Talking Points

  • U.S. vital interests span the world. Our military must have trained and ready forces to protect these vital national interests.
  • President Obama’s mismanagement of defense has caused both readiness and capabilities to decline precipitously. The government must reverse this dangerous trend.
  • Adversaries continue to develop capabilities that can reach U.S. allies, territory, and forward-deployed troops. The Administration has cancelled critical missile defense programs, and the country does not have plans for substantive nuclear weaponsmodernization.
  • The growth of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is the real cause of runaway federal spending. Reforming these programs would free the necessary resources to provide for the common defense.
  • The U.S. military is on an almost inevitable path toward a 21st-century form of “hollowness” that will leave it less prepared for unforeseeable contingencies. Weakness invites aggression. The U.S. must modernize and sustain its forces.

The Issue

America’s armed forces are the safeguard of our nation’s liberties. The U.S. military protects the homeland and secures America’s national interests abroad. Aside from providing security, it also bolsters international alliances, assures allies, and assists in disaster response. No other country has the enduring vital national interests or responsibilities that the United States has; therefore, the U.S. military must have a global reach.

To protect and defend America’s vital national interests, the U.S. military must have the tools it needs to deter attacks and enhance diplomatic efforts—and, when diplomacy and deterrence fail, to fight and win. Combat victory requires a force adequately equipped to defend the U.S. and its allies from a range of threats.

America’s security commitments around the globe have strained every branch of the armed forces. While the root of the problem lies in cuts made by the Obama Administration before the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) entered into force, sequestration is exacerbating the problem and is devastating to U.S. military readiness. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton cut defense spending dramatically. The Clinton Administration reduced the entire military—its forces and equipment—by one-third under the utopian assumption that the end of the Cold War would lead to a “lasting peace.” This “procurement holiday” has left the military with aging and out-of-date equipment.

The world did not get any safer. It was President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup in the 1980s, coupled with his successful diplomacy, that created a cushion that largely allowed defense investments to be deferred in the 1990s even though military operations were ramped up. Defense budget increases since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have largely been consumed by a high pace of operations.

The Administration has cut the number of MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor vertical takeoff and landing aircraft by half (from 48 to 24). It has delayed the Ohio-class strategic submarine by two years, which will cause the fleet to fall below the legally mandated 12 boats for a decade. It has also terminated the RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle Block 30 program. On average, major U.S. military platforms are now more than 25 years old and are wearing out much more quickly than planned, due principally to the high pace of U.S. military operations. Many of today’s tanker and bomber pilots are flying in airplanes first used by their grandfathers. The U.S. Navy fleet contains the smallest number of ships since 1916. Yet the Navy is being tasked with more responsibilities than ever, such as securing vital sea-lanes of commerce around the world that are worth over $14 trillion annually.

Sequestration is exacerbating impacts on U.S. readiness and capabilities. Army Vice Chief of Staff John Campbell recently stated: “Some people would call that tiered readiness, where we said we never were going to go again.” Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert stated: “[Navy] surge capacity, I predict, will be about one-third of the norm as we’re looking to ’14.” Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh recently reacted to the possibility of operations in Syria: “If the president decides to take action [against the Syrian regime], the Air Force and the services will carry out their assigned missions—but we are not going to be as ready as we would like.” The Marine Corps is currently maintaining a high state of readiness, but only at an extraordinary level of risk in terms of future modernization. Commandant James Amos testified: “Over the long-term, resourcing short-term readiness by borrowing-forward from long-term investment resources is unsustainable, and will eventually degrade unit readiness to an unacceptable level.”

America is asking all of its military forces to do more but does not provide them with sufficient resources to do so without incurring unacceptable levels of risk. U.S. soldiers are under stress. They have been strained by 10 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. These circumstances have taken their toll on both people and equipment. The bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) Independent Panel concluded in 2010 that “the aging of the inventories and equipment used by the services, the decline in the size of the Navy, escalating personnel entitlements, overhead and procurement costs, and the growing stress on the force means that a train wreck is coming in the areas of personnel, acquisition, and force structure.” The “train wreck” is here, and it threatens to undermine America’s ability to defend itself and protect its vital national interests at a time when threats to its security are increasing.

Both Iran and North Korea have active nuclear and ballistic missile programs and the ability to reach U.S. allies and forward-deployed troops with ballistic missiles. The U.S. ballistic missile defense program is lagging behind the threat. Since taking office, President Obama has cancelled some of the most promising missile defense programs, including the Multiple Kill Vehicle, Airborne Laser, and Kinetic Energy Interceptor. In March 2013, the Administration recognized the fallacy of its policies and announced its decision to increase the number of Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors in the U.S. to 44, the same number the Bush Administration wanted to deploy. This decision was made in response to North Korea’s threats to use nuclear weapons on the U.S. and the Administration’s recognition that North Korea has improved its ballistic missile program. The Administration, however, cancelled the SM-3 Block IIB interceptor that was supposed to protect the U.S. from a long-range ballistic missile threat, especially from Iran. This cancellation might mean that the U.S. will find itself falling behind the Iranian missile threat in the future.

China is engaged in a non-transparent major military buildup with unclear intentions. A re-emergent Russia is vigorously modernizing its nuclear forces and seeks to intimidate its former Soviet neighbors, Europe, and the NATO alliance. Terrorist threats to the U.S. and its European allies emanate from Southwest Asia, the Middle East, and failed states. Cyber attacks threaten critical financial and communication networks in an already teetering economy as well as the national security assets that employ them.

