The past year has been a tumultuous one for the national security interests and defense capabilities of the United States, to put it mildly.

  • China has built islands in the South China Sea in defiance of international efforts to resolve territorial disputes amicably and is moving to militarize them.
  • Russia continued its efforts to destabilize Ukraine and intimidate not only the Baltic States, but other key members of NATO as well.
  • Iran increased its meddling in Iraqi affairs, sustained its support of Hezbollah and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, advanced its development of ballistic missile technologies, and scored a major victory in retaining its nuclear infrastructure and gaining relief from international sanctions in spite of its years of serial violations of nonproliferation agreements and its continuous support of terrorist organizations.
  • The murderous Islamic State expanded its control of territories in Syria and Iraq and extended its operations into Yemen, Afghanistan, North Africa, and even Europe.
  • Taking a page from the Islamic State’s playbook, Boko Haram doubled down on its violent conquest of parts of Nigeria.
  • And the U.S. itself has suffered both casualties from the physical attacks of Islamist-inspired terrorists and the virtual damage of cyber-attacks conducted by China and Russia, among others.

In spite of these developments, however, little has been done to arrest the decline in our nation’s physical ability to confront such challenges.

In our inaugural 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength, we noted that providing for the security of the United States of America is one of the very few responsibilities given to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution. We also noted that threats to the nation’s security interests in key regions have grown worrisome: conducting military operations against those threats would be difficult because of declines in the ability of allies to help, and the inability of our own military to handle more than one large conflict effectively.

The Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength concludes that America’s “hard power” has deteriorated still further over the past year, primarily as a result of inadequate funding that has led to a shrinking force that possesses aging equipment and modest levels of readiness for combat. This should be a concern for all Americans.

Feedback from our first edition clearly indicates that Americans have an interest in the security of their country and a desire to better understand whether their military is up to the task of providing that security. In the first six months following release of the 2015 Index, the online version was accessed by 50,000 unique visitors. We believe that this consistent, up-to-date, standardized, and easily understood assessment of America’s hard power will continue to be an essential reference for policymakers and the American people.

The vision of The Heritage Foundation is “to build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.” While it is true that Americans have a habit of rallying in times of peril or great difficulty and that the “shining city upon a hill” cited by Ronald Reagan shines brightest when days are dark, we should seek to prevent our enemies and competitors from creating such dark days at all. Rallying to confront imminent dangers is more costly than preparing for them: Weakness invites aggression, while strength deters it and fosters peace.

We continue to hope that Members of Congress, their staffs, our nation’s security professionals, and all Americans who have an interest in the security, freedom, and future of our country find this Index of use in discussing the condition of America’s military strength and that it will make the case for an America strong enough to sustain freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and peace for all.

Jim DeMint, President
The Heritage Foundation
October 2015