Heritage Foundation | 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength America is a global power with global interests. Its military is meant first and foremost to defend America from attack. Beyond that, it is meant to protect Americans abroad, allies, and the freedom to use international sea, air, and space while retaining the ability to engage in more than one major contingency at a time. America must be able not only to defend itself and its interests, but also to deter enemies and opportunists from taking action that would challenge U.S. interests, a capability that includes preventing the destabilization of a region and guarding against threats to the peace and security of America’s friends. As noted in the 2015 Index, however, the U.S. does not have the right force to meet a two–major regional contingency (MRC) requirement and is not ready to carry out its duties effectively. Consequently, the U.S. risks seeing its interests increasingly challenged and the world order it has led since World War II undone.
How to Think About Sizing Military PowerMilitary power begins with the people and equipment used to conduct war: the weapons, tanks, ships, airplanes, and supporting tools such as communications systems that make it possible either for one group to impose its will on another or to prevent such an outcome from happening. However, simply counting the number of people, tanks, or combat aircraft that the U.S. possesses would be irrelevant because it would lack context. For example, the U.S. Army might have 100 tanks, but to accomplish a specific military task, 1,000 or more tanks might be needed or none at all. It might be that the terrain on which a battle is fought is especially ill-suited to tanks or that the tanks one has are inferior to the enemy’s. The enemy could be quite adept at using tanks, or his tank operations might be integrated into a larger employment concept that leverages the supporting fires of infantry and airpower, whereas one’s own tanks are poorly maintained, the crews are ill-prepared, or one’s doctrine is irrelevant. Success in war is partly a function of matching the tools of warfare to a specific task and employing those tools effectively in the conditions of the battle. Get these wrong—tools, objective, competency, or context—and you lose. Another key element is the military’s capacity for conducting operations: how many of the right tools—people, tanks, planes, or ships—it has. One might have the right tools and know how to use them effectively but not have enough to win. Given that one cannot know with certainty beforehand just when, where, against whom, and for what reason a battle might be fought, determining how much capability is needed is an exercise of informed, but not certain, judgment. Further, two different combatants can use the same set of tools in radically different ways to quite different effects. The concept of employment matters. Concepts are developed to account for numbers, capabilities, material readiness, and all sorts of other factors that enable or constrain one’s actions, such as whether one fights alone or alongside allies, on familiar or strange terrain, or with a large, well-equipped force or a small, poorly equipped force. All of these factors and a multitude of others bear upon the outcome of any military contest. Military planners attempt to account for them when devising requirements, developing training and exercise plans, formulating war plans, and providing advice to the President in his role as Commander in Chief of U.S. military forces. Measuring hard combat power in terms of its adequacy in capability, capacity, and readiness to defend U.S. vital interests is hard, especially in such a limited space as this Index, but it is not impossible. Regardless of the difficulty of determining the adequacy of one’s military forces, the Secretary of Defense and the military services have to make decisions every year when the annual defense budget request is submitted to Congress. The adequacy of hard power is affected most directly by the resources the nation is willing to invest. While that investment decision is informed to a significant degree by an appreciation of threats to U.S. interests and the ability of a given defense portfolio to protect U.S. interests against such threats, it is not informed solely by such considerations; hence the importance of clarity and honesty in determining just what is needed in hard power and the status of such hard power from year to year. Administrations take various approaches to determine the type and amount of military power needed and, by extension, the amount of money and other resources to commit to it. After defining the national interests to be protected, the Department of Defense can use worst-case scenarios to determine the maximum challenges the U.S. military might have to overcome. Another way is to redefine what constitutes a threat. By taking a different view of major actors as to whether they pose a meaningful threat and of the extent to which friends and allies have an ability to assist the U.S. in meeting security objectives, one can arrive at different conclusions about necessary military strength. For example, one Administration might view China as a rising, belligerent power bent on dominating the Asia–Pacific. Another Administration might view China as an inherently peaceful, rising economic power, with the expansion of its military capabilities a natural occurrence commensurate with its strengthening status. The difference between these views can have a dramatic impact on how one thinks about U.S. defense requirements. So, too, can policymakers amplify or downplay risk to justify defense budget decisions. There can also be strongly differing views on requirements for operational capacity. Does the country need enough for two major combat operations (MCOs) at roughly the same time or just enough for a single major operation plus some number of lesser cases? To what extent should “presence” tasks—the use of forces for routine engagement with partner countries or simply to be on hand in a region for crisis response—be additive to or a subset of a military force sized to handle two major regional conflicts? How much value should be assigned to advanced technologies as they are incorporated into the force?
