The United States prefers to lead through “soft” elements of national power: diplomacy, economic incentives, and cultural exchanges. When soft approaches such as diplomacy work, that success often owes much to the knowledge of all involved that U.S. “hard power” stands silently in the diplomatic background. Soft approaches cost less in manpower and treasure than military action and do not carry the same risk of damage and loss of life; but when confronted by physical threats to U.S. national security interests, soft power cannot substitute for raw military power.

Consequently, it is critical to understand the posture, or state of affairs, of the United States’ military with respect to the country’s vital national security interests, threats to those interests, and the context within which the U.S. might have to use “hard power.” Further, it is important to know how these three areas—operating environments, threats, and the posture of the U.S. military—change over time given that such changes can have substantive implications for defense policies and investments.

In the opening paragraph of the U.S. Constitution, the people state that one of their handful of purposes in establishing the Constitution was to “provide for the common defence.” The enumerations in the Constitution of limited powers for the federal government include the powers of Congress “To declare War… To raise and support Armies… To provide and maintain a Navy… To provide for calling forth the Militia… To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia” and the power of the President as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States.” With such constitutional priority given to defense of the nation and its vital interests, one might expect the federal government to produce a standardized, consistent reference work on the state of the nation’s security—a way to assess or measure the threats the nation faces, the environments in which the U.S. military operates, and the posture of the U.S. military. No such single volume exists to allow comparisons from year to year.

To be sure, there are various studies and reports that seek to influence government’s understanding of the world and how best to engage it:

  • The intelligence community produces various worldwide and country-specific threat assessments as well as a global security environment overview that looks at macro trends every four years.
  • After the start of a new presidential term, the Department of Defense produces its Quadrennial Defense Review report, which is followed by a critique written by a congressionally chartered independent panel.
  • The President issues (or in some years fails to issue) the national security strategy report required by law (50 U.S.C. 3043) and issues annually a proposed budget for national defense called for by law (31 U.S.C. 1105), the Secretary of Defense issues an annual report required by law (10 U.S.C. 113) and regular program and budget guidance, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issues a National Military Strategy required by law (10 U.S.C. 153), all of which address various military subjects, but none of which consistently measures over time U.S. military strength in current and expected future contexts.
  • All of the military services conduct their own studies that inform the capabilities they believe they need to accomplish their assigned missions. The information gained from these studies and approved departmental guidance drives the services’ budget submissions each year, as well as the specifications sent to manufacturers regarding warfighting equipment and platforms.
  • The U.S. geographical combatant commanders (Africa, Central, Europe, Northern, Pacific, and Southern), in collaboration with the Joint Staff that serves the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and functional combatant commanders (Special Operations, Strategic, and Transportation) and the military services, develop and revise numerous warfighting plans and planning scenarios that attempt to capture the interplay between enemy capabilities, aspects of the operating environment that would affect U.S. military operations, and the implications of war objectives for the size, capability, and employment concept of the force needed to win.
  • The senior leadership—the President as Commander in Chief and the Secretary of Defense, often advised by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—provide guidance and direction based on their understanding and articulation of the what, where, how, and why of defense planning and prioritization of efforts.
  • Congress commissions and receives innumerable studies (usually platform-focused) from its own staff organizations (the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office, among others) that inform their deliberations on defense appropriations.
  • The defense analytic community, made up of the various public policy ”think tank” organizations that try to inform the public debate on defense and national security matters), publishes various reports throughout any given year.

If any particular insight can be derived from this massive effort, it is that Washington, D.C., is awash in a flood of papers regarding the current state of security affairs.

Yet for a number of reasons, consistency and consensus remain elusive. Reports from successive presidential Administrations vary according to each Administration’s priorities. Congressional efforts are inevitably interpreted along partisan lines, with reports’ conclusions and recommendations the inevitable result of compromise influenced by the interests of key constituents. Service efforts usually strive toward maximum capability within the constraints placed upon them by budgets and strategic guidance from the executive branch. Think tank reports tend to reflect the position of each institution along the ideological spectrum that defines the community. Finally, much of the official, deeply informed government work resides in the world of classified information, thus preventing review and deliberation in open venues.

What is missing in all of this research and debate is a publicly accessible reference document that uses a consistent, methodical, repeatable approach to assessing defense requirements and capabilities.

The Heritage Foundation seeks to fill this void with the Index of U.S. Military Strength, an annual assessment of the state of America’s hard power, the geographical and functional environments relevant to the United States’ vital national interests, and threats that rise to a level that put, or have the strong potential to put, those interests at risk.

From the outset, it was clear that any assessment of the adequacy of military power would require two primary reference points: a clear statement of U.S. vital security interests and an objective requirement for the military’s capacity for operations that would serve as a benchmark against which to measure current capacity. A review of relevant top-level national security documents issued by a long string of presidential Administrations makes clear that three interests are consistently stated:

  • 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 cyberspace domains through which the world conducts business.

Every President has consistently recognized that one of the fundamental purposes of the U.S. military is to protect America from attack. While going to war has always been controversial, the decision to do so has been based consistently on the conclusion that one or more vital U.S. interests are at stake.

This Index embraces the “two-MRC requirement”—the ability to handle two major wars or two major regional contingencies (MRC) successfully at the same time or in closely overlapping time frames— as the most compelling rationale for sizing U.S. military forces. Dr. Daniel Gouré provides a detailed defense for this in his essay, which is further elaborated upon in the military capabilities assessment section. The basic argument, however, is this: The nation should have the ability to engage and defeat one opponent and still have the ability to do the same with another, to preclude someone’s exploiting the perceived opportunity to move against U.S. interests while America is engaged elsewhere.

This inaugural Index establishes a baseline upon which future editions will build. It is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive; it will review the current condition of its subjects within the assessed year. In future editions, the Index will describe how conditions have changed from the previous year, informed by the baseline condition. In short, the Index will attempt to answer the question, “Have conditions improved or worsened during the assessed year?”
This study will also assess the U.S. military against the two-MRC benchmark and various metrics explained further in the military capabilities section. Finally, it will not offer policy recommendations to correct assessed shortfalls or deficiencies, leaving those for other Heritage work that will be informed by the Index.

Assessing the World and the Need for Hard Power

The assessment portion of the Index is composed of three major sections addressing the aforementioned areas of primary interest: America’s military power, the operating environments within or through which it must operate, and threats to U.S. vital national interests. For each of these areas, this publication provides context, explaining why a given topic is addressed and how it relates to understanding the nature of America’s hard-power requirements.

The authors of this study used a five-category scoring system that ranged from “very poor” to “excellent” or “very weak” to “very strong” as appropriate to each topic. This particular approach was selected so as to capture meaningful gradations while avoiding the appearance that a high level of precision was possible given the nature of the issues and the information that was publicly available.
Some factors are quantitative and lend themselves to discrete measurement; others are very qualitative in nature and can be assessed only through an informed understanding of the material that leads to an informed judgment call.

Purely quantitative measures alone tell only a part of the story when it comes to the relevance, utility, and effectiveness of hard power. Assessing military power or the nature of an operating environment using only quantitative metrics can lead to misinformed conclusions. For example, the mere existence of a large fleet of very modern tanks has little to do with the effectiveness of the armored force in actual battle if the employment concept is irrelevant to modern armored warfare (imagine, for example, a battle in rugged mountains). Also, experience and demonstrated proficiency are often decisive factors in war—so much so that numerically smaller or qualitatively inferior but well-trained and experienced forces can defeat a larger or qualitatively superior adversary.

However digital and quantitative the world has become thanks to the explosion of advanced technologies, it is still very much a qualitative place, and judgment calls have to be made in the absence of certainty. We strive to be as objective and even-handed as possible in our approach and transparent in our methodology and sources of information so that readers can understand why we came to the conclusions we did and perhaps reach their own. The end result will be a more informed debate about what the United States needs in military capabilities to deal with the world as it is. A detailed discussion of scoring is provided in each assessment section.

In our assessment, we begin with the operating environment since it provides the geostrategic stage upon which the U.S. sees to its interests: the various states that would play significant roles in any regional contingency; the terrain that enables or restricts military operations; the infrastructure—ports, airfields, roads, and rail networks (or lack thereof)— on which U.S. forces would depend; and the types of linkages and relationships the U.S. has with a region and major actors within it that cause the U.S. to have interests in the area or that facilitate effective operations. Major actors within each region are identified, described, and assessed in terms of alliances, political stability, the presence of U.S. military forces and relationships, and the maturity of critical infrastructure.

Our assessment focuses on three key regions— Europe, the Middle East, and Asia—because of their importance relative to U.S. vital security interests. This does not mean that Latin America and Africa are unimportant; rather, we address their current condition but do not measure them as we do the others since the security challenges within these regions do not currently rise to the level of direct threats to America’s vital security interests as we have defined them.
Next is a discussion of threats to U.S. vital interests. Here we identify the countries that pose the greatest current or potential threats to U.S. vital interests based on two overarching factors: their behavior and their capability. We accept the classic definition of “threat” as a combination of intent and capability, but while capability has attributes that can be quantified, intent is difficult to measure. We concluded that “observed behavior” serves as a reasonable surrogate for intent since it is the clearest manifestation of intent.

We based our selection of threat countries on their historical behavior and explicit policies or formal statements vis-à-vis U.S. interests, scoring them in two areas: the degree of provocative behavior they exhibited during the year and their ability to pose a credible threat to U.S. interests irrespective of intent. For example, a state full of bluster but with only moderate ability to act accordingly poses a lesser threat, while a state that has great capabilities and a pattern of bellicose behavior opposed to U.S. interests still warrants attention even if it is relatively quiet in a given year.

Finally, we address the status of U.S. military power in three areas: capability (or modernity), capacity, and readiness. Do U.S. forces possess operational capabilities that are relevant to modern warfare? Can they defeat the military forces of an opposing country? Do they have a sufficient amount of such capabilities? Is the force sufficiently trained, and its equipment materially ready, to actually win in combat? All of these are fundamental to success even if they are not de facto determinants of success, something we explain further in the section. We also address the condition of the United States’ nuclear weapons capability, assessing it in areas that are unique to this military component and critical to understanding its real-world viability and effectiveness as a strategic deterrent.

Topical Essays

Leading up to the assessment portion of the Index, the Index begins with a set of topical essays addressing overarching strategically important contextual policies relevant to national security. There will always be significant issues that bear upon America’s security interests, sometimes shaping them through articulated policy objectives. On other occasions, these issues are external events that generate new and unanticipated requirements. There are also items that do not fit neatly into one of our three assessment “buckets” but that nevertheless warrant attention given the effect they have on U.S. defense capabilities.

The opening essays provide a starting point for thinking about several important topics: national security; the military resources that are likely necessary to meet national security requirements; the geostrategic prioritization of foreign affairs as articulated by the current Administration; the role that U.S. Special Operations Forces play both as an instrument of national security objectives and as a strategic enabler for the larger U.S. forces in conventional operations; and a set of capabilities and their respective environments that are complex and hard to measure but without which American power would be moribund: cyber, space, and nuclear.

Dr. Kim R. Holmes delves into “What Is National Security?” and how we should think about it. Current policy debates about national security and the role of the U.S. military seem to include everything from stemming the rise of the world’s oceans to ensuring that people have sufficient choices among imported fruits at the grocery store. Dr. Holmes addresses this muddled thinking, dispatching outlandish notions as he helps us to focus on what really matters (or should matter) when we think about the vital interests of the United States.

Dr. Daniel Gouré’s “Building the Right Military for a New Era” reminds us of the historical basis for sizing U.S. forces to handle two simultaneous (or nearly simultaneous) major wars. Dr. Gouré reviews the multiplicity of studies that support this benchmark and provides some broad recommendations for what such a force would look like.

Bruce D. Klingner assesses the United States’ strategic pivot toward the Asia–Pacific region in his essay, “Rebalancing to the Pacific: Asia Pivot or Divot?”—a critical topic considering how this policy shift undergirds the Administration’s macro view of foreign policy priorities. Originally articulated by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her October 11, 2011, Foreign Policy essay “America’s Pacific Century,” the “Pacific Pivot” has generated quite a bit of discussion in policy circles. Many of these conversations center around the Pivot’s continued relevance given events in other geographic regions and the extent to which any real change either has occurred or is needed in terms of a redistribution of U.S. military resources.

Dr. Steven P. Bucci takes us on a tour of “The Importance of Special Operations Forces Today and Going Forward,” laying out who and what Special Operations Forces are, what they contribute to U.S. defense capa-bilities, and how we should think about them in terms of preventing strategic surprise and mitigating the consequences of crises in their duration and intensity.

