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National Defense



The Issue


The U.S. maintains a military to protect the homeland from attack and to protect its interests abroad. The U.S. military exists to impose America’s will on an enemy—and to prevent an enemy from doing so to the United States. A credible ability to carry out this mission creates a deterrence effect, strengthens diplomacy, amplifies economic and cultural powers, and adds partners to the U.S. team. All of this depends on the actual ability of the Armed Forces to perform as expected and advertised, as well as the perception of their effectiveness by friends, competitors, and countries deciding whether to ally with the United States. A degraded ability to protect the U.S. and its interests, succeed in battle, or convince others that U.S. military power is something to be respected, leads to loss of friends, influence, and deterrence, and the growth and emboldening of enemies.

Consequently, the U.S. military must be able to win in combat—against more than one enemy at a time—regardless of how the enemy is equipped, how well the enemy uses its capabilities, or the circumstances shaped by the location and environment of any conflict.

Unlike nearly any other country, the U.S. today needs a military force of sufficient size and relevant capabilities to defend its interests on a global scale. The force also needs to be ready for action—materially and competently. Materially, it must have modern equipment in good condition, and appropriately manned and provisioned units. In terms of competence, it must have the skills to be effective in operations against an enemy.

Since World War II, the U.S. has played a part in a major war every 15 years to 20 years, using roughly the same size of force each time. A number of major studies over the past 25 years have concluded that historical requirements for military forces remain crucial today. Based on this experience and deeply informed analysis, the U.S. needs an active Army of 50 brigade combat teams, a Navy approaching 355 ships, an Air Force of at least 1,200 fighter or attack aircraft, and a Marine Corps based on 36 battalions. A force of this size would give the U.S. the ability to 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 “window of opportunity.” In other words, this force size enables the country to handle one major crisis while deterring competitors from exploiting a perceived opportunity, an ability that the U.S. maintained throughout the Cold War.

Large forces are necessary to control territory or to deny the same to an enemy force. Sustained operations require a large rotational base or the capacity to replace combat losses. Numbers matter. Small numbers of forces 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 already hard-pressed to meet current operational demands, little capacity is available to engage in robust experimentation and preparation for future challenges.

Almost without exception, crises catch the U.S. by surprise: the countries involved, the geographic setting, and the nature, intensity, and duration of the conflict. This should be a lesson that true preparation for current and future challenges starts with having forces of sufficient size, capability, and readiness such that they are able to minimize risks to U.S. interests and lessen the overall cost of war.

Yet, despite ample evidence that warns of weakening the American military, substantial cuts in national defense and security funding have been made, resulting in a steadily shrinking, aging, and less-prepared force at a time when threats are growing in number, aggression, scale, and sophistication.

Major Threats:

Threats today include ISIS, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and the aggregate challenges to order and stability in key regions posed by Middle East and Afghanistan-based and Pakistan-based Islamist terror groups. Just a few years ago, only Iran was considered worrisome, and yet today each one dominates news headlines.

In fact, the last 12 months have been tumultuous for U.S. national security interests, to put it mildly.

