The Washington think tank that helped forge the defense views of President-elect Donald Trump says in a report that the armed forces are too small to win major wars.
The Heritage Foundation’s “2017 Index U.S. Military Strength” gives the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps a collective grade of “marginal” for total power compared with a top score of “very strong.” It stamps its lowest grade individually on the Army, which it judges “weak.”
“At present, the U.S. military is two-thirds the size it needs to be and, of that two-thirds, only one-third is at acceptable levels of readiness,” said Heritage’s Dakota Wood, a former Marine Corps war planner who edited the index.
Heritage has become one of the most influential think tanks as Mr. Trump forms his views on what kind of military he wants as commander in chief. The conservative think tank provided its studies to the Trump campaign and placed some of its analysts on the defense transition team.
The career businessman’s major speech on national security in Philadelphia on Sept. 7 relied heavily on Heritage’s military assessments.
Mr. Trump has vowed to increase defense spending to replenish the overall force structure and its 1.28 million active-duty troops. A first order of business is to jettison 2011 budget caps that hold defense spending, plus recurring war costs, at $602 billion for fiscal 2017.
“As soon as I take office, I will ask Congress to fully eliminate the defense sequester and will submit a new budget to rebuild our military,” Mr. Trump said Sept. 7. “This will increase certainty in the defense community as to funding and will allow military leaders to plan for our future defense needs.”
In particular, he has talked about the Navy. The Heritage index notes that the fleet has fallen to 274 ships, short of the Navy’s 308 goal. It is making do with 10 aircraft carriers — one short — as it awaits the launch of the costly USS Gerald R. Ford. Mr. Trump has pledged to sail a 350-ship Navy.
Mr. Trump says his defense secretary will find some savings inside the Pentagon budget by eliminating vacant jobs.
The military has been fighting large-scale conflicts simultaneously in Afghanistan and Iraq for more than a decade. Today, it has committed nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan and more than 4,000 in Iraq and Syria to fight Islamic extremists.
The Heritage index judges the military by asking if it is ready to confront and defeat two major adversaries — say, China and Iran — at about the same time. The George W. Bush administration sized the military to fight two major regional contingencies nearly simultaneously and prevail.
The Obama administration tweaked that goal: It decreed in 2014 that the Pentagon must be capable of defeating a regional adversary in a large-scale conflict while imposing unacceptable costs on a second aggressor in a different theater.
Said Mr. Wood: “The combined effects of reduced spending, worsened by the Budget Control Act of 2011, and sustained high levels of operational employed have resulted in a U.S. military that is too small for the tasks it is being assigned, rapidly aging due to program delays and cancellations needed to replace equipment that is being worn out, and far less ready for combat operations.”
The Heritage report says the military is only marginally able to conduct two major regional contingencies. The Army has simply shrunk too much.
Its active “end strength” has fallen from 566,000 soldiers to a planned 450,000. At the same time, the Army has whittled away at its basic fighting unit: the 4,500-soldier Brigade Combat Team. There once were 45; there are now 31. Mr. Trump pledged to increase the Army’s active strength to 540,000 soldiers.
Of those 31 teams, only 13 are at peak combat readiness, with nine of them involved in ongoing operations — leaving just three ready-to-go units if another war breaks out, Heritage says.
Shrunken Navy, Air Force
The Navy is far short of the number of ships it needs to handle two major wars. The fleet is at 274 ships, compared with a stated Navy goal of 308. But Heritage estimates it needs 346 submarines and surface ships to fully carry out its missions.
“Without significant funding increases in procuring more vessels across ship types each year, it appears unlikely that the Navy will reach its own capacity goals for the foreseeable future,” the index says.
With the retirement of all Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, there is a 36-vessel shortfall in small surface combatant ships as the newer Littoral Combat Ship comes on line.
Heritage says the Navy needs 13 carriers and 13 air wings to fight two major wars. It now has 10 of each.
The report quotes alarming statistics issued by Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on sea power.
Mr. Forbes, who is in the mix for Navy secretary, said the Navy is chronically unable to fulfill the requests from regional commanders for naval firepower. The Navy can meet only 56 percent of requests for carriers and 39 percent for cruisers and destroyers.
The demand for wars in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan, as well as a Pacific presence, is keeping carriers at sea longer than the normal six-month deployment, adding to wear and tear on hardware and sailors.
The Air Force fleet “is now the oldest and smallest in its history, and as the demand for air power continues to increase, the problem of capacity limiting capability will continue to grow,” Heritage says.
To meet spending caps under the 2011 budget act, the Air Force today flies 39 active-duty fighter squadrons, of which just 26 are fully combat ready. As a historic comparison, the Air force manned 70 active fighters squadrons in 1991 when Desert Storm kicked off.
Heritage says the Air Force, which is flying continuous missions over Iraq and Syria to surveil and target Islamic State militants, needs 1,200 fighters for two wars. It now has 1,159, not counting 144 jets dedicated to testing weapons and pilot training. Mr. Trump endorsed the 1,200-plane inventory.
Some former pilots have dubbed their service the “geriatric Air Force.” The average age of its air-superiority F-15C is 32 years. The workhorse F-16 Falcon average age is a quarter-century. The KC-135 refueling jets, critical to long-range missions, are more than 54 years old.
‘Ill-suited to the changing threat’
Marine Corps readiness woes have received coverage in the conservative press. Fox News reported that the Corps has been forced to cannibalize junked aircraft to obtain parts for operational ones.
“Only 43 percent of the Marine Corps total aircraft inventory is currently considered flyable,” the Heritage index says.
The Corps’ air force has condensed from 28 tactical squadrons at Desert Storm to 20 today, nearly a 50 percent loss. Operational requirements have remained about the same, meaning Marines are doing more with less.
Corps fighter pilots continue to fly a fleet of 262 F-18 Hornets as the jets have exceeded their intended life cycle, while they await for delayed F-35B Lightning. The first squadron was activated a year ago.
The active force today is 184,000, down from 202,000 during the first Iraq war and 2,000 below the minimum number of Marines set by the commandant in 2010. Meanwhile, the vehicles that take them into battle are old.
“The Corps’ main combat vehicles all entered service in the 1970s and 1980s, and while service life extensions, upgrades, and new generations of designs have allowed the platforms to remain in service, these vehicles are quickly becoming ill-suited to the changing threat environment,” Heritage says.
Said Mr. Trump: “We will build a Marine Corps based on 36 battalions, which the Heritage Foundation notes is the minimum needed to deal with major contingencies. We have 23 now.”
Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff, told Congress this year that if a major war broke out, his service would be hard-pressed to meet the scheduled deployments dictated in secret war planning.
“If that were to happen, then I have great concerns in terms of readiness of our force, the Army forces to be able to deal with that in a timely manner,” he said. “I think the cost, both in terms of time, casualties and troops, and the ability to accomplish military objectives would be very significant.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a military budget analyst at the Brookings Institution, said of the Trump arms plan: “If he does a 540,000 Army plus 12 to 15 ships a year and so forth, I think we will be OK budgetarily, and he can still claim a buildup, if not quite a Reaganesque one.”
President Reagan oversaw a $3 trillion expansion of the armed forces.