The U.S. maintains a military force primarily to protect the homeland from attack and to protect its interests abroad. There are secondary uses, such as assisting civil authorities in times of disaster, deterring opponents from threatening America’s interests, bolstering alliances, and underwriting diplomatic and economic initiatives. The force’s primary purpose, however, is to make it possible for the U.S. to physically impose its will on an enemy when necessary.
Consequently, the condition of the U.S. military is critical to America’s vital national security interests, which include:
- Defense of the homeland;
- Successful conclusion of a major war that has the potential to destabilize a region of critical interest to the U.S.; and
- Preservation of freedom of movement within the global commons (the sea, air, outer-space, and, most recently, cyberspace domains) through which the world conducts its business.
To defend these interests effectively on a global scale, the U.S. needs a military force of sufficient size and possessing relevant capabilities. The force also needs to be ready for action—materially and competently. Materially, it should have modern equipment in good condition and units appropriately manned and provisioned. Competently, it should have the skills necessary to be effective in operations against an enemy.
From the Korean War onward, the U.S. has found itself in a major war every 15 to 20 years and in each instance has used roughly the same size force. Further, a series of national-level studies undertaken over the past 25 years to determine the forces needed to protect U.S. interests came to roughly the same recommendations for end strength, major platforms, and large unit formations.
In general, the historical record and these studies indicate the U.S. needs an active Army of 50 brigade combat teams, a Navy approaching 350 ships, an Air Force of at least 1,200 fighter/attack aircraft, and a Marine Corps based on 36 battalions. A force of this size would provide the U.S. the ability to fight a major war or handle a major sustained contingency while also having sufficient capacity to sustain large-scale commitments elsewhere or respond to an emergent crisis should a major competitor try to take advantage of a perceived “window of opportunity.” In other words, this force enables the country to handle one major crisis while deterring competitors from acting opportunistically, an ability the U.S. maintained throughout the Cold War.
This consistency in force requirements should not be surprising given the practical realities of war. Large forces are necessary to control territory or to deny the same to an enemy force. Sustained stability operations require a large rotational base. In conventional combat operations, sizable forces are needed to replace combat losses and to rotate fresh units into battle. In short, to defend national interests, numbers matter. Small numbers of exquisitely equipped forces are inadequate to such situations and can lead to a force that is overly sensitive to combat losses or is quickly worn down by numerous deployments in rapid succession.
Numbers also matter in preparing for the future. When the force is small and is already hard-pressed to meet current operational demands, little capacity is available to do the things necessary to ensure the U.S. will be able to prevail against future threats and to protect its interests in future settings the details of which one cannot know beforehand. If new ways are needed to maintain a competitive advantage over opponents, then a portion of the force should be available for experimentation whether by reducing current demands on the force or enlarging the force so that it can do all the things being demanded of it. Instead, there is likely to be further reductions and increased workload.
Regrettably, the U.S. continually cycles between ramping up for a crisis that no one predicted or believed would happen and cutting the force to some bare minimum once the crisis is over, with the pretense that another crisis is unlikely to come along in short order or that we will somehow be able to predict when, where, and against whom it will occur. In every instance, such prognostications have proven wrong, analysts and decision makers have been caught by surprise, and the military has had to respond to crises with whatever it had available. This should tell us that true preparation for current and future challenges starts with having the ability to protect multiple interests against varied threats simultaneously while also having the capacity to experiment, test, and train the force to discover viable solutions to problems, equip the force appropriately, and become proficient in the military capabilities more likely to be effective in the future.
Yet in spite of ample evidence that warns against weakening America, substantial cuts in funding national defense and security have resulted in a steadily shrinking, aging, and less ready force at a time when threats are growing more numerous, aggressive, and capable.
Threats today include Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and the aggregate challenges to order and stability in key regions posed by Middle East and Afghanistan/Pakistan-based terrorist groups. None of these threats were considered worrisome just a few years ago yet today they dominate news headlines.
