An Assessment of U.S. Military Power

It is a self-evident truth that America must first and foremost have the military capability to defend America from attack. Beyond that defense of the homeland, America has interests around the globe, such as protecting Americans abroad, allies, and the freedom to use international sea, air, and space. If America had the military capability to fight one and only one contingency at a time, then any time America became involved in such a contingency, the world situation would be ripe for attacks on American interests elsewhere, because an America tied down on one contingency would lack the capability to deter or defeat the attacks. America needs armed forces sufficient to protect the homeland and have the capacity to fight and win two major regional contingencies.

The U.S. does not have the right force to meet a two–major regional contingency (MRC) requirement, and is not ready to carry out its duties effectively.

How to Think About Sizing Military Power

There are countless ways to assess the condition of America’s “hard power”—its physical military might—and there will be advocates for, and certainly critics of, any conceivable approach. This is understandable given the multitude of factors that bear upon the matter. Military power begins with the people and equipment used to conduct war: the weapons, tanks, ships, airplanes, and supporting tools such as communications systems that make it possible for one group to impose its will on another or to prevent such an outcome from happening.

However, simply counting the number of people, tanks, or combat aircraft that the U.S. possesses would be irrelevant because it would lack context. For example, the U.S. Army might have 100 tanks, but to accomplish a specific military task relative to a given enemy in a specific place could require 1,000 tanks or none at all. It might be that the terrain on which a battle is fought is especially ill-suited to tanks or that the tanks one has are inferior to the enemy’s. The enemy could be quite adept at using tanks, with his tank crews skilled in their craft and his tanks well-maintained, or his tank operations perhaps integrated into a larger employment concept that leverages the supporting fires of infantry and airpower, whereas one’s own tanks are poorly maintained, the crews are ill-prepared to operate them in an anti-armor environment, or one’s doctrine is irrelevant.

Success in war is partly a function of matching the tools of warfare to a specific task and employing those tools effectively in the conditions of the battle. Get these wrong—tools, objective, competency, or context—and you lose.

Another key element is the military’s capacity for conducting operations: how many of the right tools it has: people, tanks, planes, or ships. One might have the right tools and know how to use them effectively but not have enough to win. Given that one cannot know with certainty beforehand just when, where, against whom, and for what reason a battle might be fought, determining how much capability is needed is an exercise of informed, but not certain, judgment.

Further, two different combatants can use the same set of tools in radically different ways to quite different effects. The concept of employment matters. Concepts are developed to account for numbers, capabilities, material readiness, and all sorts of other factors that enable or constrain one’s actions, such as whether one fights alone or alongside allies, on familiar or strange terrain, or with a large, well-equipped force or with a small, poorly equipped force.

The answers to all of these questions and the nature of the materials, the skills, and the enemy against which one is operating, as well as a multitude of other contributing factors, all bear upon the outcome.

Measuring hard combat power in terms of its adequacy in capability, capacity, and readiness to defend U.S. vital interests is hard, but not impossible. Indeed, regardless of the difficulty of determining the adequacy of one’s military forces, the Secretary of Defense and the military services have to make decisions every year when the annual defense budget request is submitted to Congress.

The budget request begins with the requirements registered by the military services, derived from their assessment of what they need, both singly and in combination with each other, to accomplish assigned missions; but that is just a starting point. Defense budget requests are not fiscally unconstrained documents. Nor do they develop in a vacuum free of competing policy priorities; changing philosophies of governance; a given Administration’s worldview (how it views U.S. interests, threats to those interests, and major actors in regional and global affairs); or the tangle of interests that drive budget decisions within the U.S. Congress.

The adequacy of hard power is affected most directly by the resources the nation is willing to invest. While that investment decision is informed to a significant degree by an appreciation of threats to U.S. interests and the ability of a given defense portfolio to protect U.S. interests against such threats, it is not informed solely by such considerations; thus the importance of clarity and honesty in determining just what is needed in hard power and the status of such hard power from year to year.

The amount of money that each U.S. Administration is willing to request for defense is a reflection of that Administration’s priorities, but since these priorities change from Administration to Administration, and even within the term of an Administration, it is not unusual to see meaningful variance from year to year.

Administrations take various approaches to determine the type and amount of military power needed. After defining the national interests to be protected, the Department of Defense can use worst-case scenarios to determine the maximum challenges the U.S. military might have to overcome. Another way is to redefine what constitutes a threat. By taking a different view of major actors as to whether they pose a meaningful threat, and the extent to which friends and allies have an ability to assist the U.S. in meeting security objectives, one can arrive at different conclusions about necessary military strength. For example, one Administration might view China as a rising, belligerent power bent on dominating the Asia-Pacific. Another Administration may view China as an inherently peaceful rising economic power, with the expansion of its military capabilities a natural occurrence commensurate with its strengthening status. The difference between these views can have a dramatic impact on how one thinks about U.S. defense requirements. So, too, can policymakers amplify or downplay risk to justify defense budget decisions.