  • China has begun to militarize the islands it has built on reefs in international waters, continuing to claim them as sovereign territory. The People’s Liberation Army built hangars for fighter aircraft and emplacements for missile batteries. China has continued to field new equipment, most notably in naval power, perceived to be most important in its efforts to shape the maritime domain of the western Pacific in line with its interests.
  • Russia has increased its support to separatist movements in Ukraine, has engaged in massive pro-Russia propaganda campaigns in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, and has performed a series of provocative military exercises and training missions that are viewed as warning signals to neighboring countries, particularly the Baltics. It also has increased its investment in modernizing its military, particularly its nuclear arsenal, and has gained combat experience while supporting the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
  • North Korea has engaged in a series of provocative missile tests, including intercontinental ballistic missiles soon after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, drawing a step closer to fielding a weapon capable of striking the continental United States. In September 2017, North Korea conducted its largest nuclear test, with an estimated yield of over 100 kilotons.
  • Iran has methodically moved closer to becoming a nuclear power, successfully maneuvering to stabilize its program via the nuclear agreement negotiated with the Obama Administration; has continued to back Houthi rebels in Yemen in what some consider a proxy war between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors; has continued to exert influence in the region through its backing of the Assad regime and Hezbollah; has further deepened its involvement in Iraq by providing direct support to Shia militias; and has conducted a series of ballistic missile tests.
  • In the Afghanistan–Pakistan border region, the Afghan Taliban control more territory now than at any other time since 2001, and the group was able to capture the northern city of Kunduz temporarily in October 2016. A Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan could allow al-Qaeda to regain ground in the region and pave the way for terrorist groups of all stripes to re-establish bases there. At least 20 terrorist organizations have a presence in Afghanistan. Terror groups have used Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks against the United States. It is in the United States’ continuing national interest to prevent this from ever happening again.
  • The threat posed by ISIS increased dramatically through a combination of highly publicized acts of brutality, territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, and aggressive campaigns—for recruiting members, as well as for inciting “lone wolf” attacks around the globe. Terrorism in the region reached new lows in atrocities as ISIS and other terrorist groups redoubled their efforts to solidify and expand their control of sub-regions. ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas primarily present direct threats to U.S. citizens, partners, and forces in the region (versus a threat to the continental United States). These groups have, however, successfully inspired others through the Internet and media to commit terrorism in their name and cause, and to the extent that these groups are perceived to be successful, it increases their power in that endeavor.

Overview of Force Structure Problems

The ability of the U.S. to respond to the preceding challenges is weak. Following is a brief look at the current condition of the U.S. Armed Forces:

U.S. Army. From a height of 566,000 in fiscal year (FY) 2011, the Army’s active-duty end strength has shrunk to 476,000 in FY 2017. The reduction in end strength in the past year has continued to have a disproportionate effect on brigade combat teams (BCTs): The active Army has been downsized from 45 BCTs in FY 2013 to 31 BCTs in FY 2017. Thus, a 14 percent reduction in troop numbers resulted in a 31 percent reduction in BCTs. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley warned in March 2016 that at current end strength “the Army risks consuming readiness as fast as we build it.” Recognizing the risk that degraded readiness introduces to its ability to respond to an emergent threat, the Army continues to prioritize operational readiness over other expenditures. This tiered readiness strategy means that only a limited number of BCTs are available and ready for decisive action. Accordingly, the tiered readiness model employed by the Army has resulted in approximately one-third of the 31 active BCTs being ready for contingency operations in FY 2017. Each shuttering of a BCT incurs a lengthy restart cost. Specifically, “it takes approximately 30 months [two and a 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. 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 an 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 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 its ability to conduct sustained combat operations against a major opponent like China or Russia, or even Iran in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf, has been degraded in the past five years. Current levels of funding may stabilize the readiness of these forces, but will not allow for any improvements. The Navy recently updated its force structure needs arriving at a fleet requirement of 355 rather than the previous assessment of 308 (which many believed to be a budget-driven low estimate since its adoption). The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has calculated that the Navy needs $26.6 billion annually for shipbuilding to reach a fleet of 355 ships, well above the historical average of $15.7 billion per year. President Trump’s first budget request exceeded the historical average at roughly $19 billion, but it still falls short of the CBO’s projection and also included fewer requested ships than expected or required to annually build toward a 355-ship Navy.

  • The Navy’s woes extend beyond capacity to the material readiness of the fleet. The Government Accountability Office explains how the Navy’s overuse and underfunding have caused a vicious cycle of readiness woes:
  • Increased deployment lengths have resulted in declining ship conditions and materiel readiness, and in a maintenance backlog that has not been fully identified or resourced.

The declining condition of ships has increased the duration of time that ships spend undergoing maintenance in the shipyards, which in turn compresses the time available in the schedule for training and operations.

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michelle Howard acknowledged:

We have not yet recovered from the readiness impacts resulting from a decade of combat operations. The cumulative effect of budget reductions, complicated by four consecutive years of continuing resolutions, continues to impact maintenance, afloat and ashore. The secondary effects of these challenges impact material [sic] readiness of the force, and the quality of life of our Sailors and their families.

The Navy is accepting excessive risk in its ability to meet defense strategy requirements. While the Trump budget request prioritized readiness funding, such as maintenance backlogs and training accounts, without a more robust rebuilding of the fleet, the Navy’s challenges will continue.

U.S. Air Force. The U.S. Air Force provides military dominance in the domains of air and space. Regrettably, the Air Force is now the oldest, smallest, and arguably suffering the lowest level of readiness, in its history.

The average age of its aircraft is 27 years, and some airframes, such as the B-52 bomber and KC-135 tanker fleet, average well over 50 years. Without further modification, much of the Air Force’s capability is nearing the end of its expected life cycle. The average age of the F-15C fleet is over 32 years, leaving less than 10 percent of useful service life. That same fleet comprises nearly half of all the Air Force’s air superiority platforms. The average F-16C is 25 years old and the Air Force has burned through 80 percent of the F-16C’s programmed life span. KC-135s comprise 87 percent of the Air Force’s tankers and are generally over 54 years old. Although service life extension programs (SLEPs) can lengthen the useful life of airframes, dated major components and avionics become increasingly expensive and labor intensive to maintain.

Compounding the problems of old, overused aircraft are personnel capacity problems. The active-duty Air Force has a shortfall of approximately 3,300 maintainers and 840 fighter pilots in 2017. Without airmen to maintain an already dated fleet of aircraft, the Air Force is struggling to provide fighter pilots with enough flying time to sustain readiness. Of 32 active fighter squadrons, only four are at the highest level of readiness, and fewer than half are considered combat capable. Accessions should reduce the shortfall of maintenance personnel to approximately 2,400 by the end of 2017, but it will be years before the service rebuilds the experience lost through reduced personnel budgets caused by sequestration and six years of the by Budget Control Act (BCA). The fighter pilot shortfall is projected to exceed 1,000 by the end of 2017.

The Air Force is on a slow path to acquire 1,763 F-35A stealth fighters. This jet has experienced a host of developmental problems, but the program appears to be gaining traction and fighter pilots flying the jet in high-threat exercises have come back with a great deal of confidence in their new fighter. The KC-135’s replacement, the KC-46A, has also experienced delays, but the first 18 are on track for delivery in 2018.

The Air Force has been forced to accept risk in current readiness to recapitalize its fleet of aircraft. Under the constraints of the BCA, the rate of recapitalization will be unable to stay ahead of the decline of the Air Force fleet—and the Air Force will be unable to stop the downward readiness spiral until that BCA expires in 2021.

U.S. Marine Corps. The U.S. Marine Corps 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, modernization, home station readiness, and infrastructure, which means that it is maintaining current capabilities at the expense of its future.

The service was able to field only 23 battalions in 2016 in the Active Component, down from 25 in 2014 and 27 in 2013—less than 64 percent of what is required. Marine Aviation units have been particularly stressed by insufficient funding. Although operational requirements have not decreased, fewer Marine aircraft are available for tasking or training. For example, the number of active component squadrons (including both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft) decreased from 58 in 2003 to 55 in 2015. The Corps’ main combat vehicles all entered service in the 1970s and 1980s, and while service life extensions, upgrades, and new generations of designs have allowed the platforms to remain in service, these vehicles are quickly becoming ill-suited to the changing threat environment.

One impact of reduced capacity is a reduction in dwell time, that is, the time available between deployments during which units recover, train, and prepare for the next mission. The stated ideal deployment-to-dwell (D2D) time ratio is 1 to 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 to 2, which translates to roughly seven-month deployments separated by stretches of 14 months at home. Under the budget caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, capacity will be reduced even further, and the D2D ratio for the Marine Corps could fall to 1 to 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, approximately half of Marine Corps units have experienced degraded readiness according to official testimony. In previous years, the service had more specifically reported 58 percent of its units meeting readiness requirements. The less specific reporting this year is itself a troubling signal for the readiness of the Marines.

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Capability. As if the above status of America’s conventional forces is 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, everything that is necessary to ensure that this capability remains viable is in decline.

The U.S. nuclear weapons enterprise is composed of several key elements: 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 and talent underpinnings of this sector are the chief problems facing America’s nuclear enterprise. Delivery platforms are aging but reliable; however, 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 China, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia.

Absent nuclear weapons testing, the assessment of weapons reliability becomes more subjective, forced to rely 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 with modern equipment. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned in October 2008 that “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, as well as 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, according to nuclear expert John Foster Jr., the U.S. no longer can “serially produce many crucial components of our nuclear weapons.”

U.S. Missile Defense. The current U.S. missile defense program is inadequate for the threat that the United States faces from North Korea or Iran, and potentially from China or Russia. Current U.S. missile defense systems consist of the Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GBMD) system based in both Alaska and California, which is primarily designed to protect the United States from missiles launched from North Korea; the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, an Army system that provides protection from ballistic missiles in their terminal phase; the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) typically carried by Aegis-radar-equipped Navy destroyers and cruisers; and, finally, the Patriot missile system operated by the Army, which provides local missile defense protection for point targets. Although there are several systems, because of the growing threat, combined with the promise of new technological opportunities, it is clear the United States is not making adequate investments in future missile defense technologies, such as space-based missile defense, or concepts like the Multiple Object Kill Vehicle that were put on hold only to be restarted years later. Unless the current plan changes, there will not be enough GBMD long-range missile defense interceptors to support the current missile defense policy of 44 deployed interceptors, let alone when accounting for the worsening missile defense threat. Similarly, the United States does not have enough THAAD, Patriot, and SM-3 interceptors in the inventory to address short-range and intermediate-range ballistic missile threats.

Conclusion

In short, lack of adequate funding combined with sustained high usage of the military has led to an aged force with only a marginal ability to protect America’s security interests. On the current modernization path at existing levels of funding, the United States is likely to find itself with a reduced military that, even if equipped with state-of-the-art capabilities, is incapable of conducting sustained operations against a credible opponent.


Recommendations


Increase Defense Spending to at Least $632 Billion a Year Starting in 2018 to Begin Rebuilding the Military. This number does not include Overseas Contingency Operations funding, and future defense budgets should similarly reflect a more robust commitment from Congress to provide for the common defense, as well as returning military accounts to their appropriate budget functions. The Heritage Foundation’s analysis is that a base budget of $632 billion for 2018 with growth between 3 percent and 5 percent in subsequent years would put the Defense Department on a trajectory to eventually meeting the needed numbers of ships, planes, and troops that will allow it to successfully protect U.S. national interests.

The U.S. Army

Increase Army End Strength by 12,000 Active, 2,000 Reserve, and 3,000 National Guard Soldiers Annually to Responsibly Rebuild Personnel Levels. As U.S. Army leaders have repeatedly testified, the Army is currently too small to meet its wartime obligations.

Mandate that the Department of Defense Produce a Budget Request and Plan for the Modernization of Cold War Platforms and the Introduction of Next-Generation Platforms. Currently, the Army is relying on an incremental modernization of its major platforms, applying improvement packages as they are able to be funded. While this has preserved the fighting ability of the platform, this strategy fails to take advantage of new design opportunities. Other countries, such as Russia, are introducing new “clean-sheet” platforms. The Army and Defense Department need to do the same to avoid being outmatched on a future battlefield.

The U.S. Navy

Provide the Navy with the $2 Billion It Requested for Readiness in FY 2016. The Navy’s unfunded FY 2016 priorities include $500 million for air operations, $339 million for ship operations, and $647 million for ship depot maintenance. Recent ship collisions (the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John McCain) and navy aircraft accidents highlight shortfalls in training and maintenance that additional funding could mitigate.

Invest in Long-Term Growth of the Fleet. The Navy has a long way to go before reaching its 355-ship goal, but Congress can strive to more closely match the CBO’s estimate of $26 billion annually in the shipbuilding account toward this end. The current size of the Navy’s fleet (276 ships) is insufficient for meeting the requests and needs of the Combatant Commanders. With an annual investment of $26 billion in shipbuilding, the Navy will be on a path to reach the requirement of 355 ships by around 2035.

Shorten Build Cycles. As a consequence of sequestration, Congress had to lengthen the build cycle of aircraft carriers in recent years. If the funding is at the right level, Congress can authorize a shorter build cycle. Building an aircraft carrier in four years instead of five years, for example, will allow the Navy to meet its 355-ship requirement sooner.

Oppose Early Retirement of Vessels. In past years, the Navy attempted to retire some of its Ticonderoga-class cruisers prematurely merely as a bill payer for other priorities, but Congress wisely blocked these plans. The Ticonderoga-class cruiser is still a capable platform and should be maintained in the fleet until it is replaced.

The U.S. Air Force

Incrementally Increase Authorized Air Force End Strength to 326,000 Airmen in FY 2018, to 337,000 by 2022, and to 350,000 by 2025. Manpower is one of the key limiting factors to flying time and unit readiness, and it must be addressed through a robust, but incremental, accessions process.

Institute Targeted Incentives for Retention. In the coming years, the U.S. Air Force will be faced with a personnel shortage. Congress should head off the 3,400-aircraft maintainer and 840-plus-pilot shortfalls by instituting effective and targeted incentive programs.

Ensure that the Air Force Has Sufficient Funding to Allow Pilots Increased Flight Time. With current funding shortfalls, pilots have seen significant reductions in training flight time, resulting in readiness levels that are below the hollow-force of the 1970s.

Fund the Expedited Acquisition of the F-35A fighter and the KC-46 Next-Generation Tanker, and Development of the B-21 Bomber. Acquiring aircraft with leading-edge technology must by matched stride-for-stride with expanded opportunities for realistic, full-spectrum combat training if the Air Force is to continue to meet the air cover and offensive employment demands of the Joint Warfighter.

The U.S. Marine Corps

Increase Marine Corps End Strength from the Current 182,000 Active-Duty Marines to a Revised Minimum of 194,000. The Marine Corps has stated it can responsibly grow the service by an additional 3,000 Marines per year. Congress should fund recruitment, retention, and personnel accounts commensurate with facilitating this growth. This will ensure that the Marine Corps is able to field the requested number of battalions needed to improve the deployment-to-dwell (D2D) time ratio, which will improve readiness.

Nuclear Weapons and Missile Defense

Fund U.S. Nuclear Warheads, Delivery Platforms—Including the Triad—and Supporting Nuclear Infrastructure. U.S. nuclear weapon systems are aged, and a majority of them are serving well past their intended service lives. The Obama Administration started the process to invest in delivery platforms, but a greater sustained effort is needed.

Demand the Development and Deployment of a Space-Based Missile Defense Interceptor Layer. This step is the most appropriate for addressing the multitude of ballistic missile threats facing the United States. Space-based interceptors hold the most promise for a long-term comprehensive and affordable missile defense capability for the United States.

Improve Capabilities of the Currently Deployed Missile Defense Systems. The United States must invest in command-and-control networks as well as discrimination capabilities as a way to maximize the effectiveness of the currently deployed missile-defense interceptors. Additionally, the U.S. must ensure that the projected interceptor procurements correspond with the state of the ballistic missile threat.

Defense Department–Wide Reforms

Authorize a “Smart” Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Program. Military leaders have documented 22 percent excess infrastructure across defense installations. This 22 percent infrastructure represents hundreds of millions of dollars in annual operating costs that the Defense Department could be using to increase its readiness, buy new weapon systems, or train its forces. The Defense Department projects that this infrastructure is in excess even in areas where the Armed Forces are growing substantially, such as the Administration’s goal to increase the Army back to at least 500,000 active-duty soldiers. Opposition to BRAC comes mainly from parochial interests that fear the closure of local military installations. While such fears are understandable, failure to authorize a BRAC, which the Defense Department has requested for five straight years, does material harm to the U.S. military.


Facts and Figures


FACT: In order to continue to defend U.S. citizens and interests around the globe, the U.S. military requires a force capable of fighting two wars simultaneously.