In fact, the past year has been a tumultuous one for the national security interests of the U.S., to put it mildly.
- China has built islands in the South China Sea in defiance of international efforts to resolve territorial disputes amicably and is moving to militarize them.
- Russia continued its efforts to destabilize Ukraine and intimidate not only the Baltic States, but also other key members of NATO.
- Iran increased its meddling in Iraqi affairs, sustained its support of Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, advanced its development of ballistic missile technologies, and scored a major victory in retaining its nuclear infrastructure and gaining relief from international sanctions in spite of its years of serial violations of nonproliferation agreements and its continuous support of terrorist organizations.
- The murderous Islamic State (ISIS) expanded its control of territories in Syria and Iraq and extended its operations into Yemen, Afghanistan, North Africa, and even Europe.
- Taking a page from ISIS’s playbook, Boko Haram doubled down on its violent conquest of parts of Nigeria.
- The U.S. itself has suffered both casualties from the physical attacks of Islamist-inspired terrorists and the virtual damage of cyberattacks conducted by China and Russia, among others.
Yet the ability of the U.S. to respond to such challenges is troubling. Consider the current condition of the military:
U.S. Army. As America’s primary land warfare component, the Army has continued to reduce its end strength and accept greater risk to its modernization programs to preserve readiness levels. The reduction in end strength since 2012 has had a disproportionate effect on the number of brigade combat teams (BCTs) the Army maintains. The Active Army has been downsized from 552,100 soldiers and 45 BCTs in fiscal year (FY) 2013 to 490,000 soldiers and 32 BCTs in FY 2015. Thus, a 12 percent reduction in troop numbers resulted in a 29 percent reduction in BCTs. Worse, the Army is scheduled to shrink further to 450,000 soldiers by the end of 2018. General Raymond T. Odierno, former Chief of Staff of the Army, has stated that the Army can maintain only one-third of its force at acceptable levels of readiness. Each shuttering of a BCT incurs a lengthy restart cost. Specifically, “it takes approximately 30 months [two and one-half years] to generate a fully manned and trained Regular Army BCT,” and “senior command and control headquarters…take even longer.” As the Army shows, it is easy to cut and very hard to rebuild.
U.S. Navy. The Navy’s mandate is “to be where it matters, when it matters.” To this we should add “with sufficient capacity to matter.” As the military’s primary maritime force, the Navy enables the U.S. to project military power in the maritime and air domains, a critical capability in war, crisis response, and peacetime engagement missions. Unlike land forces (or even, to a large extent, air forces), which are tethered to a set of fixed, larger-scale support bases, the Navy is able to shift its presence wherever needed so long as the world’s oceans and seas permit. The Navy’s peacetime forward presence supports missions that include securing sea lines of communication (SLOC) for the free flow of goods and services, assuring U.S. allies and friends, deterring adversaries, and providing a timely response to crises short of war.
However, the Navy is too small to continue these efforts on a sustained basis and is woefully positioned to conduct sustained combat operations against a major opponent like China or Russia, or even Iran in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf. Current levels of funding make it unlikely that its status will improve anytime soon and will most likely deteriorate further. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has calculated that the Navy needs $20.7 billion annually for ship building to reach a fleet of 306 ships, well above the historical average of $15.7 billion per year. The Navy’s current goal is 308 ships but it is only being funded at $16.6 billion for FY 2016.
The Navy’s woes extend beyond capacity to include the material readiness of the fleet. Per the Government Accountability Office (GAO): “[C]asualty reports—incidents of degraded or out-of-service equipment—have doubled over the past five years and the material condition of overseas-homeported ships has decreased slightly faster than that of U.S.-homeported ships… [The] high pace of operations the Navy uses for overseas-homeported ships limits dedicated training and maintenance periods, which has resulted in difficulty keeping crews fully trained and ships maintained.” Admiral Michelle Howard, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, has reported that “Navy readiness is at its lowest point in many years,” which can be attributed chiefly to budget reductions. Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, acknowledged that continued cuts under Budget Control Act (BCA) limits “compelled us to reduce both afloat and ashore operations, which created ship and aircraft maintenance and training backlogs.” As a result, unit deployments were also extended, exacting a cost not only on the service life of the ship, but also on the resiliency of the sailors assigned to the vessel.
