Think Tank Unveils Report Card on US Military Strength

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U.S. Army M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles idle on the fields of Presidenski Range in Trzebian, Poland, during a platoon combined arms live fire exercise (CALFEX) on March 26, 2018. (U.S. Army/Spc. Dustin D. Biven)
U.S. Army M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles idle on the fields of Presidenski Range in Trzebian, Poland, during a platoon combined arms live fire exercise (CALFEX) on March 26, 2018. (U.S. Army/Spc. Dustin D. Biven)

Despite the Pentagon's efforts to ready itself for war on the future battlefield, the U.S. war machine would be "hard pressed" to handle two major military operations at the same time, according to an annual report card from the Heritage Foundation.

Released Oct. 30, the Washington-based conservative think tank's 2020 Index of U.S. Military Strength is intended to gauge the Defense Department's ability to perform its missions worldwide against current threats. The annual index measures the U.S. military's "capability, capacity for operations, and readiness" to handle assigned missions.

The report comes at a time when all branches of the military are engaged in an ambitious effort to prepare for potential war with a major peer adversary such as Russia or China across all domains -- ground, sea, air, space and cyberspace.

All the services are working to develop new capabilities that rely on advanced technologies, such as incorporating artificial intelligence and autonomy into aircraft, as well as ground and surface platforms. In addition, the services are working jointly to develop advanced hypersonic weapons to counter competing technology being developed by Russia and China.

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Despite the progress, the Heritage Foundation's index assesses the U.S. military's current strength, across all the services, as "marginal" at best if it were to engage in more than one conflict at a time.

"The 2020 Index concludes that the current U.S. military force is likely capable of meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities, but that it would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies (MRC)," the index states.

Defense News first reported on this story.

The index created its benchmark of a two-MRC force after a review of the forces used for each major war that the U.S. has undertaken since World War II, as well as the major defense studies completed by the federal government over the past 30 years, the report states.

"We concluded that a standing (active-duty component) two-MRC-capable Joint Force would consist of:

Army: 50 brigade combat teams (BCTs)

Navy: 400 battle force ships and 624 strike aircraft

Air Force: 1,200 fighter/ground-attack aircraft

Marine Corps: 36 battalions

The Army, which has a capacity of 35 BCTs, "has continued to increase its readiness, earning the score of "very strong" with 77 percent of its BCTs assessed as ready," the report states.

"However, it continues to struggle to rebuild end strength (attempting to grow from nearly 480,000 to 500,000) and to modernize the force for improved readiness in some units for current operations," it adds. It gets a "marginal" rating overall.

The Army met its fiscal 2019 recruiting goal in late September after launching a new recruiting strategy in 2018 when it missed its goal by 6,500 soldiers. The service is also two years into a major modernization effort with the goal of replacing its major weapons platforms over the next 10 to 15 years.

The Navy, which currently has 290 ships, has placed an emphasis on restoring readiness and increasing its capacity, a signal that "its overall score could improve in the near future if needed levels of funding are sustained," the report states. It also received an overall score of "marginal."

"However, manpower presents a potential problem as does obtaining adequate funding to increase the number of ships in the fleet more rapidly. Shortfalls in funding and a general shortage of available shipyards have led to a substantial backlog in ship maintenance, placing an additional burden on those ships and crews that are available for deployment," according to the report.

The Air Force, which currently has 951 fighters ready to go, sits at "just under 80 percent of the needed fighter/attack aircraft," but its readiness score of "marginal" is an improvement over the "weak" score in the 2019 Index, the report states.

"Shortages of pilots and flying time have degraded the ability of the Air Force to generate the air power that would be needed to meet wartime requirements," it adds.

The Marine Corps, which has 24 battalions, has prioritized regaining combat readiness across the force, elevating it above expanding the size of the service, the report states.

"Aviation remained one of the largest challenges for the Corps in 2019, driven by sustainment challenges within its legacy fleet of aircraft and shortfalls in key maintenance support personnel," according to the report. "The increase in readiness among ground units and some advances in introducing new platforms, such as completion of MV-22 fielding in the active component, somewhat offset shortfalls in capacity and a 'ready bench' to return the Marine Corps to an overall strength score of 'marginal.'"

The 2020 Index treated the U.S. nuclear capability as a separate entity and also assessed it as "marginal" since the Pentagon is not taking full advantage of current technologies to field modern warheads, which could be designed to be safer and more secure with increased effectiveness -- giving the United States better options for strengthening a credible deterrent, the report states.

"The common theme across the services and the U.S. nuclear enterprise is one of force degradation caused by many years of underinvestment, poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of budget sequestration (cuts in funding) on readiness and capacity," according to the report.

Congress has taken steps to provide relief from low budget ceilings imposed by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 through two-year budget agreements that either waived the BCA caps or provided extra funding in contingency accounts not subject to BCA limits, the report adds.

Congress and the White House took positive steps to stabilize funding for fiscal 2018 and 2019, but lawmakers are currently at a budget impasse. A continuing resolution is in effect until November, locking defense spending at fiscal 2019 spending levels.

The Heritage Foundation's report maintains that more funding increases "will be needed in the years to come to ensure that the U.S. military is properly sized, equipped, trained, and ready to meet the missions that the services are called upon to fulfill."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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