There can also be strongly differing views on requirements for operational capacity. Does the country need enough for two major combat operations (MCOs) at roughly the same time or just enough for a single major operation plus some number of lesser cases? To what extent should “presence” tasks—the use of forces for routine engagement with partner countries or simply to be on hand in a region for crisis response—be additive to or a subset of a military force sized to handle two major regional conflicts?

Where to Start

There are references that one can use to help sort through the variables to arrive at a starting point for assessing the adequacy of today’s military posture: government studies and historical experience. The government occasionally conducts formal reviews meant to inform decisions on capabilities and capacities across the Joint Force relative to the threat environment (current and projected) and evolutions in operating conditions, the advancement of technologies, and aspects of U.S. interests that may call for one type of military response over another.

The 1993 Bottom-Up Review (BUR), conducted by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, is one such often-cited example. As stated by Secretary Aspin:

I felt that a department-wide review needed to be conducted “from the bottom up” because of the dramatic changes that have occurred in the world as a result of the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These changes in the international security environment have fundamentally altered America’s security needs. Thus, the underlying premise of the Bottom-Up Review was that we needed to reassess all of our defense concepts, plans, and programs from the ground up.1

The BUR formally established the requirement for U.S. forces to be able “to achieve decisive victory in two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts [MRCs] and to conduct combat operations characterized by rapid response and a high probability of success….”2 Thus was formalized the two-MRC standard.

As pointed out by Dr. Daniel Gouré in his essay, various Administrations have redefined force requirements based on their perceptions of what was necessary to protect U.S. interests, but the supporting rationale and how it was conveyed to Congress were functions of an Administration’s approach to working with Congress. In an attempt to formalize the process, and perhaps to have a mechanism by which to exert influence over the executive branch in such matters,3 Congress mandated that each incoming Administration must conduct a comprehensive strategic review of the global security environment, articulate a relevant strategy suited to protecting and promoting U.S. security interests, and recommend an associated military force posture.

The first Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) was conducted in 1997. An independent National Defense Panel (NDP) has also been convened to review and comment on three of the five QDR reports (1997, 2010, and 2014). Both sets of documents purport to serve as key assessments, but analysts have come to regard them as justifications for executive branch policy preferences (QDR report) or overly broad, generalized commentaries (NDP reports) that lack substantive discussion about threats to U.S. interests, a credible strategy for dealing with them, and the actual ability of the U.S. military to meet national security requirements.

Correlation of Forces as a Factor in Force Sizing

During the Cold War, the U.S. assessed its need for hard power against what the Soviets fielded, accounting for Soviet numbers, platform capabilities, employment doctrine, and force disposition on land, at sea, and in the air in multiple theaters. At that time, the correlation of forces—a comparison of one force against another to determine strengths and weaknesses—was highly symmetrical. U.S. planners compared tanks, aircraft, and ships against their direct counterparts in the opposing force. These comparison assessments drove the sizing, characteristics, and capabilities of fleets, armies, and air forces.

With the evolution of guided, precision munitions and the rapid technological advancements in surveillance and targeting systems, however, comparing combat power grew more difficult. What was largely a platform v. platform model has shifted somewhat to a munitions v. target model.

The proliferation of precise weaponry increasingly means that each round, bomb, rocket, missile, and even individual bullet (in some instances) can hit its intended target, thus decreasing the number of munitions needed to prosecute an operation. It also means that the lethality of an operating environment increases significantly for the people and platforms involved. We are now at the point where one must consider how many “smart munitions” the enemy has when thinking about how many platforms and people are needed to win a combat engagement instead of focusing primarily on how many ships or airplanes the enemy can bring to bear against one’s own force.4

In one sense, increased precision and the technological advances now being incorporated into U.S. weapons, platforms, and operating concepts make it possible to do far more with fewer assets than ever before. Platform signature reduction (stealth) makes it harder for the enemy to find and target them, while the increased precision of weapons makes it possible for fewer platforms to hit many more targets. Additionally, the U.S. Joint Force’s ability to harness computers, modern telecommunications, space-based platforms—such as for surveillance, communications, positioning-navigation-timing (PNT) support from GPS satellites—and networked operations potentially means that smaller forces can have far greater effect in battle than at any other time in history. But these same advances also enable enemy forces. And certain military functions—such as seizing, holding, and occupying territory—may require a certain number of soldiers no matter how state-of-the-art their equipment may be.

With smaller forces, each individual element of the force represents a greater percentage of its combat power. Each casualty or equipment loss takes a larger toll on the ability of the force to sustain high-tempo, high-intensity combat operations over time—especially if the force is dispersed across a wide theater or across multiple theaters of operation.

As advanced technology has become more affordable, it has become more accessible for nearly any actor, state or non-state. Consequently, it may be that the outcomes of future wars will pivot to a much greater degree on the skill of the forces and their capacity to sustain operations over time than they will on some great disparity in technology. If so, readiness and capacity will take on greater importance than absolute advances in capability.