The Navy is accepting risk in its ability to meet defense strategy requirements. Under current spending limitations, “ships will arrive late to a combat zone, engage in conflict without the benefit of markedly superior combat systems, sensors and networks, or desired levels of munitions inventories.” Also, the Navy can now surge only one-third of the force required by Combatant Commanders to meet contingency requirements.
U.S. Air Force. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) provides military dominance in the domains of air and space. Regrettably, the USAF is now the oldest and smallest in its history, and the problem is worsening as the demand for air power grows.
The average age of its aircraft is 27 years, and some fleets, such as the B-52 bomber fleet, are much older. Without modification, much of the Air Force’s capability is nearing the end of its expected life cycle. For example, air superiority is overwhelmingly being supported by the F-15, which makes up 71 percent of the air superiority platforms but has consumed over 90 percent of its estimated 30-year service life. (The average age of the F-15C/D is just over 29 years.) With the eventual retirement of the 438 F-15s, a mere 177 F-22s will make up the main arm of air superiority with eventual support from the F-35 (sometime in the mid-2020s). The F-16, the most numerous platform (comprising 50 percent of the fighter fleet at 913 aircraft) has consumed nearly 80 percent of its expected life span and has an average age of approximately 23 years. The KC-135 aerial refueler comprises 87 percent of the Air Force’s tankers and is over 50 years old on average. The aircraft’s reliability is at risk due to problems linked to its age and high usage rate. Its replacement, the KC-46A, is still in development and experiencing delays.
The FY 2016 Air Force Posture Statement acknowledged that continued cuts in capacity will result in a loss of capability: “[W]e have reached a point where the two are inextricable; lose any more capacity, and the capability will cease to exist.”
U.S. Marine Corps. The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) is the nation’s expeditionary armed force, positioned and ready to respond to crises around the world. While the fighting competence of the service is superb, it is hampered by aging equipment; troubled replacement programs for its key ground vehicles (particularly its amphibious personnel carriers); and a shrinking force.
The Marines have prioritized “near-term readiness” at the expense of other areas, such as capacity, capability, modernization, home station readiness, and infrastructure, which means it is maintaining current capability at the expense of its future.
Overall reductions in end strength have left the USMC with 23 infantry battalions in the Active Component, down from 25 in 2014 and 27 in 2013. While funding at the requested levels for FY 2016 would yield an additional active infantry battalion, under full sequestration, USMC end strength would be able to support only 21 infantry battalions, which, according to former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, would leave the USMC “with fewer active duty battalions and squadrons than would be required for a single major contingency.”
One impact of reduced capacity is a reduction in dwell time, that is, the time available between deployments during which units recover, train, and get ready for the next mission. The stated ideal deployment-to-dwell (D2D) time ratio is 1:3 (seven months deployed for every 21 months at home), which is possible with 186,000 troops. The “fundamental difference” between that optimal force size and an active end strength of 182,000 is a lower D2D ratio of 1:2, which translates to roughly seven-month deployments separated by stretches of 14 months at home. Under the budget caps imposed by the BCA of 2011, capacity will be reduced even further, and the dwell ratio for the Marine Corps could fall to 1:1. This increase in deployment frequency would worsen the degradation of readiness as people and equipment would be used more frequently, with less time to recover between deployments. At present, “[o]ver half of home-station/non-deployed units report[ed] unacceptable levels of readiness.” This constitutes about 42 percent of the total USMC force.
U.S. Nuclear Weapons Capability. If the above status of America’s conventional forces was not bad enough, America’s ability to deter strategic threats is also in jeopardy. While the U.S.’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to a target is currently sound, all of the things necessary to ensure this capability remains viable are in decline.
