sea.  America and its allies will try to keep Chinese submarines bottled up so they can’t threaten US carriers.

So, the question is if the US military is overextended?  The answer is yes.

Fortunately, the areas of operations match US capabilities.  The conflict in Europe is a conventional war and the US and its allies are well suited for a conflict here, especially against a weakened Russia.

The Middle East is a low intensity conflict that is suited to the American Special Forces in the region.

The Western Pacific is an area of operations that is suited to a naval force that can project power – like the US Navy and Marines.  China has yet to show that it can stand toe to toe with the US Navy.

So, the US is militarily overextended.  However, its force mix is such that it fits the current situation…..barely.