All of this illustrates the difficulties and need for exercise of judgment in assessing the adequacy of America’s military power. Yet without such an assessment, all that we are left with are the quadrennial strategic reviews (which are subject to filtering and manipulation to suit policy interests); annual budget submissions (which typically favor desired military programs at presumed levels of affordability and are therefore necessarily budget-constrained); and leadership posture statements that often simply align with executive branch policy priorities.

The U.S. Joint Force and the Art of War

This section of the Index on military capabilities assessed the adequacy of the United States’ defense posture as it pertains to a conventional understanding of “hard power”—defined as the ability of American military forces to engage and defeat an enemy’s forces in battle at a scale commensurate with the vital national interests of the U.S. While some hard truths in military affairs are appropriately addressed by math and science, others are not. Speed, range, probability of detection, radar cross-section are examples of quantifiable characteristics that can be measured. Specific future instances where U.S. military power will be needed, the competency of the enemy, the political will to sustain operations in the face of mounting deaths and destruction, and the absolute amount of strength needed to win are matters of judgment and experience, but they nevertheless affect how large and capable a force one might need.

In conducting the assessment, we accounted for both quantitative and qualitative aspects of military forces, informed by an experience-based understanding of military operations and the expertise of external reviewers.

As noted earlier, military effectiveness is as much an art as it is a science. Specific military capabilities represented in weapons, platforms, and military units can be used individually to some effect. Practitioners of war, however, have learned that combining the tools of war in various ways and orchestrating their tactical employment in series or simultaneously can dramatically amplify the effectiveness of the force committed to battle. For example:

  • Advanced operations by special operations forces can sabotage enemy resources or locate, identify, and mark key targets for precision strike, thereby compromising an enemy’s ability to defend and creating exploitable vulnerabilities.
  • Cyber-weapons used before or in conjunction with conventional actions can degrade enemy sensors and communications or introduce false information into an enemy’s analytic and decision-making processes.
  • Staging resources close to anticipated theaters of action helps to develop situational awareness and familiarity with the battlespace and reduces response time.
  • Establishing and maintaining secure lines of communication enables the sustainment of operations from secure locations beyond the enemy’s reach in the face of high-resource consumption associated with combat.
  • Control of the sea, air, and land spaces enables the shifting of forces to gain positional advantage, denies the enemy such an advantage, and complicates the enemy’s calculations.
  • Electronic attack-capable aircraft suppress the enemy’s surveillance and anti-air defense systems, thus enabling attack aircraft to strike critical targets that further degrade the enemy’s capabilities.
  • Space-based and unmanned aerial systems provide surveillance and precise targeting, dissemination of intelligence, and coordination of widely dispersed tactical actions.

All of these things, among many others, contribute to—even make possible—the success of U.S. forces in modern warfare. They are exceedingly hard to measure in any quantitative way, but their value as critical contributors in the conduct of war is undeniable. How they are utilized is very much an art-of-war matter, learned through experience over time.

What Is Not Being Assessed

In assessing the current status of the military forces, this Index uses the primary references used by the military services themselves when they discuss their ability to employ hard combat power. The Army’s unit of measure is the brigade combat team (BCT), while the Marine Corps structures itself by battalions. For the Navy, it is the number of ships in its combat fleet, and the Air Force’s most consistent reference is total number of aircraft, sometimes broken down into the two primary sub-types of fighters and bombers.

Obviously, this is not the totality of service capabilities and certainly is not everything needed for war, but these measures can be viewed as surrogate measures that subsume or represent the vast number of other things that make these “units of measure” possible and effective in battle. There is an element of proportionality or ratio related to these measures that drives other aspects of force sizing. For example:

  • When planning air operations, the Air Force looks at the targets to be serviced and the nature of the general operation to be supported and then accounts for aircraft and munitions needed (type and quantity) and the availability and characteristics of airfields relevant to the operation. From this they calculate sorties, distances, flight hours, fuel consumption, number of aircraft in a given piece of airspace, and a host of other pieces of information to determine how many aerial refueling tankers will be needed (as but one example).
  • Joint Force detailed planning for operations determines how much equipment, manpower, and supplies need to be moved from one point to another and how much more will be needed to sustain operations—logistics is a very quantitative business.
  • U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) calculates the amount of lift required in cargo planes, sealift shipping, long-haul road movements, and trains.
  • The Marine Corps operationally thinks in terms of Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) that are composed of command, ground, air, and logistics elements. The size of a MAGTF varies depending on the mission to be accomplished, but the nucleus is normally (though not always) the ground combat element that typically ranges from a battalion to a division. The amount of airpower, logistics support, and transportation (amphibious, sealift, and airlift) required to execute the operation extends from there.
  • The Navy thinks in terms of the number of surface combatants, the nature of operations, and proximity to ports to drive planning for all of the combat logistics force vessels that are needed to make it happen.
  • There are the institutional elements like the recruiting that is necessary to generate the force in the first place, the multitude of installations at which units are based, training facilities, acquisition workforce, and the military’s medical infrastructure.

The point here is that the military spear has a great deal of shaft that makes it possible for the tip to locate, close with, and destroy its target, and there is a rough proportionality between shaft and spear tip. Thus, in assessing the basic units of measure for combat power, one can get a sense of what is likely needed in the combat support, combat service support, and supporting establishment echelons. The scope of this Index does not extend to analysis of everything that makes hard power possible; it focuses on the status of the hard power itself.

This assessment also does not account for the Reserve and Guard components of the services; it focuses only on the Active component. Again, the element of proportion or ratio figures prominently. Each service determines the balance among its Active, Reserve, and National Guard elements (only the Army and Air Force have Guard elements; the Navy and Marine Corps do not) based on factors that include cost of the respective elements, availability for operational employment, time needed to respond to an emergent crisis, the allocation of roles between the elements, and political considerations. This assessment looks at the baseline requirement for a given amount of combat power that is readily available for use in a major combat operation—something usually associated with the Active components of each service.

The Defense Budget and Strategic Guidance

As for the defense budget, ample discussion of budget issues is scattered throughout (mainly as they pertain to acquisition programs), but the budget itself—whether for the military services individually, the Joint Force as a whole, or the totality of the defense establishment—is actually a reflection of the importance the U.S. places on the modernity, capacity, and readiness of the force rather than a measure of the capability of the force itself. In other words, the budget itself does not tell us much about the posture of the U.S. military.

The baseline budget for defense in FY 2014 was $496 billion, which paid for the forces (manpower, equipment, training); enabling capabilities (things like transportation, satellites, defense intelligence, and research and development); and institutional support (bases and stations, facilities, recruiting, and the like). The baseline budget does not pay for the cost of ongoing operations, which is captured in supplemental funding known as OCO (overseas contingency operations).

It is true that absent a significant threat to the survival of the country, the U.S. will always balance expenditures on defense with spending in all the other areas of government activity that it thinks are necessary or desirable. Some have argued that a defense budget indexed to a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) is a reasonable reference, but a fixed percentage of GDP does not accurately reflect national security requirements per se any more than the size of the budget alone correlates to levels of capability. It is possible that a larger defense budget could be associated with less military capability if the money were allocated inappropriately or spent wastefully, and just because the economy changes over time does not mean that defense spending should increase or decrease in lock-step by default.

Ideally, defense requirements are determined by identifying national interests that might need to be protected with military power; assessing the nature of threats to those interests and what would be needed to defeat those threats (and how much that would cost); and then determining what the country can afford (or is willing) to spend. Any difference between assessed requirement and affordable levels of spending on defense would constitute risk to U.S. security interests.

This Index enthusiastically adopts this latter approach: interests, threats, requirements, resulting force, and associated budget. Spending less than the amount needed to maintain a two-MRC force results in policy debates over where to accept risk: force modernization, the capacity to conduct large-scale or multiple simultaneous operations, or force readiness.

The decision to fund national defense commensurate with interests and prevailing threats is a policy decision reflecting national priorities and acceptance of risk. This Index assesses the ability of the nation’s military forces to protect vital national security interests within the world as it is so that the debate over funding hard power is better informed.

Relevant to this first assessment, in fiscal year (FY) 2014, the state of the federal budget was the most dominant consideration for DOD and the White House when it came to structuring the defense budget that makes possible the military’s operational posture. This situation, which began in 2011, has affected not only the crafting of defense strategy, but also the capability of the U.S. military and its planning for the future. Practically every single DOD document refers to budget issues in some way. Thus, a brief summary of the budget environment is necessary to understand why the Department of Defense and the military services are making the decisions they are making with respect to capability, capacity, and readiness.

Congress passed the Budget Control Act (BCA) in the summer of 2011. At the simplest level, the bill was intended to reduce the federal deficit by limiting government spending for 10 years. It does so through “sequestration,” which is an automatic budget cut across the whole of federal discretionary spending. Though the budget cuts are applied to all federal departments and agencies, the manner in which they are divided disproportionally affects DOD, with Defense absorbing half the cuts: $500 billion over the 10-year period.

FY 2013 was the first time sequester was implemented on the defense budget. Due to the nature of the cuts, all programs in DOD, with the exception of military personnel costs, were cut proportionally. As will be evident in the service assessments, military readiness took a significant hit due to the systematic nature of the cuts.

In 2013, Congress then passed the Bipartisan Budget Act, which provided DOD partial relief from sequestration for FY 2014 and FY 2015. Starting in FY 2016, however, barring another congressional bill, full sequestration will once again return. Though sequestration is the current law, DOD has developed two budget plans, one under a sequestration scenario and one under a higher defense budget.

The budget situation has also affected the defense strategy that guides planning for the military branches. The White House released a new strategic framework, the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG), following passage of the BCA. The 2012 DSG is the document that all four of the services use to set requirements and objectives and against which they assess themselves.

The DSG lays out a strategic framework, identifying the strategic interests of the country and establishing related defense priorities, with the current budget environment in mind. The document specifies 10 missions for which the military must prepare:5

  • Counter Terrorism and Irregular Warfare,
  • Deter and Defeat Aggression,
  • Project Power Despite Anti-Access/Area Denial Challenges,
  • Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction,
  • Operate Effectively in Cyberspace and Space,
  • Maintain a Safe, Secure, and Effective Nuclear Deterrent,
  • Defend the Homeland and Provide Support to Civil Authorities,
  • Provide a Stabilizing Presence,
  • Conduct Stability and Counterinsurgency Operations, and
  • Conduct Humanitarian, Disaster Relief, and Other Operations.

The DSG does address an operationally based force-sizing framework similar to the two-MRC concept. It requires that “[e]ven when the U.S. forces are committed to a large-scale operation in one region, they will be capable of denying the objectives of—or imposing unacceptable costs on—an opportunistic aggressor in a second region.”6 This can be thought of as a “one-plus” MRC requirement because the requirement in the second regional conflict is to “deny” rather than defeat the aggressor.

The 2012 DSG and current budget situation are the main shaping factors for the U.S. military, both in setting their own requirements and in their ability to meet those requirements. The implications for each of the four services will be enumerated in their individual assessments.

“Purpose” as a Driver in Force Sizing

The Joint Force is used for a wide range of purposes, only one of which is major combat operations. Fortunately, such events are rare, averaging roughly 15–20 years between occurrences.7 In between (and even during) such occurrences, the military is used in support of regional engagement, crisis response, strategic deterrence, humanitarian assistance, support to civil authorities, and supporting U.S. diplomacy.

The U.S. Unified Combatant Commands (EUCOM, CENTCOM, PACOM, SOUTHCOM, AFRICOM) each have annual and long-term plans through which they engage with countries in their assigned regions. These engagements range from very small unit training events with the forces of a single partner country to larger bilateral and sometimes multilateral military exercises. The smaller events constitute the majority of regional interactions and help to establish not only working relationships with other countries, but more detailed understanding of regional political–military dynamics and on-the-ground conditions in areas of interest. This facilitates earlier awareness of emerging problems, ideally precluding their eruption into full-blown crises, but also establishing conditions favorable to responding more quickly and effectively than would otherwise be possible.

To support such COCOM efforts, the services provide forces that are permanently based in respective regions or operate in them temporarily on a rotational basis. To make these regional rotations possible, the services must maintain a base force sufficiently large to train-up, deploy, support, receive back, and make ready again a stream of units ideally numerous enough to meet validated COCOM demand.

The ratio between time spent at home and time spent away on deployment for any given unit is known as OPTEMPO (operational tempo), and each service attempts to maintain a ratio that both gives units enough time to educate, train, and prepare their forces and allows the individuals in a unit to maintain some semblance of a healthy home and family life. This ensures that units are fully prepared for the next deployment cycle and that servicemembers do not become “burned out” or suffer adverse consequences in their personal lives because of excessive deployment time.

Experience has shown that a ratio of at least 3:1 is sustainable, meaning three periods of time at home for every period deployed. (If a unit is to be out for six months, it would be home for 18 months before deploying again.) Obviously, a service needs a sufficient number of people, units, ships, and planes to support such a ratio. If peacetime engagement were the primary focus for the Joint Force, the services could size their forces to support these forward-based and forward-deployed demands.

In contrast, sizing a force for major combat operations is an exercise informed by history—how much force was needed in previous wars—and then shaped and refined by analysis of current threats, a range of plausible scenarios, and expectations about what the U.S. can do given training, equipment, employment concept, and other factors. The defense establishment must then balance “force sizing” between COCOM requirements for presence and engagement with the amount thought necessary to win in likely war scenarios. Inevitably, compromises are made that account for how much military the country is willing to buy. Generally speaking:

  • The Army sizes to major warfighting requirements.
  • The Marine Corps focuses on crisis response demands and the ability to contribute to one major operation.
  • The Air Force attempts to strike a balance that accounts for historically based demand across the spectrum since air assets are shifted fairly easily from one theater of operations to another (“easily” being a relative term when compared to the challenge of shifting large land forces).
  • The Navy is driven by global presence requirements. To meet COCOM requirements for a continuous fleet presence at sea, the Navy must have three to four ships in order to have one on station. As a simplistic example, a commander who wants one U.S. warship stationed off the coast of a hostile country needs use of four ships from the fleet—one on station, one that left station and is traveling home, one that just left home and is traveling to station, and one that fills in for one of the other ships when it needs maintenance or training time.

This report focuses on the forces required to win two major wars as the baseline force-sizing metric. The military’s effectiveness as a deterrent against opportunistic competitor states and a valued training partner in the eyes of other countries derives from its effectiveness (proven or presumed) in winning wars.

Our Approach

With this in mind, we assessed the state of military affairs for U.S. forces as it pertains to their ability to deliver hard power against an enemy in three areas:

  • Capability,
  • Capacity, and
  • Readiness.

Capability. Examining the capability of a military force requires consideration of:

  • The proper tools (material and conceptual) of sufficient design, performance characteristics, technological advancement, and suitability for it to perform its function against an enemy force successfully.
  • The sufficiency of armored vehicles, ships, airplanes, and other equipment and weapons to win against the enemy.
  • The appropriate variety of options to preclude strategic vulnerabilities in the force and give flexibilities to battlefield commanders.
  • The degree to which elements of the force reinforce each other in covering potential vulnerabilities, maximizing strengths, and gaining greater effectiveness through synergies that are not possible in narrowly stovepiped, linear approaches to war.

The capability of the U.S. Joint Force was on ample display in its decisive conventional war victory over Iraq in liberating Kuwait in 1991. Aspects of its capability have also been seen in numerous other operations undertaken since the end of the Cold War. While the conventional combat aspect at the “pointy end of the spear” of power projection has been more moderate in places like Yugoslavia, Somalia, Bosnia and Serbia, and Kosovo, and even against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, the fact that the U.S. military was able to conduct highly complex operations thousands of miles away in austere, hostile environments and sustain those operations as long as required is testament to the ability of U.S. forces to do things that few, if any, other countries can do.

A modern-day “major combat operation”8 along the lines of those upon which Pentagon planners base their requirements would feature a major opponent possessing modern integrated air defenses; naval power (surface and subsurface); advanced combat aircraft (to include bombers); a substantial inventory of short-range, medium-range, and long-range missiles; current-generation ground forces (tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, rockets, and anti-armor weaponry); cruise missiles; and (in some cases) nuclear weapons. Such a challenge involving an actor capable of threatening vital national interests would present a challenge that is comprehensively different from the challenges that the U.S. Joint Force has faced in past decades.

This Index ascertains the relevance and health of military service capabilities by looking at factors such as average age of equipment, generation of equipment relative to the current state of competitor efforts as reported by the services, and the status of replacement programs meant to introduce more updated systems as older equipment reached the end of its programmed service life. While some of the information is quite quantitative, other factors could be considered judgment calls made by acknowledged experts in the relevant area of interest or as addressed by senior service officials when providing testimony to Congress or addressing specific areas in other official statements.

It must be determined if the services possess capabilities that are relevant to the modern combat environment.

Capacity. The U.S. military must have a sufficient quantity of the right capability or capabilities. There is a troubling but fairly consistent trend that characterizes the path from requirement to fielded capability within U.S. military acquisition. After an extraordinary amount of detailed analysis, the military settles on a specific quantity of a certain capability, presumably based on what it believes it will need to defeat likely enemy forces and complete assigned objectives. Along the way to acquiring this capability, however, several linked things happen that result in far less of a presumed “critical capability” than supposedly was required.

  • The manufacturing sector attempts to satisfy the requirements articulated by the military.
  • “Unexpected” technological hurdles arise that take longer and much more money to solve than anyone envisioned.
  • Programs are lengthened, and cost overruns are addressed (usually with more money).
  • Then realization sets in that the country either cannot afford or is unwilling to pay the cost of acquiring the total number of platforms originally called for. The acquisition goal is adjusted downward (if not canceled), and the military finally fields fewer platforms than it originally said it needed to be successful in combat.

This does not mean that the full amount of the more modern capability had no validity in the first place or that it would not actually be needed to win a war against a major competitor, but the level of risk presumably accepted to win wars without the full amount of the capability is never quantified either during the deliberation process or after the fact. For example:

  • B-2 Spirit nuclear-capable stealth bomber—Objective: 132; Fielded: 21.
  • F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter—Objective: 650; Fielded: 183.
  • DDG-1000 class destroyer—Objective: 32; Fielded: 3.
  • Littoral Combat Ship (LCS)—Objective: 55; Fielded: 32 (as currently planned).
  • Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV)—Objective: 1,013; Fielded: 0 (requirement was initially dropped to 573 before the program was canceled).

Similar examples can be cited regarding force structure size: the number of units and total number of personnel the services say they need to meet the objectives established by the Commander in Chief and his Secretary of Defense in their strategic guidance. The Marine Corps has stated that it needs 27 infantry battalions to fully satisfy the validated requirements of the regional combatant commanders, yet current funding for defense has the Corps on a path to 21. The Army was on a build toward 48 brigade combat teams, but funding reductions have it currently at 42, with an intermediate stop at 35 (presuming that Congress provides additional funding at sequestration levels mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011) on its way to 24 BCTs by 2019—half the number that the Army originally thought necessary—if sequestration remains law.

