As near-peer adversaries like Russia and China rapidly upgrade their military capabilities, last year’s defense budget pumped more than $730 billion into the Pentagon’s coffers.
But that windfall didn’t prevent the U.S. military from being labeled as “marginal” in a study just released by a Washington think tank.
On Tuesday, the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense released their “2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength.”
The report reaches a troubling conclusion about the state of the U.S. military and its ability to defend vital American interests.
“As currently postured, the U.S. military is only marginally able to meet the demands,” the report stated.
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said it’s crucial not to hide from a “candid, objective analysis.”
“We’re not where we should be,” said Mr. Thornberry, who is from Texas and is retiring after 13 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. “The federal government is not fulfilling its first responsibility to the American people and to future generations to ‘provide for the common defense.’”
This year’s index is the seventh annual analysis of U.S. military strength issued by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The military is an essential tool. It is seen as capable and ready to respond to challenges to U.S. interests,” said Dakota Wood, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and research analyst at the Heritage Foundation who edited this year’s report on military strength. “It’s actually a backstop - it enhances the power of diplomacy.”
The researchers concluded that the Army was a mixed bag but still received a “marginal” rating. It is at about 70 percent the size it should be. The analysts said it takes about 50 brigade combat teams to successfully defend against an attack but the Army has only about 35 on the books.
“However, the service earns a “very strong” rating for its efforts to rebuild Army readiness in recent months,” the report stated.
The Navy was rated as “marginal” in last year’s index and kept that ranking. This year’s index, however, found “troubling trends” with researchers saying the Navy was heading toward a “weak” rating.
“The service needs at least 400 ships to meet demand,” the report states. “The current fleet of 300 aging ships and overstretched shipyards is simply inadequate to defend the nation’s interests.”
The U.S. Marine Corps was ranked “marginal” in his year’s index - an improvement from last year’s rating of “weak.”
The Air Force was ranked “marginal” in this year’s index - the same score it held last year. A lack of pilots and sufficient time in the cockpit was part of the reason for the low score, Mr. Wood said.
“In the Cold War, Air Force pilots and Navy pilots would fly upwards of 200 plus hours per year,” he said. “If they were at 150 or so, they were considered not really deployable. That’s the number where we’re at today.”
Researchers said the U.S. has been forced to choose between solving a readiness crisis and investing in modernizing the force to compete in the future.
“We can no longer settle for one or the other - we must do both,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, director of Heritage’s Center for National Defense, and Mr. Wood in a joint statement.
Researchers said the Heritage Foundation has documented a steady decline in U.S. military strength since the release of the first report. In a statement released in the book’s preface, Heritage Foundation president Kay C. James said she hopes the organization’s “report card on the U.S. armed forces” helps decision-makers become better informed about their surroundings.
“We take that responsibility very seriously and we hope that this report card on the U.S. armed forces helps decision makers to be better informed and helps citizens to hold their elected representatives accountable,” Heritage Foundation President Kay C. James wrote.