The Administration has already cut defense spending by around almost $900 billion when one considers overlapping seven years of its budget proposals in fiscal year (FY) 2011 and FY 2014. This does not account for the effects of sequestration, which will mean an additional reduction of half a trillion dollars through FY 2021 if the law does not change. These reductions will “hollow out” the military and already have had a significant impact on the readiness of U.S. armed forces.

The debt deal also did not fully address the cause of the debt crisis: runaway domestic spending and the burgeoning growth of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Indeed, the projected growth of entitlement programs will soon make it impossible for Congress to provide a robust defense budget, take care of those in uniform, and provide for the common defense.


  1. Provide for the common defense. This is the first constitutionally mandated responsibility of the United States government. To do so most effectively and cost-efficiently, the U.S. military’s missions should be driven by America’s vital national security interests and the threats we face. Establishing the right combination of capabilities will therefore be the military’s greatest challenge in the years ahead.
  2. Modernize the forces. The U.S. needs a fully modernized force structure, both nuclear and conventional, that matches America’s security commitments and the security threats that it faces. This will require a procurement spending level that is 1.5 times the amount spent on research and development. Key modernization programs include the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; Virginia-class submarine; next-generation bomber; long-range strike assets; next-generation cruiser; SSBN-X ballistic missile submarine; combat search and rescue helicopter; next-generation attack helicopter; and additional homeland defense, counterterrorism, and civil support brigades. To address growing concerns in Asia, the U.S. must fully fund modernization of its surface fleet, expanding the Navy to 346 ships from the 285 it has today. Priority should be given to programs that will defeat anti-access and area-denial threats. Funding levels must be sufficient both to expand America’s missile defenses and to develop space-based sensors and interceptors that will enable the military to protect the homeland and our troops and allies overseas from ballistic missile attack.
  3. Reinvest savings back into defense. Congress must pursue efficiency and reform efforts and work to eliminate waste in the defense budget. These savings should be reinvested in defense for modernization of the forces, not spent on other discretionary domestic programs. The Department of Defense should expand the use of public–private partnerships for performance-based logistics, modernize base operations and the maintenance and supply systems, reduce wear and tear on military equipment, reform the military benefit structure, and increase the use of multi-year contracts and block upgrades.
  4. Fully fund defense. Sequestration and the BCA are undercutting every defense program, from the Pentagon’s already meager weapon modernization plans to the number of people in uniform, readiness and training, overseas base facilities, and infrastructure. Defense spending should be commensurate with the nation’s external threats. It will take years and billions of dollars to repair the damage done by sequestration and get U.S. military readiness levels to pre-sequestration levels.
  5. Sustain investments in defense. Maintain stable troop levels in an all-volunteer force, provide sufficient readiness funds, and ensure adequate funding for research and development and procurement in order to modernize America’s conventional and strategic forces. The U.S. military must have sufficient capability to meet its security commitments, including the capacity to secure the global commons, prevent the rise of hostile powers in key regions, assure allies, and respond flexibly to unanticipated dangers.

Facts & Figures

  • The Obama Administration has cancelled or delayed over 50 major weapons programs, including advanced U.S. missile defense, long-range bomber, and strategic submarine programs and the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility.
  • Whether considered as a percentage of our economy or of the federal budget, the share that is spent on national security is declining. The three largest entitlements—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—eclipsed defense spending in 1976 and have been growing rapidly ever since. The defense budget is poised to drop to 3 percent or lower under sequestration on President Obama’s watch.
  • Historically, America has spent far more on defense: 4.6 percent during the first Gulf War, 6 percent during the Reagan buildup, 8.9 percent during the Vietnam War, 11.7 percent during the Korean War, and 34.5 percent during World War II.
  • The average age of major U.S. military platforms is 25 years or more. Many of their parts have become or are becoming obsolete and can be reproduced only at substantial cost. Some parts can no longer be reproduced because of more stringent environmental and safety standards.
  • The U.S. Navy has the smallest number of ships since 1916. In 1945, the number of active naval ships totaled 6,768. Today, that number is 285. It would take an additional 215 ships to meet the demand of combatant commanders around the world.
  • Readiness problems plague all of those who serve in uniform and most of their equipment. A few years ago, an Air Force F-15C literally broke in half during flight. Since then, two F-18s have caught fire aboard ship. The A-10C Warthogs used by the Air Force and Air National Guard and Reserves have fuselage cracks, and the UH-1N Twin Huey helicopter fleet is regularly grounded. Over half of the Navy’s deployed aircraft are not ready for combat, and every single Navy cruiser hull was found to have cracks.
  • China recently commissioned its first aircraft carrier, and Russia is investing over $650 billion in weapons modernization by 2020. Both countries are also vigorously modernizing their nuclear arsenals.
  • The U.S. military is on an almost inevitable path toward a 21st-century form of “hollowness” that will leave it less prepared for unforeseen crises and contingencies.

Selected Additional Resources

Heritage Experts on Defense

  • Peter Brookes

    Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs

  • Steven Bucci

    Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies

  • James Jay Carafano, PhD

    Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies

  • Michaela Dodge

    Policy Analyst

  • Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.

    Distinguished Fellow

To talk to one of our experts, please contact us by phone at 202-608-1515 or by email.