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Yes, The U.S. Military Is Weak

U.S. Military
Aircraft from the 23d Wing conducted a surge exercise May 22, 2017, at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. The exercise was conducted in order to demonstrate the wing's ability to rapidly deploy combat ready forces across the globe. The 23d Wing maintains and operates A-10C Thunderbolt IIs, HH-60G Pave Hawks, and HC-130J Combat King II aircraft for precision attack, personnel recovery and combat support worldwide. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ryan Callaghan)

Is Report of U.S. Military Weaknesses Silly and Dangerous or Spot-On and Alarming?: According to Politico, an anonymous defense official claims Pentagon leaders are “none too pleased” that The Heritage Foundation’s latest Index of U.S. Military Strength has characterized American hard power as “weak.” The unnamed source also said that Heritage’s scoring is “silly and dangerous,” in part because it is “based on the outdated requirement that the military be able to fight two wars simultaneously,” a metric changed by the Obama administration and maintained by both the Trump and Biden teams.

F-35

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in What Is Called Beast Mode. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Perhaps one can forgive someone in the Pentagon for taking offense when an outsider says their baby is ugly but, if it is true, prideful umbrage does not overrule the fact of the matter. When it comes to assessing our military, it’s size, readiness, and capabilities that counts. The Pentagon should care far more about its ability to protect U.S. interests than its self-esteem.

The Index draws its information from the Pentagon’s own reports, testimony to Congress, statements from senior officials, acquisition data, and other publicly available information relevant to understanding the state of America’s military. The military assessment section of the 2023 Index includes nearly 700 footnotes supporting our conclusions. Here is a sample of the many facts bearing upon the matter:

The U.S. has found itself at war every 15 to 20 years since its founding. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.

During the Cold War, the U.S. military competed against a single massive opponent (the Soviet Union) on a global scale, while still managing to handle crises in various parts of the world. Today, the U.S. faces four opponents—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—yet has little more than half the force it did just three decades ago.

In every major conflict since World War II, the Army has committed 21 brigade-equivalents of ground force, the Marine Corps roughly 15 battalions, and the Air Force around 600 fighter/attack aircraft. Numerous studies have concurred with these historical realities and recommended a force twice this size to secure U.S. interests. Today the Army has 31 brigades, the Marine Corps 22 battalions, and the Air Force approximately 626 combat-coded fighters available for use.

During the Cold War, the Navy maintained a fleet approaching 600 ships and kept 100 at sea. Today’s Navy has fewer than 300 ships, yet keeps the same number deployed. Fleet size will soon shrink to 280 ships.

During the Cold War, fighter pilots averaged over 300 hours of flying each year. Today, Air Force pilots average fewer than 120 hours, roughly a single flight each week.

The Army operates with brigades, yet focuses its training at the company-level, perhaps assuming that things will all come together in combat.

For nearly 20 years following 9/11, the U.S. military conducted operations that consumed platforms, munitions, and equipment purchased to fight the Soviet Union. Sadly, these assets have not been replaced at similar rates. As a result, the military is stuck with aged platforms and diminished inventories. America’s support to Ukraine has exacerbated the problem, as the Pentagon digs deep into existing inventories of weapons and munitions to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia. Inventories are nearing war-reserve levels, and it will take years to replenish them.

Though some new equipment is slowly being fielded, the force continues to shrink. A military barely able to handle one war is ill-equipped to do more. Should the U.S. be called to defend NATO partners in Europe, it will not be able to support Israel, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or anyone else, anywhere else.

Far from deterring competitors, this situation will embolden them, increasing risk at the worst possible time.

In its current state, how can our military be assessed as anything other than weak?

B-1B Lancer

Four U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers assigned to the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, arrive Feb. 6, 2017, at Andersen AFB, Guam.

Honestly assessing U.S. military power is not “dangerous.” What is dangerous is to be weak and to not let the American people know it. Even more dangerous: a Pentagon in denial of the threats it faces and its own vulnerabilities.

Dakota Wood is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense and editor of the annual “Index of U.S. Military Strength.”

