The United States maintains a military force primarily to protect the homeland from attack and to protect its interests abroad. There are secondary uses, such as to assist civil authorities in times of disaster or to deter opponents from threatening America’s interests, but this force’s primary purpose is to make it possible for the U.S. to physically impose its will on an enemy when necessary.
Given the importance of this constitutional responsibility, one might reasonably assume that the government uses some standardized, consistent reference to understand the state of security affairs and to assess the evolving status of threats to U.S. interests, the environment within which the U.S. military would operate to protect those interests, and the condition of the U.S. military itself. Regrettably, it does not. Washington is awash in a flood of papers offering opinions on these matters, but they lack coherence, consistency, repeatability, and objectivity.
Without a standardized, consistent reference, our national leadership cannot effectively measure our current military posture or understand strategic risk relative to our nation’s ability to defend its vital national interests. And, without such a reference, the American public cannot know whether our security posture is improving or worsening from year to year.
The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength seeks to fill this void with an annual assessment of the state of America’s “hard power” and its related strategic context. The inaugural 2015 edition establishes a baseline assessment on which future annual editions will build, with each issue assessing the state of affairs for its respective year and measuring how things have changed from the previous year.
What the Index Assesses
The Index assesses the ease or difficulty of operating in key regions based on existing alliances, regional political stability, the presence of U.S. military forces, and the condition of key infrastructure. Threats are assessed based on the behavior and physical capabilities of actors that pose challenges to U.S. vital national interests. The condition of America’s military power is measured in terms of its capability or modernity, capacity for operations, and readiness to handle assigned missions successfully. This framework provides a single source reference for policymakers and the American public who seek to know whether America’s military power is up to the task of defending our national interests.
Key to any discussion about the aggregate capacity and breadth of military power needed to address threats to U.S. security interests is knowing with clarity what interests must be defended. Three vital interests have been stated consistently in various ways by a string of Administrations over the past few decades:
- Defense of the homeland;
- Successful conclusion of a major war having 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 United States needs a military force of sufficient size, or what is known in the Pentagon as “capacity.” Due to the many factors involved, determining how big the military should be is a complex exercise. However, successive Administrations, Congresses, and Department of Defense staffs have done so, arriving at a surprisingly consistent force-sizing rationale: an ability to handle two major wars or “major regional contingencies” (MRC) simultaneously or in closely overlapping timeframes—a “two- MRC” requirement that is embraced in this Index.
At the core of this requirement is the conviction that the United States should have the ability to engage and decisively defeat one major opponent and simultaneously have the wherewithal to do the same with another to preclude opportunistic exploitation by any competitor. During the Cold War, the U.S. found itself involved in a major “hot” war every 15–20 years while simultaneously maintaining substantial combat forces in Europe and several other regions. The size of the total force roughly approximated the two-MRC model. Accordingly, our assessment of the adequacy of today’s U.S. military is based on its ability to engage and defeat two major competitors at roughly the same time.
This Index’s benchmark for a two-MRC force is derived from a review of the forces used for each major war that the U.S. has undertaken since World War II and the major defense studies completed by the federal government over the past 30 years. We concluded that a standing (i.e., Active Duty component) two-MRC–capable Joint Force would consist of:
- Army: 50 brigade combat teams (BCTs);
- Navy: 346 surface combatants and 624 strike aircraft;
- Air Force: 1,200 fighter/ground-attack aircraft; and
- Marine Corps: 36 battalions.
The Global Operating Environment
Looking at the world as an environment in which U.S. forces would operate to protect America’s interests, the Index focused on three regions—Europe, the Middle East, and Asia—because of the intersection of our vital interests and actors able to challenge them.
Europe. For the most part, Europe is a stable, mature, and friendly environment, home to America’s oldest and closest allies. The U.S. is tied to it by treaty, robust economic bonds, and deeply rooted cultural linkages. America’s partners in the region are politically stable; possess mature (if debt-laden) economies; and have fairly modern (though shrinking) militaries. America’s longtime presence in the region, Europe’s well-established basing and support infrastructure, and the framework for coordinated action provided by NATO make the region quite favorable for military operations.
The Middle East. In contrast, the Middle East is a deeply troubled area riven with conflict, ruled by authoritarian regimes, and populated by an increasing number of terrorist and other destabilizing entities. Though the United States does enjoy a few strong partnerships in the region, its interests are beset by security and political challenges linked to the unfinished business of the Arab Spring, surging transnational terrorism, and the potential threat of a nuclear Iran. Offsetting these challenges to some extent is the U.S. military’s experience in the region and the basing infrastructure it has developed and leveraged for nearly 25 years.
Asia. Asia’s defining characteristic is its expanse, covering 30 percent of the globe’s land area. Though the region includes long-standing allies of the U.S. that are stable and possess advanced economies, the tyranny of distance makes U.S. military operations in the region difficult in terms of the time and sea-and airlift required.
Summarizing the condition of each region enables us to get a sense of how they compare in terms of the challenge the U.S. would have in projecting military power and sustaining combat operations in each one.
As a whole, the world currently rates a middle score of “moderate,” meaning that the United States should be able to project military power anywhere in the world as necessary to defend its interests without substantial opposition or high levels of risk.
Threats to U.S. Interests
Our selection of threat actors discounted troublesome states and non-state entities that lacked the physical ability to pose a meaningful threat to the vital security interests of the U.S. This reduced the population of all potential threats to a half-dozen that possessed both the means to threaten and a pattern of provocative behavior that should draw the focus of U.S. defense planning. This Index characterizes their behavior and military capabilities on five-point, descending scales:
Each of the six threat actors was particularly aggressive during 2014, with a not altogether surprising correlation of physical capability and state robustness or coherence. Our scoring resulted in the individual marks depicted below:
Combining the assessments of behavior and capability led to a general characterization of each threat, ranging from “severe” to “low.” Most of the actors pose an “elevated” threat to U.S. interests, while Russia and China are “high” threats due to the scale and reach of their military forces.
While all six threats have been quite problematic in their behavior and in their impact on their respective regions, Russia and China are particularly worrisome given the investments they are making in the rapid modernization and expansion of their offensive military capabilities.
North Korea warrants close attention not because it has any substantial ability to deploy conventional combat power against the United States directly but because it possesses nuclear weapons capable of reaching U.S. facilities and America’s critical security and economic partners in the region. Furthermore, a conventional war between North and South Korea would have profound consequences for the global economy.
Similarly, Afghanistan/Pakistan-based terrorism holds strong potential to spark a large-scale conflict between Pakistan and India (two nuclear powers) or even to pose a nuclear threat to others should radicalized Islamists gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
Finally, U.S. security interests would be more threatened by Iran and the various terrorist groups operating in the Middle East than they currently are if they possessed a greater physical ability to project military power outside of their immediate areas.
Taken together, the globalized threat to U.S. vital national interests as a whole during 2014 is assessed to be “elevated.”
The Status of U.S. Military Power
Finally, we assessed the military power of the United States in three areas: capability, capacity, and readiness. We approached this assessment by military service as the clearest way to link military force size; modernization programs; unit readiness; and (in general terms) the functional combat power (land, sea, and air) largely represented by each service. We treated the United States’ nuclear capability as a separate entity given the truly unique elements that make it possible, from the weapons themselves to the supporting infrastructure that is fundamentally different from that which supports conventional capabilities.
The three areas of assessment (capability, capacity, and readiness) are central to the overarching questions of whether the U.S. has a sufficient quantity of appropriately modern military power and whether military units are able to conduct military operations on demand and effectively.
The common theme across the services and the United States’ nuclear enterprise is one of force degradation resulting from many years of underinvestment, poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of budget sequestration (i.e., cuts in funding) on readiness and capacity. While the military has been heavily engaged in operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere since September 11, 2001, experience is both ephemeral and context-sensitive. As such, valuable combat experience is lost over time as the servicemembers who individually gained experience leave the force, and it maintains direct relevance only for future operations of a similar type (e.g., counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and major conventional operations against a state like Iran or China are fundamentally different).
Thus, though the current Joint Force is experienced in some types of operations, it is still aged and shrinking in its capacity for operations.
We characterized the services and nuclear enterprise on a five-category scale ranging from “very weak” to “very strong,” benchmarked against criteria elaborated in the full report. These characterizations are not a reflection of the competence of individual servicemembers or the professionalism of the services or Joint Force as a whole; nor do they speak to the U.S. military’s strength relative to other militaries around the world. Rather, they are assessments of the institutional, programmatic, and matériel health or viability of America’s hard military power.
Our analysis concluded with these assessments:
- Army as “Marginal.” The Army was at the low end of the middle grade (“marginal”) in capacity and capability and scored quite low in readiness (as reported by the Army), the three scores combining to place it in the low end of the middle category.
- Navy as “Marginal.” The Navy scored quite strong in readiness but at a cost to future capability. Deferred maintenance has kept ships at sea, but at some point in the near future, this will affect the Navy’s ability to deploy. Combined with a weak score in capability (due largely to old platforms and troubled modernization programs) and a “marginal” score in capacity, the Navy is currently just able to meet requirements.
- Air Force as “Strong.” The Air Force flies a lot and has significantly more aircraft than required for a two-MRC force, but it is an old Air Force, and its modernization programs are problematic. Still, its high scores in capacity and readiness placed it in the best position of all of the services.
- Marine Corps as “Marginal.” The Corps’ strongest suit was in readiness, but even here there are problems as stated by the Corps itself. While the fighting competence of the service is superb, it is hampered by old equipment, troubled replacement programs for its key ground vehicles, and a shrinking force. The progress it has made in replacing its rotary-wing aircraft is a notable bright spot in its modernization portfolio.
- Nuclear Capabilities as “Marginal.” Modernization, testing, and investment in the intellectual/talent underpinnings of this sector are the chief elements plaguing the United States’ nuclear enterprise. Its 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 competitor states.
In aggregate, the United States’ military posture is rated as “Marginal.”
Overall, the Index concludes that the current U.S. military force is adequate to meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities. Clearly, this is what the military is doing now and has done for the past two decades, but it would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two, near-simultaneous major regional contingencies. The consistent decline in funding and the consequent shrinking of the force are putting it under significant pressure. Essential maintenance is being deferred; fewer units (mostly the Navy’s platforms and the Special Operations Forces community) are being cycled through operation-al deployments more often and for longer periods; and old equipment is being extended while programmed replacements are problematic. The cumulative effect of such factors has resulted in a U.S. military that is marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.