  • 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 relevant capabilities to both conduct and win a major contingency while maintaining sufficient force to deter an opportunistic competitor from taking advantage of the U.S.’s involvement in a regional conflict.
  • The historical record and national-level studies indicate that the U.S. needs an active Army of 50 brigade combat teams, a Navy approaching 355 ships, an Air Force of at least 1,200 fighter and attack aircraft, and a Marine Corps based on 36 battalions.

FACT: The U.S. Army is shrinking to a dangerous size—jeopardizing its ability to defend U.S. interests.

  • Since 2012, the active Army has been downsized from 552,100 soldiers and 45 BCTs in FY 2013 to 476,000 soldiers and 31 BCTs in FY 2017.
  • A 14 percent reduction in troop numbers resulted in a 31 percent reduction in BCTs.
  • At current levels of funding, the Army can maintain only one-third of its force at acceptable levels of readiness, though the historical record suggests that the U.S. needs an active Army of 50 BCTs.

FACT: The U.S. Navy is too small, and improperly maintained, to sustain its global operations.

  • The Navy requires roughly 355 ships but currently only sails 277.
  • The Navy needs roughly $26 billion for shipbuilding annually to reach 355 ships, the Navy’s current specific fleet goal.
  • However, historic averages for shipbuilding are less than $16 billion, a $10 billion annual shortfall.
  • This capacity shortfall, combined with readiness challenges wrought by underinvestment in maintenance and training, has resulted in the Navy only being capable of surging two-thirds the forces that Combatant Commanders deem acceptable to respond to major military engagements.

FACT: The U.S. Air Force is the smallest in its history.

  • The Air Force has determined that it needs 3,643 fighter pilots. At the end of 2016, it was 840 fighter pilots short.
  • With too few aircraft in the inventory, the average age of USAF aircraft is 27 years.
  • At the height of the Cold War, the NATO standard for fighter-pilot flying time was 200 hours per year. Fighter squadrons would not take pilots who flew fewer than 150 hours a year into combat. Today, the average U.S. fighter pilot receives 150 hours of flight time in training each year.

FACT: The U.S. Marine Corps is too small to sustain its current operational tempo into the future.

  • Overall reductions in end strength have left the Marine Corps with 23 infantry battalions, down from 27 in 2013.
  • End-strength levels are authorized by Congress each year. Sequestration and other budget cuts led to the necessary decision to reduce Marine Corps capacity well below the necessary level of roughly 202,000 Marines. The Marine Corps is currently authorized at 176,000.
  • In order to preserve readiness for the undersized and underfunded fleet, the Marine Corps has delayed progress on countless modernization programs. For example, the service has not fielded a new amphibious assault vehicle since 1971.

FACT: America’s nuclear weapons enterprise has been improperly funded for years, which has eroded the strategic utility of this defense platform.

  • Maintaining a safe, secure, effective, and reliable nuclear stockpile requires modern facilities, technical expertise, and tools to repair any malfunctions quickly, safely, and securely, as well as to produce new nuclear weapons, if required.
  • However, modern simulations 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.
  • Moreover, 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.

Selected Additional Resources


Michaela Dodge, “Recommendations for the Next Ballistic Missile Defense-and-Defeat Review,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3239, August 4, 2017.

Michaela Dodge, “Time to Withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4675, March 29, 2017.

Michaela Dodge, “The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Weapons Policy: First Steps,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4634, November 30, 2016.

Michaela Dodge, “The Trump Nuclear Posture Review: Next Steps,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3123, May 25, 2017.

Thomas W. Spoehr and Rachel Zissimos, “Preventing a Defense Crisis: The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act Must Begin to Restore U.S. Military Strength,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3205, March 29, 2017.

John Venable, “Independent Capability Assessment of U.S. Air Force Reveals Readiness Level Below Carter Administration Hollow Force,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3208, April 17, 2017.

Dakota L. Wood, ed., 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength, The Heritage Foundation.

Rachel Zissimos and Thomas W. Spoehr, “Putting Defense Spending in Context: Simple Comparisons Are Inadequate,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3229, July 12, 2017.