In “Strategic Capabilities in the 21st Century,” Michaela Dodge and David R. Inserra provide primers on the little-understood domains of nuclear weapons (Dodge) and cyberspace/outer space–based systems (Inserra). Nuclear weapons have been the foundational element of the United States’ strategic deterrent capability since the end of World War II, but their deterrent value derives from the basic assumption that they are usable, which in turn rests on some level of confidence that they will work as advertised. How confident should we be about the assumption on which U.S. nuclear deterrence policy stands?

The U.S. military is critically dependent on space and cyber to deploy and operate effectively anywhere in the world. America’s opponents are aware of the importance of these domains and the capabilities needed to be successful in exploiting them, an awareness that has led to an increasingly intense competition in these areas—especially cyber. How are we doing in these strategic areas of competition? The authors help us understand the big picture by providing historical context and the state of play in each.

To round out the initial set of essays, in “Regions of Enduring Interest,” Ana R. Quintana and Charlotte M. Florance consider the regions of Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa, respectively, explaining the major dynamics in play in each one, why they are important to the United States, and which of their internal challenges, if left unaddressed, could pose larger threats to America’s vital national interests.

Scoring U.S. Military Strength Relative to Vital National Interests

The purpose of this Index is to better inform the national debate about defense capabilities by assessing the ability of the U.S. military to defend against current threats to U.S. vital national interests within the context of the world as it is. Each of the elements can change from year to year: the stability of regions and access to them by America’s military forces; the various threats as they improve or lose capabilities and change their behavior; and the United States’ armed forces themselves as they adjust to evolving fiscal realities and attempt to balance readiness, capacity (size and quantity), and capability (how modern they are) in ways that enable them to successfully carry out the missions assigned to them.

Each region of the world has its own set of characteristics that include terrain; man-made infra structure (roads, rail lines, ports, airfields, power grids, etc.); and states with which the United States has relationships. These traits combine to create an environment that is either favorable or problematic when it comes to U.S. forces operating against threats in each respective region.

Various states and non-state actors within these regions possess the ability to threaten, and have consistently behaved in ways that threaten, America’s interests. Fortunately for the U.S., these major threat actors are currently few in number and confined to three regions—Europe, the Middle East, and Asia—thus enabling the U.S. (if it will do so) to focus much of its resources and efforts accordingly.

As for the condition of America’s military services, they are beset by aging equipment, shrinking numbers, and rising costs—and this at a time when threats to U.S. interests are on the rise.

These three elements interact with each other in ways that are difficult to measure in concrete terms and impossible to forecast with any certainty. Nevertheless, the exercise of describing them and characterizing their general condition is worthwhile since it informs debates about defense policies and the allocation of resources necessary for the U.S. military to carry out its assigned duties.

Bear in mind that each annual Index will assess conditions as they are for the assessed year. This inaugural edition, the 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength, will establish the baseline condition as it existed in the preceding year, 2014; subsequent years will include a comment on progress or setbacks relative to the baseline and intervening years.

In this Index, we assess U.S. Military Power, Global Operating Environment, and Threats to Vital U.S. Interests as of year-end 2014 as shown on the following page.

Note that factors that would push things toward “bad” (the left side of the scales) tend to move more quickly than those that improve one’s situation, especially when it comes to the material condition of the U.S. military.

Of the three areas measured—U.S. Military Power, Global Operating Environment, and Threats to Vital U.S. Interests—the U.S. can directly control only one: its own military. The condition of the U.S. military can influence the other two in that a weakened America arguably emboldens challenges to its interests and loses potential allies, while a militarily strong America deters opportunism and draws partners to its side from across the globe.


Since the close of the Second World War, the United States has underwritten and taken the lead in maintaining a global order that has benefited more people in more ways than at any other period in history. Now, however, that order is under stress, and some have wondered whether it will break apart entirely. Fiscal and economic burdens abound; violent, extremist ideologies threaten the stability of entire regions; state and non-state opportunists seek to exploit upheavals; and major states compete to establish dominant positions in their respective regions.

America’s leadership role is in question, and its security interests are under significant pressure. Challenges are growing, old allies are not what they once were, and the U.S. is increasingly bedeviled by debt that constrains its ability to sustain its forces commensurately with its interests.

Informed deliberations on the status of the United States’ military power are needed today more than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. This new Index of U.S. Military Strength and the editions that will follow can help to inform the debate.

U.S. Military Power

Global Operating Environment

Threats to U.S. Vital Interests

Assessing America's Ability to Provide for the Common Defense