The U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise is composed of several key elements, including: warheads, delivery systems, nuclear command and control, and the physical infrastructure that designs, manufactures, tests, and maintains U.S. nuclear weapons. The complex also includes the talent of people from physicists to chemical engineers to maintainers and operators, without which the continuous maintenance of the nuclear infrastructure would not be possible. Modernization, testing, and investment in the intellectual/talent underpinnings of this sector are the chief problems facing America’s nuclear enterprise. Delivery platforms are good, but the force depends on a very limited set of weapons (in number of designs) and models that are quite old, in stark contrast to the aggressive programs of other nuclear states like Russia, China, Pakistan, North Korea, and nuclear-aspirational Iran.
Absent nuclear weapons testing, the assessment of weapons reliability becomes more subjective, albeit based on experience and non-nuclear tests rather than fact. Testing was originally used to diagnose potential problems and to certify the effectiveness of fixes to those problems, not to forecast future viability. Modern simulation is based on nuclear tests that were conducted primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, using testing equipment of that era. U.S. strategic interests would be better served by updating the data used to determine arsenal viability through renewed testing using modern equipment. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in October 2008 that, “[t]o be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.”
Maintaining a safe, secure, effective, and reliable nuclear stockpile requires modern facilities, technical expertise, and tools to repair any malfunctions quickly, safely, and securely, and to produce new nuclear weapons, if required. The existing nuclear weapons complex is not fully functional; the U.S. cannot produce more than a few new warheads per year and there are limits on the ability to conduct life-extension programs. In fact, the U.S. no longer can “serially produce many crucial components of our nuclear weapons.” Currently, the U.S. can produce about 20 plutonium pits a year at the Los Alamos PF-4 facility. Russia, the closest competitor and potential adversary, can produce around 2,000 pits a year.
In short, lack of adequate funding combined with sustained high usage of the military has led to an aged force of marginal ability to protect America’s security interests. On our current modernization path at existing levels of funding, we are likely to find ourselves with a reduced military that even if equipped with state-of-the-art capabilities is incapable of conducting sustained operations against a credible opponent.
Fund Defense Commensurate with National Security Interests. Though it has become cliché, America is a global power with global interests. It depends on access to global markets to sell its goods, obtain raw materials, and be competitive in global trade. It benefits from a worldwide network of allies, friends, and partners through which its economic and diplomatic interests are promoted and its security interests are served. It benefits when it is able to shape the strategic environment in ways that reflect American ideals and values. The global order extending from the close of World War II, that has benefitted more people in more places than at any other time in history, was made possible and sustained by the U.S., a clear example of the value of U.S. leadership in combatting forces of disorder and repression. This leadership imposes a financial burden on the U.S. unlike any other country, but no other country can do what the U.S. has done nor benefit in ways the U.S. has. If America wants to sustain its role as the preeminent force for good, protect its interests, and continue to benefit as it has, then it needs to accept that this cannot be done on the cheap. An appropriately sized military force, properly equipped and kept ready for action, plays a critical role in this and should be funded accordingly.
Dedicate Units and Resources to Robust Experimentation. The Secretary of Defense and the Service chiefs should formally organize and resource an experimentation force. The size of this effort need not be large: an Army BCT, a Marine regiment, and similar or corresponding units from the Navy and Air Force. The point is to make available forces representative of their respective services and sufficiently large and capable enough to truly experiment with operational concepts, new technologies, and methods for integrating and leveraging the combat power and capabilities of the joint force to see what is possible. Too often such efforts are sporadic and so limited in duration that true insights cannot be gained over time. Experimentation is an iterative process, necessary to identify problems, possible solutions, and reveal unanticipated possibilities. Such efforts also need stable attention from a command structure and participants able to maintain focus across multiple iterations. At present, the military does not have the capacity or organizational stability to make such investments.