Where to StartThere are references that one can use to help sort through the variables and arrive at a starting point for assessing the adequacy of today’s military posture: government studies and historical experience. The government occasionally conducts formal reviews meant to inform decisions on capabilities and capacities across the Joint Force relative to the threat environment (current and projected) and evolutions in operating conditions, the advancement of technologies, and aspects of U.S. interests that may call for one type of military response over another. The 1993 Bottom-Up Review (BUR), conducted by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, is one such frequently cited example. Secretary Aspin recognized “the dramatic changes that [had] occurred in the world as a result of the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union…[altering] America’s security needs” and driving an imperative “to reassess all of our defense concepts, plans, and programs from the ground up.”1 The BUR formally established the requirement that U.S. forces should be able “to achieve decisive victory in two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts [MRCs] and to conduct combat operations characterized by rapid response and a high probability of success, while minimizing the risk of significant American casualties.”2 Thus was formalized the two-MRC standard. Dr. Daniel Gouré, in his 2015 Index essay “Building the Right Military for a New Era: The Need for an Enduring Analytic Framework,” noted that various Administrations have redefined force requirements based on their perceptions of what was necessary to protect U.S. interests.3 In an attempt to formalize the process, and perhaps to have a mechanism by which to exert influence on the executive branch in such matters,4 Congress mandated that each incoming Administration must conduct a comprehensive strategic review of the global security environment, articulate a relevant strategy suited to protecting and promoting U.S. security interests, and recommend an associated military force posture. The Quadrennial Defense Reviews (QDR) have been conducted since 1997, accompanied in 1997, 2010, and 2014 by independent National Defense Panel (NDP) reports that have reviewed and commented on them. Both sets of documents purport to serve as key assessments, but analysts have come to minimize their value, regarding them as justifications for executive branch policy preferences (the QDR reports) or overly broad, generalized commentaries (the NDP reports) that lack substantive discussion about threats to U.S. interests, a credible strategy for dealing with them, and the actual ability of the U.S. military to meet national security requirements.
Correlation of Forces as a Factor in Force SizingDuring the Cold War, the U.S. used the Soviet threat as its primary reference for what it needed in hard power. At that time, the correlation of forces—a comparison of one force against another to determine strengths and weaknesses—was highly symmetrical. U.S. planners compared tanks, aircraft, and ships against their direct counterparts in the opposing force. These comparison assessments drove the sizing, characteristics, and capabilities of fleets, armies, and air forces. The evolution of guided, precision munitions and the rapid technological advancements in surveillance and targeting systems, however, have made comparing combat power more difficult. What was largely a platform v. platform model has shifted somewhat to a munitions v. target model. The proliferation of precise weaponry increasingly means that each round, bomb, rocket, missile, and even individual bullet (in some instances) can hit its intended target, thus decreasing the number of munitions needed to prosecute an operation. It also means that the lethality of an operating environment increases significantly for the people and platforms involved. We are now at the point where one must consider how many “smart munitions” the enemy has when thinking about how many platforms and people are needed to win a combat engagement instead of focusing primarily on how many ships or airplanes the enemy can bring to bear against one’s own force.5 In one