Assessing America’s Military Strength
When Biden administration released its National Security Strategy, it was noted by some critics that the paper was heavy in political boilerplate and light in actual numbers.
This week, we have the numbers that allow us to judge the National Security Strategy. They were released this week by the Washington think tank, the Heritage Foundation.
Unlike the administration assessment, they see critical weaknesses in the US military and their ability to defend US interests.
The Heritage Report stated, “The US military is at a growing risk of not being able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests. It is rated as weak relative to the force needed to defend national interests on a global stage against actual challenges in the world as it is rather than as we wish it were.
Some of the weaknesses were troubling. The US Air Force, who “wrote the book” on air superiority, now it is ranked as “very weak.” The Navy, which was so powerful that all the oceans and seas were once deemed “American lakes,” was ranked as “weak.”
Only the United States Marine Corps was ranked as strong.
Much of the problem is due according to military hawks, to cuts in the military’s budget, which prevented modernization and sustainability on the battlefield.
The rankings were based on objective goals – the ability for the US to fight in two major regional conflicts (MRC), the capacity to win against a large conventional power, the ability to carry out sustained operations, and the operational environment.
The report looked primarily at three theaters: the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.
The Middle East was a mixed report. Although there are potential threats with growing tension between Greece and Turkey, US and Turkish tensions in Syria, and the new friendship with the US and Cyprus, the Middle East isn’t the major threat it once was thanks to the Abraham Accords one analyst is concluding.
However, given these problems, over the last three decades, the US and its allies have built an impressive infrastructure that can be quickly used to forward deploy a large force and work with regional allies.
In a slap at Biden’s Saudi policy, the Heritage document said American relationships are pragmatic and “based on shared security and economic concerns. If these issues remain relevant to both sides, the US is likely to have an open door to operate in the Middle East.”
Europe was described as “stable, mature, and friendly to US military operational requirements. Despite the Russian threat, Europe’s operating environment was rated favorable thanks to the NATO infrastructure.
Asia was rated as favorable thanks to relationships with Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The biggest problem was political stability. The Heritage Foundation warned of the “tyranny of distance and the need to move forces as necessary to respond to challenges from China and North Korea.”
In a differing opinion, the Heritage Foundation didn’t mention “domestic terrorism” as the National Security Strategy did. It focused on ISIS and al-Qaeda instead.
The top three threats to the US were China, Russia, and Iran. China and Russia had the greatest capability when it came to a threat to the US.
The US Army had a mixed report. The Heritage Foundation concluded that the Army needed 50 brigade combat teams to fight in 2 MRCs. That meant that the Army only had 62% of the force needed. However, it noted that it had a high level of readiness with 25 of the 31 Brigade combat teams at the highest state of readiness.
One weakness was shifting the training from small operations in the Middle East to major combat operations like those seen in Ukraine. The paper maintains that the Army’s experience in tactical operations in the Middle East is a weakness. However, history indicates any combat experience is worthwhile as the biggest problem in battle is operating under pressure and acting as a team in a combat situation. A combat seasoned force is better than one that merely has training experience.
There is also a question of the use of brigade combat teams in a large European conflict. The BCT was developed for small unconventional fighting in Third World countries and training for a large conventional war should focus on brigade and larger exercises.
The Navy is graded “very weak” as it needs more ships to meet its commitments. It also has a “weak” rating as the shortage of ships means more deployments and an inability to reach readiness levels. The Navy needs 400 warships to meet its operational commitments, but it only has 298 ships currently.
Since ship building is expensive and takes time, Congress must change course in funding within the next few years or face a serious problem before 2030.
In addition to building more ships, the Navy must project its influence in areas that were left to their own designs after the Cold War. For instance, the American Sixth Fleet once had two aircraft carriers stationed in the Mediterranean – one in the Western Mediterranean and one in the Eastern Mediterranean. Today, there are usually none.
Given the disagreement on who owns natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean, Russian aggression, and the continued conflict between Turkey, Greece, and Greece’s surrogate Cyprus, the US must build a new carrier task force for this growing hot spot.
The Air Force has been degraded to “very weak.” Mechanics and pilots are in short supply as recruitment for the Air Force is the worse of the branches of the military.
The Air Force is falling behind in pilot training and retention. They are short 650 pilots and they barely manage to fly once a week. They are also flying aircraft older than the pilots who fly them.
At current levels, the Air Force could probably win one major regional conflict, although they may have problems with the Chinese or Russians (at least the Russians before the Ukraine war).
The problem is that the attrition in planes and pilots would make winning the second major regional conflict more problematic.
If there is one bright spot in this analysis, it is the United States Marine Corps – considered the elite of the five branches of the military.
The Marines have 30 battalions as they are designed as a light infantry for amphibious assaults and small engagements, in various parts of the world. Unfortunately, they can handle only one major regional conflict at a time. They do not have the size or reserves to sustain operations.
Much of the Marine’s amphibious capability will depend on new amphibious ships provided by the Navy.
Space Force has been graded as “weak,” but that reflects its short history and the time to build its capability
Although not a branch of the military, the Heritage Foundation grades nuclear capabilities as “strong” but tending towards “marginal.” The nuclear delivery systems and nuclear weapon designs are old, and the nuclear weapons haven’t been tested for years. Since nuclear weapons degrade due to nuclear decay of the nuclear materials, their reliability is based on computer modeling.
Given the fact that the US is facing both Russia and China, the nuclear arsenal must be modernized. This assessment doesn’t include threats like Iran and North Korea.
This Heritage analysis doesn’t even mention some other concerns. Due to the Ukraine war, the amount of munitions in America’s arsenal is reaching dangerous levels. While small arms and artillery ammunition can be quickly manufactured, smart weapons require time, and frequently requires redesigning as “smart circuitry” is no longer in production.
Recruitment is also a critical issue. Although the Marines met 2022 recruitment levels, the other 3 branches fell behind. Although a foot soldier can be trained in a year, technical servicemen, who maintain high tech weapons can take years to become competent. Pilots take years of training and millions of dollars to qualify as a combat pilot.
The solution to many of these weaknesses is additional defense spending and the time to bring new weapons systems online.
Finally, Congress and the administration must realize how ever shifting politics has ruined the US military. As the report concluded, “This is the logical consequence of years of sustained use, underfunding, poorly defined priorities, wildly shifting security policies, exceedingly poor discipline in program execution and a profound lack of seriousness across the national security establishment even as threats to US interests have surged.”