Twenty-year terror war leaves U.S. military struggling to meet new challenges

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The U.S. military is too small to do the jobs it is being assigned and is burdened with equipment that has been worn out from two decades of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It can probably meet the demands of a single major regional conflict, but it would be hard-pressed to fight a multifront war against combined adversaries.

That’s the bottom line of the latest comprehensive review of the strength of the country’s armed forces, which The Heritage Foundation releases annually. At almost 600 pages, the 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength offers a stark analysis of where the nation’s armed forces stand as aggressive rivals such as China and Russia rebuild their forces at a breakneck pace.

The latest index is the first measure of U.S. military strength since President Biden took office in January, and Mr. Biden inherits a military service facing some harsh grades.

“As currently postured, the U.S. military continues to be only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests,” the report concludes, with many of the trends in the individual branches heading in the wrong direction.

The survey from the conservative think tank rated the overall readiness and capabilities of the Air Force and the new Space Force as “weak.” The Army was judged as “marginal” and the Navy as “marginal trending to weak.” Only the Marine Corps and the nation’s nuclear arsenal deterrent were graded as “strong.”

“We believe the nature of the threat is high. Our competitors are making serious investments in these capabilities and we are lagging in some critical areas,” said Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for defense programs at The Heritage Foundation and editor of its annual military strength index.

“We are behind, and we need more funding,” he added.

The U.S. military “is getting older faster than it is getting modern,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Tom Spoehr, director of the foundation’s Center for National Defense. “The decline of America’s military hard power threatens the ability to defend the homeland from attack and to protect its interests abroad.”

The Army received a “marginal” rating because its aging equipment isn’t keeping pace with the need to modernize as it reorients to face the “great power” challenge of traditional nation-state rivals such as China and Russia.

The news isn’t all bad. Although the force is about 40% smaller than it should be, Heritage Foundation analysts said 18 of the Army’s 31 active-duty brigade combat teams are at the highest state of readiness.

“The Army knows what it needs to do, but it struggles with adequate funding for its programs,” said Mr. Wood, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel.

Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said the release of the military strength index could not have come at a better time, with the Pentagon reeling from the ignominious endgame of the 20-year combat mission in Afghanistan.

“What we saw in Afghanistan last August was a disaster,” Mr. Rogers said. “The decisions made by the civilian leadership of this administration resulted in the deaths of 13 service members. President Biden has accepted no responsibility nor held anyone responsible for that disaster.”

Mr. Rogers expressed deep skepticism of the Defense Department’s claims that the U.S. can conduct “over the horizon” missions to respond to any terrorist threat inside Afghanistan.

“Two over-the-horizon strikes in August were failures. Our human intelligence capability is gone. The ability to find a target, track that target and execute a successful strike is severely limited,” Mr. Rogers said.

China’s communist leadership has likely found the chaotic U.S. pullout from Afghanistan instructive, he said.

“We know [China] is constantly studying our actions and looking for weaknesses. They may rightly assume that this president does not want to confront the growing threat from China,” Mr. Rogers said.

Noting that China is undertaking an unprecedented military modernization program, Mr. Rogers said he fears Beijing may have surpassed the U.S. in many advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

“We know they’ve done so with hypersonics,” he said. “Meanwhile, we’ve poured money into systems that won’t last minutes in a conflict with China.”

Struggles at sea

The Heritage index charted the Navy’s struggles to meet its needs for an expanding mission worldwide. The service “desperately” needs a more extensive fleet of 400 ships, but current and forecast funding levels will prevent such growth in the foreseeable future, Heritage analysts said.

Some of the premier naval platforms in the U.S. inventory, such as the ballistic missile and fast-attack submarines, are rapidly approaching the end of their life spans. The Navy doesn’t anticipate any significant growth for another 15 to 20 years, Mr. Wood said.

“If the United States is going to project power across vast stretches of ocean, it’s going to need large, capable multipurpose ships that can do that,” Mr. Wood said. “If you’re working in coastal waters like China is — you’re not going any further out than about 300 miles — you can buy smaller ships that are more relevant to that environment, have them in greater quantity and support that naval power by land-based air and missile systems.”

Heritage analysts say they have tracked a downward trend in U.S. military strength since their 2015 index was published.

“Most Americans can agree that the U.S. government’s top priority should be to provide for the common defense through fully funding a military capable of successfully deterring and, if necessary, confronting and defeating America’s enemies,” Gen. Spoehr said.

The Biden administration has sought a $715 billion budget for the Pentagon, but some lawmakers are proposing an additional $20 billion to assist with military modernization efforts.

“As adversaries grow increasingly more provocative, the current Biden defense budget in Congress is dangerously inadequate to the task of making significant improvements necessary to improve military readiness,” he said.

The Air Force and Space Force were classified as “weak” in the military review. The average age of an Air Force fighter plane is 20 to 30 years, and the critical fleet of tankers is about 60 years old.

The service “is spending more research and development to have an Air Force it would like to have in the 2030s, while it’s not buying enough current production aircraft to replace its aging current fleet,” Mr. Wood said.

The Marine Corps was the only service to improve its rating. It went from “marginal” in 2021 to “strong” this year. Heritage analysts said the Corps has made “extraordinary” efforts to modernize its mission and enhance its readiness, even at the cost of dropping some traditional functions.

“The Marine Corps knows exactly where it wants to go and is making great progress. [But] they’re making sacrifices along the way,” Mr. Wood said.

Gen. David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, was willing to eliminate one of its regiments — about 2,500 personnel — and reportedly is considering eliminating another to fund the transformation of the Corps into a unit ready to take on new adversaries, analysts said.

“In a world of flag budgets, what they’re doing is sacrificing end strengths,” Mr. Wood said. “It’ll be a much smaller Marine Corps — dramatically too small — but it will be a capable and ready Marine Corps.”

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