sense, increased precision and the technological advances now being incorporated into U.S. weapons, platforms, and operating concepts make it possible to do far more with fewer assets than ever before. Platform signature reduction (stealth) makes it harder for the enemy to find and target them, while the increased precision of weapons makes it possible for fewer platforms to hit many more targets. Additionally, the ability of the U.S. Joint Force to harness computers, modern telecommunications, space-based platforms—such as for surveillance, communications, positioning-navigation-timing (PNT) support from GPS satellites—and networked operations potentially means that smaller forces can have far greater effect in battle than at any other time in history. But these same advances also enable enemy forces. And certain military functions—such as seizing, holding, and occupying territory—may require a certain number of soldiers no matter how state-of-the-art their equipment may be. With smaller forces, each individual element of the force represents a greater percentage of its combat power. Each casualty or equipment loss takes a larger toll on the ability of the force to sustain high-tempo, high-intensity combat operations over time, especially if the force is dispersed across a wide theater or across multiple theaters of operation. As advanced technology has become more affordable, it has become more accessible for nearly any actor, state or non-state. Consequently, it may be that the outcomes of future wars will pivot to a much greater degree on the skill of the forces and their capacity to sustain operations over time than they will on some great disparity in technology. If so, readiness and capacity will take on greater importance than absolute advances in capability. All of this illustrates the difficulties of and need for exercising judgment in assessing the adequacy of America’s military power. Yet without such an assessment, all that we are left with are the quadrennial strategic reviews (which are subject to filtering and manipulation to suit policy interests); annual budget submissions (which typically favor desired military programs at presumed levels of affordability and are therefore necessarily budget-constrained); and leadership posture statements that often simply align with executive branch policy priorities.
The U.S. Joint Force and the Art of WarThis section of the Index, on military capabilities, assesses the adequacy of the United States’ defense posture as it pertains to a conventional understanding of “hard power,” defined as the ability of American military forces to engage and defeat an enemy’s forces in battle at a scale commensurate with the vital national interests of the U.S. While some hard truths in military affairs are appropriately addressed by math and science, others are not. Speed, range, probability of detection, and radar cross-section are examples of quantifiable characteristics that can be measured. Specific future instances in which U.S. military power will be needed, the competency of the enemy, the political will to sustain operations in the face of mounting deaths and destruction, and the absolute amount of strength needed to win are matters of judgment and experience, but they nevertheless affect how large and capable a force one might need. In conducting the assessment, we accounted for both quantitative and qualitative aspects of military forces, informed by an experience-based understanding of military operations and the expertise of external reviewers. Military effectiveness is as much an art as it is a science. Specific military capabilities represented in weapons, platforms, and military units can be used individually to some effect. Practitioners of war, however, have learned that combining the tools of war in various ways and orchestrating their tactical employment in series or simultaneously can dramatically amplify the effectiveness of the force committed to battle. Employment concepts are exceedingly hard to measure in any quantitative way, but their value as critical contributors in the conduct of war is undeniable. How they are utilized is very much an art-of-war matter, learned through experience over time.