Written By

Dakota L. Wood, who served America for two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, is the Senior Research Fellow for Defense Programs at The Heritage Foundation. Wood’s research and writing focus on programs, capabilities, operational concepts, and strategies of the U.S. Department of Defense and military services to assess their utility in ensuring the United States has the ability to protect and promote its critical national security interests. Mr. Wood originated and serves as the editor for Heritage’s “Index of U.S. Military Strength,” the only annual assessment available to the public of the status of America’s military and its ability to carry out its core functions.

39 Comments

39 Comments

  1. Steven

    October 26, 2022 at 6:34 pm

    And again no mention of cyberwar or other classified abilities.

    • Frank

      October 27, 2022 at 9:45 am

      Pray tell how an open source report can objectively assess classified abilities?

      While cyber and other “soft kill” abilities are certainly increasingly important in modern warfare, you still need a large amount of planes, ships, and maneuver brigades to fight a high-intensity conflict, which will attrit and need replacement. The thing that is re-learned every time a major conflict happens, most recently in Ukraine, is that munition and materiel needs are vastly higher than pre-war planning and stockpiles ever account for.

    • Francis Mayer

      October 27, 2022 at 1:37 pm

      You nailed it! Our cybersecurity capabilities and offensive capabilities are impressive. Additionally, none of the classified capabilities are factored in. The draw down happened right after the victory in the Gulf I war in 1992 andbI lived it. It was Chenney and the Republicans that started it. We were told that we needed to draw down only to be recalled to duty in 1996 for Bosnia-Herzigovina and then after that in 2001 for 911. It was stupid all the way. The great Spanish Philosopher George Santanya stated “Only the dead have seen the end of war” yet the foolish American people and leadership talk of peace. Peace only comes when you are so ready for war that every enemy will not dare attack you. That high level of readiness creates peace and saves lives. That is a fact. Additionally, we need to stop being soft, if people can violently protest they can get in shape and become fighting fit for the survival of the Republic. I have over 26 years of military service with successful commands, I served in industry, civil service, and academia by working sine I was 16 and now I am 65. The stupid extended childhood needs to end and our youth need to become battle ready and hardened. This will actually ensure peace and save their lives and the lives of other children accross the globe. WW II taught us weakness invites very bloody world wars that wipe out millions of lives, and yet we keep repeating the mistakes of the past. One thing this report does not do is consider that the USA has the most ready reserve and National Guard on the planet. Vietnam showed us the stupidity of just relying on active duty. We need to ramp up the national guard and reserves by not paying any college loans off for free. If people need loans paid off have the put six years into the military service or civil service scholarship for service program to serve the nation make national service mandatory for everyone regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, or sex.

  2. John

    October 26, 2022 at 9:33 pm

    There is no reason for the US military to be weak.
    We could have a more lethal navy, but 15 billion supercarriers are wise while we burn our own amphibious assault ships undergoing repair?
    We could have much stronger nuclear forces.
    We could have more robust drone and missile forces. We could have space weapons which only our adversaries seem to be allowed to have.
    It is all deliberately hampered by strategy and funding.

  3. 403Forbidden

    October 26, 2022 at 9:53 pm

    US war machine weak, biggest fish story ever told.

    US war machine prowls around the globe not just merely guarding its empire of bases and outposts but constantly making provocative moves to rachet up tensions and accompanied by loyal minions providing similar actions.

    The world’s best ever war machine regularly holds war drills & war excercises to hone its fighting capability while loudly sneering at others for lack of experience or incompetence.

    With a US congress shoving more money down the hatch than what the war machine needs day to day, how in the world is it weak.

    In a couple of years US war machine would be ready with its hypersonic arsenal and inevitably its generals & admirals would deploy some abroad.

    Such moves could very well spell final end game for nations caught right in the crosshairs of US foreign policy which is modern history’s premier or most well known neoconized foreign policy and militarized policy.

    Right now, the war machine is even making bold moves in space while its agitprop branch spews out lies and false accusations against rivals. It has already initiated various space simulation exercises for space battle or space combat and riping in private and commercial space outfits and even allies or vassals for its militarized space outreach.

    • Steve

      October 27, 2022 at 2:50 pm

      And your ranting about equipment is just how relevant to a woke military?

  4. Arash P

    October 26, 2022 at 11:06 pm

    Americans want to add 2 plus 2 and get 6!

    US has 4% of world’s population. It cannot rule the world forever.
    China will run east Asia and Middle East once again will belong to Iran. As it always did!

    A nuclear Iran!

    US hegemony is over.

  5. TG

    October 27, 2022 at 12:39 am

    Maybe. But so what?

    The United States is being invaded by the overpopulated third world. Not only is the US military not defending the nation, it’s actually helping the invaders in! So why should I, as an American, care about how strong the US military is? Its busy defending the borders of other countries, and defending the interests of multinational corporations, but has nothing to do with me. I would be perfectly fine with it not existing at all. What’s the worst that could happen: foreigners could swarm over the border unimpeded? Hahaha!

    • DeSantis4Prez

      October 27, 2022 at 9:47 am

      The United States is not being ‘invaded’ by anybody, you silly racist. For all the crying over ‘foreigners’ immigration is at the lowest it’s been in years. During COVID it was the lowest in over 50 years. If anything there’s a lack of immigration – too many rural and small towns in the USA are dying out for lack of people and workers. Quit whining and go outside your bubble and you’ll see.

  6. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    October 27, 2022 at 12:44 am

    I agree with Steven. Cyberwar and especially space war (neutralizing satellites) capabilities will play a huge part in any serious conflagration.

  7. Robert Sewell

    October 27, 2022 at 2:05 am

    The loss of a $20 Million fighter and its pilot from a faulty part that was continued to be used despite being a KNOWN problem for three years is indicative of a deep rot that should be sending alarms ringing in the Pentagon, but it has barely risen to the level of a squeak.
    The fact that my own country – Australia – has refused to upgrade our maritime defences for two decades is a signal that the brunt of the next war will be borne by the conscripts as the responsible politicians and Officers scramble to achieve in months that which they have delayed for years.
    The best example was the French submarine contract – $6 Billion and not one piece of metal cut, nor one decision made.
    I won’t even mention the Seasprite, Taipan, and Tiger helicopter contracts which have been bureaucratic disasters from the beginning.

  8. Greg

    October 27, 2022 at 7:59 am

    No mention either of the level of training our warfighters receive in their primary specialty, but miss a diversity and inclusion training session…

    • NOEM

      October 27, 2022 at 9:50 am

      The US military is the best-trained military on the planet. You’re straight delusional if you think otherwise.

      For all the diaper-filling about diversity and inclusion, I’ve seen zero proof – literally none – that any of it is impacting anything about the readiness of the average warfighter. It’s just nonsense with no evidence.

  9. George

    October 27, 2022 at 8:02 am

    Pay no attention that Russia has an answer for everything that is being thrown at it by NATO. Even the mighty HIMARS are falling.

    • Froike

      October 27, 2022 at 1:42 pm

      Indeed Russia does have an answer for everything NATO throws at it:
      Answers:

      1) Retreat and regroup
      2) Send in Thousands of New Pieces of Meat with no equipment or training.
      3)Threaten Nuclear Retaliation.
      4) Rape, Pillage, and Plunder Urkaine and kill innocent Civilians.
      5) Destroy Ukrainian Infrastructure and terrorize civilians.

      I apologize if I left anything out.

  10. Matt

    October 27, 2022 at 8:46 am

    US nuclear forces are an ineffective deterrent. Most US nuclear weapons would be lost in a surprise attack. The US could retaliate only one time. That is unacceptable.

    IMO, the US is vulnerable to defeat in a surprise nuclear attack. This is especially true if both Russia and China combine forces during an attack. Currently, they are informal allies.

  11. EdC

    October 27, 2022 at 9:07 am

    Degrading the military is a necessary part of the “plan”.

  12. Rich

    October 27, 2022 at 9:11 am

    While I agree with Wood with respect to the state of the US military, I would point out one relevant fact. The weapons that were designed, purchased and inventoried to destroy Soviet/Russian forces are doing just that. While these stockpiles need to be replenished, their expenditure in Ukraine has significantly altered the balance of conventional force power vis a vis the US and Russia. These weapons have accomplished their intended purpose regardless of who is pulling the trigger.

    • Arash P

      October 27, 2022 at 5:03 pm

      An honest American spotted!
      Admitted quite openly that Ukraine is nothing more than a US proxy war to destroy/degrade Russia.
      US is so evil that it’s population don’t even try to hide it anymore.

  13. Peter Olson

    October 27, 2022 at 9:30 am

    If our military inventory is depleted, outdated or maintained poorly then what exactly have we been spending 700b to 1 trillion per year on, exactly? Maybe some deep auditing of contractors, investigation of the revolving door between military and civilian arms jobs, our domestic supply chain issues and some real legal action will tighten up our effectiveness more than throwing ever more scarce assets at it?

  14. CrenshawRules

    October 27, 2022 at 9:44 am

    That index is a joke and this article doesn’t convince me otherwise. It lists the United States Air Force as ‘weak’ when it’s unfathomably superior to every other air force on the planet. If the entire methodology is just based on Cold War comparisons then the lack of any country near approaching the Soviet Union in terms of being a military rival should’ve been considered too.

    Nobody is taking this ‘index’ Heritage put out seriously, nor should they.

    • Lance Benson

      October 27, 2022 at 6:35 pm

      Exactly right. Take this quote from the article: “Should the U.S. be called to defend NATO partners in Europe, it will not be able to support Israel, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or anyone else”.

      Per Zelensky, Ukraine itself (with plenty of materiel, logistics, and intelligence support) is in the process of demolishing “the second army of the world”. At this point, barring nuclear weapons, it looks like the Polish army alone could take Moscow with NATO air support.

      Whether the force structure is right for a war supporting Taiwan against China may be a valid question, but there are no grounds for arguing that the U.S. military is “weak”.

  15. OldParatrooper

    October 27, 2022 at 10:19 am

    Perhaps Mr. Wood didn’t serve in Korea during the Cold War, but we certainly did help defend S. Korea from the DPRK then just like we do now (albeit with fewer troops today). The major change has been the significant decline in the former Warsaw Pact’s strength and the increases in Red China’s strength.

    Military strength is a relative thing. You may not be as strong as you were during the last six months of WW2, but that still might be enough if your potential enemies are weaker as well.

    Replacement of worn out equipment is clearly required. The Army should consider restoring the Division as the primary organizational element, and switch back to Armored Cav for those units who were downgraded to Strykers.

  16. OIF Combat Vet

    October 27, 2022 at 10:49 am

    Weak, Woke and hemorrhaging vital military supplies in a proxy war with Russia over that money pit called Ukraine. Then we have to take into account those other factors like the Terrorist in Chief is bleeding our strategic oil reserves dry, has left our southern border undefended, is destroying our ability to farm our own food and crippling our transportation infrastructure…

    • WakeUpFolks

      October 27, 2022 at 3:04 pm

      Weak..true…..Woke…most definitely true…have you attended any of the latest “FEELZ” mandatory trainings for “you can’t say that” and the new requirements for the poor sufferers of GID (look it up in the DSM-5 folks). As for the money pit of Ukraine…more like money washer…for those same people who keep pumping the money that way. Why do you s’pose they all “miraculously” have children that “worked” in the Ukraine (shall we name some politician’s children here?).

    • Jake

      October 27, 2022 at 5:57 pm

      The military is using armored vehicles, ships and aircraft from the Reagan era. The industrial base is shallow. The nuclear triad hasn’t been updated since the 1980’s. At the same time China and Russia are building up their Conventional forces and nuclear arsenal’s.

  17. T. Wuthrich

    October 27, 2022 at 11:16 am

    And given the Biden regime’s “war on fossil fuels” and rapid depletion of our Strategic Petroleum Reserve, what’s our mlitary supposed to run on…batteries?

  18. larry

    October 27, 2022 at 1:12 pm

    It’s only weak if you accept it needs to rule the world and be the global hegemon. If it had to fight one war to defend its actual territory, not other countries territory, it’s way over powered.