Improve Collaboration Among and Between Experimentation and Research and Development Organizations. The Department of Defense and individual military services have a number of agencies dedicated to research and development of promising technologies and initial experimentation with such. These agencies include the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), U.S. Navy Research Laboratory, U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command, Army Capabilities Integration Center, Air Force Research Laboratory, and the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, among many others. Each organization explores material solutions to problems identified by the services, although some, like DARPA, take on broader non-service-specific efforts. Without diminishing their core focus, their capabilities and capacity should be expanded to enable them to more effectively collaborate with each other, with specific emphasis placed on collaborating with the experimentation force. Related to this is the need to expand defense acquisition options for rapid introduction of early prototypes into the experimentation force.
Facts and Figures
- The U.S. maintains a military force primarily to protect the homeland from attack and to protect its interests abroad. To defend these interests effectively on a global scale, the U.S. needs a military force of sufficient size and possessing relevant capabilities. The historical record and national-level studies indicate the U.S. needs an active Army of 50 brigade combat teams, a Navy approaching 350 ships, an Air Force of at least 1,200 fighter/attack aircraft, and a Marine Corps based on 36 battalions.
- Since 2012, the Active Army has been downsized from 552,100 soldiers and 45 BCTs in FY 2013 to 490,000 soldiers and 32 BCTs in FY 2015. A 12 percent reduction in troop numbers resulted in a 29 percent reduction in BCTs. Worse, the Army is scheduled to shrink further to 450,000 soldiers by the end of 2018. At current levels of funding, the Army can maintain only one-third of its force at acceptable levels of readiness.
- Though the Navy needs nearly 350 ships, its current goal is 308 ships. At present it has only 272 ships. The Navy needs $20.7 billion for shipbuilding annually to reach 308 ships. It historically averages less than $16 billion. The Navy can surge only one-third of the force required by Combatant Commanders. Under current spending limitations, “ships will arrive late to a combat zone, engage in conflict without the benefit of markedly superior combat systems, sensors and networks, or desired levels of munitions inventories.”
- The average age of USAF aircraft is 27 years. Without modification, much of the Air Force’s capability is nearing the end of its expected life cycle. The FY 2016 Air Force Posture Statement states that continued cuts in capacity will result in a loss of capability. “[W]e have reached a point where the two are inextricable; lose any more capacity and the capability will cease to exist.
- Due to funding cuts, the Marines have prioritized near-term readiness at the expense of capacity, capability, modernization, home station readiness, and infrastructure. Overall reductions in end strength have left the USMC with 23 infantry battalions, down from 27 in 2013. Under full sequestration, the USMC end strength would be able to support only 21 battalions, leaving the Corps with less combat power than would be required for a single major contingency.
- Modern simulations used to ensure that America’s nuclear weapons remain reliable and effective are based on nuclear tests conducted primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, using testing equipment of that era. U.S. strategic interests would be better served by updating the data used to determine arsenal viability through renewed testing with modern equipment. Maintaining a safe, secure, effective, and reliable nuclear stockpile requires modern facilities, technical expertise, and tools to repair any malfunctions quickly, safely, and securely and to produce new nuclear weapons, if required. The existing nuclear weapons complex is not fully functional; the U.S. cannot produce more than a few new warheads per year and there are limits on the ability to conduct life-extension programs. Currently, the U.S. can produce about 20 plutonium pits a year at the Los Alamos PF-4 facility. Russia, the closest competitor and potential adversary, can produce around 2,000 pits a year.
Selected Additional Resources
Michaela Dodge, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Capability,” 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation.
Michaela Dodge and David R. Inserra, “Strategic Capabilities in the 21st Century,” 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation.
Daniel Gouré, “Building the Right Military for a New Era: The Need for an Enduring Analytic Framework,” 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation.
Dakota L. Wood, “Alternative Approaches to Defense Strategy and Force Structure,” testimony before the Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senate, October 29, 2015.
Dakota L. Wood, ed., 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation.