- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The U.S. military faces major readiness challenges at a time when key rivals such as China and Russia are improving and modernizing their forces, according to a new survey released Wednesday by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

In their “2020 Index of U.S. Military Strength,” Heritage Foundation analysts rate each of the armed services as only “marginal.” They also paint a chilling picture about the rapid military modernization of Russia and China.

“We are pretty harsh in our judgment,” acknowledged Dakota Wood, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and current Heritage Foundation research fellow.

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While the Army has continued to increase its readiness, it struggles to rebuild its end strength. Based on historical force requirements, the Army needs 50 brigade combat teams. It currently has 35, and of those, just 28 are considered “combat-ready,” Heritage Foundation officials said.

While the Navy’s score also rates as “marginal,” the Heritage Foundation said the service’s emphasis on improving readiness and increasing capacity indicates that could improve in the near future — if adequate funding is available. However, the current fleet of 290 ships is well below the recommended 400.

Funding shortfalls and a lack of available shipyards have also led to a substantial backlog in maintenance, placing additional burdens on ships and crews available to be deployed, Heritage officials said.

The Air Force improved slightly from the Heritage Foundation’s 2019 survey where they were ranked as “weak.” The service’s current “marginal” rating is based largely on shortages of pilots and flying time that have “degraded the ability of the Air Force to generate the air power that would be needed to meet wartime requirements,” according to the Heritage Foundation report.

Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a briefing at the Heritage Foundation Wednesday that the 2020 index highlights threats that keeps her up at night.

“Russia has turned an army of ragtag conscripts, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, into a very modern and professional fighting force,” she said. “China has rapidly invested in anti-ship ballistic missiles, hypersonics and artificial intelligence while significantly growing the size and capability of their naval forces.”

The Marine Corps, also rated as “marginal” by the Heritage Foundation report has emphasized regaining combat readiness but still only has 67 percent of the recommended 36 combat battalions. Marine Corps aviation also remains a challenge, largely due to factors such as shortfalls in key maintenance support personnel, Heritage Foundation analysts said in their report.

“We don’t measure everything in the report but we do look at the hard combat power,” Mr. Wood said.

Even with the challenges they point out in their report, Heritage Foundation analysts say the current U.S. military force is likely capable of taking on a single major regional conflict while attending to other missions. But the Pentagon “would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies,” they wrote.

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