It is therefore entirely possible to update older equipment with new avionics, sensors, weapons, armor, communications suites, or engines as appropriate to maintain some level of combat relevance. Commanders can also employ fewer units more expertly for longer periods of time in an operational theater. At some point, however, sheer numbers of updated, modern equipment are likely necessary to win in battle against a credible opponent when the crisis is profound enough to threaten a vital interest.

Historical U.S. Force Allocation

Capacity (numbers) can be viewed a few ways: compared to a stated objective for each category by each service, compared to amounts required to complete various types of operations across a wide range of potential missions as measured against a potential adversary, and as measured against a set benchmark for total national capability. This Index employs as a benchmark the two-MRC metric.

The two-MRC benchmark for force sizing is the minimum standard for U.S. hard-power capacity, because one will never be able to employ 100 percent of the force at the same time. There will always be some percentage of the force unavailable due to long-term maintenance overhaul (for Navy ships in particular), unit training cycles, employment in myriad engagement and small-crisis response tasks that continue even during major conflicts, and the need to keep some portion of the force uncommitted to serve as a strategic reserve.

If, for example, the historical record shows that the U.S. Army commits 21 BCTs on average to a major conflict, then a two-MRC standard would require 42 BCTs available for actual use; but an Army built to field only 42 BCTs would also be an Army that could find itself entirely committed to war, leaving nothing back as a strategic reserve, to replace combat losses, or to handle other U.S. security interests. Moreover, this Index assesses only the Active component of the services. The Army also has Reserve and National Guard components that together account for half of the total Army. The additional capacity needed to meet these “above two-MRC requirements” could be handled by these other components or mobilized to supplement Active-component commitments. In fact, this is how the Army thinks about meeting operational demands and is at the heart of the current debate within the total Army about the roles and contributions of the various Army components. A similar situation exists with the Air Force and Marine Corps.9

The balance among Active, Reserve, and Guard elements is beyond the scope of this study. Our focus here is on establishing a minimum benchmark for the capacity needed to handle a two-MRC requirement.

A review was conducted of the major defense studies (1993 BUR, QDR reports, and independent panel critiques) that are publicly available10 and modern historical instances of major wars (Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom) to see whether there was any consistent trend in U.S. force allocation. The results of our review are presented in Table 2. To this was added 20 percent to account for forces and platforms likely to be unavailable and to provide a strategic reserve to guard against unforeseen demands. Summarizing the totals, this Index concluded that a two-MRC capable Joint Force would consist of:

  • Army: 50 BCTs.
  • Navy: 346 ships, 624 strike aircraft.
  • Air Force: 1,200 fighter/attack aircraft.
  • Marine Corps: 36 battalions.

To conclude, the services establish their acquisition objectives derived from a number of factors, but the ultimate test is whether the force at a given size can handle the strategic demands as described herein.

The services must have the capacity to handle two major regional conflicts successfully.

Readiness. Faced with the current sharp reductions in funding mandated by sequestration, military service officials, senior DOD officials, and even Members of Congress have warned of the dangers of recreating the “hollow force” of the 1970s when units existed on paper but were staffed at reduced levels, minimally trained, and woefully equipped as a consequence of inadequate funding to conduct training, hone skills in exercises, and repair broken or replace worn-out equipment. To avoid this, the services have intentionally traded quantity/capacity and modernization to ensure that what they do have is “ready” for employment.

The service chiefs have stated repeatedly that current and projected levels of funding are taking a toll on the ability of units to maintain sufficient levels of readiness across the force. Some units have reduced manning. Some squadrons do not fly as many hours. Ground units have not gone to the range as often or participated in the types of combined arms and maneuver exercises they feel are necessary to develop and sustain high levels of proficiency in the complex tasks needed to succeed in battle. The Navy has regularly deferred major maintenance cycles for its ships because the ships that are available are at high demand from the COCOMs, and the Navy does not have a sufficient number both to perform scheduled maintenance and to keep enough hulls in the water for operational use.

It is one thing to have the right capabilities to defeat the enemy in battle. It is another thing to have a sufficient amount of those capabilities to sustain operations over time and many battles against an enemy, especially when attrition or dispersed operations are significant factors. But sufficient numbers of the right capabilities are rather meaningless if the force is unready to engage in the task.

Scoring. In our final assessments we tried very hard not to convey a higher level of precision than we think is achievable using unclassified, open-source, publicly available documents; not to reach conclusions that could be viewed as based solely on assertions or opinion; and not to rely solely on data and information that can be highly quantified, since simple numbers do not tell the whole story.

We believe the logic underlying our methodology is sound. This Index drew from a wealth of public testimony from senior government officials, and from recognized experts in the defense and national security analytic community and historical instances of conflict that seemed most appropriate to this project. This Index considered several questions, including:

  • How does one place a value on the combat effectiveness of concepts such as Air-Sea Battle, Network-centric Operations, Global Strike, or Joint Operational Access?
  • Is it entirely possible to assess accurately (1) how well a small number of newest-generation ships or aircraft will fare against a much larger number of currently modern counterparts; (2) when U.S. forces are operating thousands of miles from home; (3) orchestrated with a particular operational concept; (4) the enemy is leveraging a “home field advantage” that includes strategic depth and much shorter and perhaps better protected lines of communication; and (5) the enemy might be pursuing much dearer national objectives than the U.S. such that the political will to conduct sustained operations in the face of mounting losses might differ dramatically?
  • How does one neatly quantify the element of combat experience, the health of a supporting workforce, the value of “presence and engagement operations,” and the related force structures and deployment/employment patterns that presumably deter war or mitigate its effects if it does occur?

This Index focused on the primary purpose of military power—to defeat an enemy in combat—and the historical record of major U.S. engagements for evidence of what the U.S. defense establishment has thought was necessary to execute a major conventional war successfully. To this we added the two-MRC benchmark, on-the-record assessments of what the services themselves are saying about their status relative to validated requirements, and the analysis and opinions of various experts in and out of government who have covered these issues for many years.

Taking it all together, we rejected scales that would imply extraordinary precision and settled on one that conveys broader characterizations of status that range from very weak to very strong. Ultimately, any such assessment is a judgment call informed by quantifiable data, qualitative assessments, thoughtful deliberation, and experience. We trust that our approach makes sense, is defensible, and is repeatable.

Endnotes
  1. Les Aspin, Secretary of Defense, Report on the Bottom-Up Review, October 1993, p. iii,(accessed September 26, 2014). []
  2. Ibid., p. 8. []
  3. John Y. Schrader, Leslie Lewis, and Roger Allen Brown, Quadrennial Defense Review 2001: Lessons on Managing Change in the Department of Defense (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, National Defense Research Institute, 2003), (accessed September 18, 2014).  []
  4. The United States has not had to contend in combat with any credible opposing air force since the Vietnam War, but U.S. air planners are increasingly concerned about an enemy’s ground-based, anti–air missile capability. For naval planners, ship-based, air-based, and shore-based anti-ship cruise missiles are of much greater concern than the number of conventional surface combatants armed with large-caliber guns that an enemy navy has. Likewise, ground forces have to consider the numbers and types of guided anti-armor weapons that the enemy possesses or whether the opposing force has guided artillery, mortar, or rocket capabilities. Guided/precision weapons are less expensive (by orders of magnitude) than the platforms they target, which means that countries can produce far more guided munitions than primary weapons platforms. Some examples: Harpoon ASCM ($2 million)/DDG-51 Arleigh Burke-Class destroyer ($2 billion); AT4 anti-armor weapon ($1,500)/M1A1 Abrams main battle tank ($9 million); 120mm guided mortar round ($10,000) or 155mm guided artillery round ($100,000)/M198 155mm howitzer ($500,000); S-300 anti-air missile ($1 million)/F/A-18 Hornet ($60 million) or F-35A Lightning II ($180 million). []
  5. U.S. Department of Defense, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012, pp. 5–6, 
(accessed August 25, 2014). []
  6. Ibid., p. 4 (emphasis in original).  []
  7. Post–World War II, the U.S. has fought four major wars: Korea (1950–1953); Vietnam (1965–1973); Gulf War/Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990–1991); and Iraq War/Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003–2011). []
  8. Defense references to war have varied over the past few decades from “major combat operations” (MCO) and “major theater war” (MTW) to the current “major regional contingency” (MRC). Arguably, there is a supporting argument for such shifts as planners attempt to find the best words to describe the scope and scale of significant military efforts, but the terms are basically interchangeable. []
  9. The U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy have Reserve components but no National Guard equivalents to those of the Army and Air Force. The Marine Corps’ Reserve elements are units with equipment, structured similarly to their Active-component counterparts, while the Navy’s Reserve force consists of people but not ships. The entirety of the Navy’s combat fleet, surface and subsurface, is in the Active component.  []
  10. The Department of Defense, through the Joint Staff and Geographic Combatant Commanders, manages a relatively small set of real-world operational plans (OPLANS) focused on specific situations where the U.S. feels it is most likely to go to war. These plans are reviewed and updated regularly to account for changes in the Joint Force or with the presumed enemy. They are highly detailed and account not only for the amount of force the U.S. expects it will need to defeat the enemy, but also for which specific units would deploy; how the force would actually flow into the theater (the sequencing of units); what ports and airfields it would use; how much ammunition, fuel, and other supplies it would need at the start; how much transportation or “lift” would be needed to get the force there (by air, sea, trucks, or rail); and the basic plan of attack. The Pentagon also routinely develops, explores, and refines various notional planning scenarios in order to better understand the implications of different sorts of contingencies, which approaches might be more effective, how much of what type of force might be needed, and the regional issue or issues for which there would have to be an accounting. These types of planning events inform service efforts to develop, equip, train, and field military forces that are up to the task of defending national security interests. All of these efforts and their products are classified national security information and therefore not available to the public.  []

Assessing America's Ability to Provide for the Common Defense