  19. Brian Foley

    October 27, 2022 at 1:44 pm

    Whenever I read an article about the weaknesses of the US military (and there are many) I am reminded of a great quote from a US Navy SEAL Team Chief…”It’s not that we’re so great, it’s that the other guys suck more”. That’s the crux of the matter, “Are you better than the other guy?”. The answer to that question currently is a resounding “Yes”.

  20. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    October 27, 2022 at 4:08 pm

    The stupid invasion launched by Putin in Ukraine allowed the United States, without any loss of life in its ranks, with only 2% of the annual defense budget, to destroy half the potential of what was considered the “second army of the world”.

    And indicated to China, Iran and North Korea that an invasion as a Western-backed nation leads to failure.

    Frankly, who can believe that Kim is now going to embark on a second Korean war? Biden has once again announced that a nuclear attack would lead to the downfall of his regime, and the conventional arsenal of this small country is obsolete. As for Iran, apart from a war of missiles and drones, cannot invade its neighbors.

  21. GhostTomahawk

    October 27, 2022 at 5:10 pm

    With the amount of treasury we spend on defense there is no reason to have our military reduced to such a state. Historically as the US economy contracts military recruiting increased… but that doesn’t replace equipment or vessels or planes.

  22. Jacksonian Libertarian

    October 27, 2022 at 6:34 pm

    Combat Power rule of thumb: 1 smart weapon = 500 dumb weapons

    The fact is the US is spending insane amounts on Industrial Age weapons platforms (Tanks, Artillery, Warships, Planes, etc.) that can’t survive on an Information Age unmanned battlefield.

    The US should be buying tens of thousands of cheap, long range, attritable, UAVs and the Smart Weapons to arm them with. While immediately putting 1/2 of the obsolete dumb weapons platforms into emergency storage, and cancelling any future purchases of them.

    There is a saying that “Generals are always preparing to fight the last war”, well the criteria used to measure the US military in this article (Obsolete Weapons Platforms), are exactly that.

    Everyone can see the Ukrainians defeating the Russians with small numbers of western smart weapons, but still they refuse to acknowledge the massive change in the modern battlefield.

  23. M Wald

    October 27, 2022 at 9:47 pm

    You did not include that the senior leadership across all the services is the most corrupt, cowardly, incompetent and politicized in American history.

    • L'amateur d'aéroplanes

      October 28, 2022 at 11:25 am

      @M Wald. You certainly want to talk about the Trump administration; I repeat, I am French, and I find the behavior of your former president at the level of high treason towards his country and his allies. The fact is that he attempted a coup worthy of 1920s Southern Europe.

  24. US Army Vet

    October 28, 2022 at 1:06 pm

    The Heritage foundation is not grounded in reality. It is a legacy of pathetic fringe idiots like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh.

    1945 is best when the rhetoric is apolitical, numbers based, and standing on situational awareness in reality. This article is bogus on all three accounts. The first being a political source of the info- already covered above. An example of numbers and reality based is the point about pilot flight time differences. No mention is made of differences in numbers of hours in flight simulators, nor the differences between simulators during the cold war and their technological capabilities today.

    This article is rubbish.

  25. ATM

    October 30, 2022 at 12:35 am

    Someone in the pentagon is always saying that the US military is weak. They just want more money.

  26. Helmut

    October 30, 2022 at 11:04 am

    And if the nation were to spend one more dime on it, the Heritage Foundation would collectively explode into apoplexy. This is a thinly veiled attack on a political administration with whom it disagrees with on domestic policy matters, period.

  27. Middle Earth

    November 1, 2022 at 6:40 am

    “The U.S. has found itself at war every 15 to 20 years since its founding. This is unlikely to change anytime soon.”

    In recent years and especially since the Vietnam War, US citizens should question why these wars are being fought.

    “Today, the U.S. faces four opponents—China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—yet has little more than half the force it did just three decades ago.”

    It seems absurd to believe that with a full request of twice the amount the Pentagon is asking for, that the US could “win” a war with China by itself and certainly not combined with the other three. The US did not and could not “win” in Afghanistan. It seems prudent to define exactly what “winning” means today.

  28. clarence

    November 2, 2022 at 12:34 pm

    yeah, it’s only weak if you want it to be a hegemon

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