What Is Not Being AssessedIn assessing the current status of the military forces, this Index uses the primary references used by the military services themselves when they discuss their ability to employ hard combat power. The Army’s unit of measure is the brigade combat team (BCT), while the Marine Corps structures itself by battalions. For the Navy, it is the number of ships in its combat fleet, and the Air Force’s most consistent reference is total number of aircraft, sometimes broken down into the two primary sub-types of fighters and bombers. Obviously, this is not the totality of service capabilities, and it certainly is not everything needed for war, but these measures can be viewed as surrogate measures that subsume or represent the vast number of other things that make these “units of measure” possible and effective in battle. There is an element of proportionality or ratio related to these measures that drives other aspects of force sizing. For example:
When planning air operations, the Air Force looks at the targets to be serviced and the nature of the general operation to be supported and then accounts for aircraft and munitions needed (type and quantity) and the availability and characteristics of airfields relevant to the operation. From this, they calculate sorties, distances, flight hours, fuel consumption, number of aircraft in a given piece of airspace, and a host of other pieces of information to determine how many aerial refueling tankers will be needed. Joint Force detailed planning for operations determines how much equipment, manpower, and supplies need to be moved from one point to another and how much more will be needed to sustain operations: Logistics is a very quantitative business. U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) calculates the amount of lift required in cargo planes, sealift shipping, long-haul road movements, and trains. The Marine Corps operationally thinks in terms of Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs) that are composed of command, ground, air, and logistics elements. The size of a MAGTF varies depending on the mission to be accomplished, but the nucleus is normally (though not always) the ground combat element that typically ranges from a battalion to a division. The amount of airpower, logistics support, and transportation (amphibious, sealift, and airlift) required to execute the operation extends from there. The Navy thinks in terms of the number of surface combatants, the nature of operations, and proximity to ports to drive planning for all of the combat logistics force vessels that are needed to make it happen. The Army provides a host of “common user support” capabilities to the overall force that can include operating ports, theater-wide trucking and rail operations, large-scale fuel and ammunition storage and distribution, engineering and construction services, and general supply support. Institutional elements like recruiting are necessary to generate the force in the first place, the multitude of installations at which units are based, training facilities, acquisition workforce, and the military’s medical infrastructure.The point here is that the military spear has a great deal of shaft that makes it possible for the tip to locate, close with, and destroy its target, and there is a rough proportionality between shaft and spear tip. Thus, in assessing the basic units of measure for combat power, one can get a sense of what is likely needed in the combat support, combat service support, and supporting establishment echelons. The scope of this Index does not extend to analysis of everything that makes hard power possible; it focuses on the status of the hard power itself. This assessment also does not account for the Reserve and Guard components of the services; it focuses only on the Active component. Again, the element of proportion or ratio figures prominently. Each service determines the balance among its Active, Reserve, and National Guard elements (only the Army and Air Force have Guard elements; the Navy and Marine Corps do not) based on factors that include cost of the respective elements, availability for operational employment, time needed to respond to an emergent crisis, the allocation of roles between the elements, and political considerations.6 This assessment looks at the baseline requirement for a given amount of combat power that is readily available for use in a major combat operation—something that is usually associated with the Active components of each service.
The Defense Budget and Strategic GuidanceAs for the defense budget, ample discussion of budget issues is scattered throughout (mainly as they pertain to acquisition programs), but the budget itself—whether for the military services individually, the Joint Force as a whole, or the totality of the defense establishment—is actually a reflection of the importance that the U.S. places on the modernity, capacity, and readiness of the force rather than a measure of the capability of the force itself. In other words, the budget itself does not tell us much about the posture of the U.S. military. The baseline budget for defense in FY 2015 was $522 billion, which paid for the forces (manpower, equipment, training); enabling capabilities (things like transportation, satellites, defense intelligence, and research and development); and institutional support (bases and stations, facilities, recruiting, and the like). The baseline budget does not pay for the cost of ongoing operations, which is captured in supplemental funding known as OCO (overseas contingency operations). It is true that absent a significant threat to the survival of the country, the U.S. will always balance expenditures on defense with spending in all of the other areas of government activity that it thinks are necessary or desirable. Some have argued that a defense budget indexed to a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) is a reasonable reference, but a fixed percentage of GDP does not accurately reflect national security requirements per se any more than the size of the budget alone correlates to levels of capability. It is possible that a larger defense budget could be associated with less military capability if the money were allocated inappropriately or spent wastefully, and the fact that the economy changes over time does not necessarily mean that defense spending should increase or decrease in lockstep by default. Ideally, defense requirements are determined by identifying national interests that might need to be protected with military power; assessing the nature of threats to those interests and what would be needed to defeat those threats (and how much that would cost); and then determining what the country can afford (or is willing) to spend. Any difference between assessed requirements and affordable levels of spending on defense would constitute risk to U.S. security interests. This Index enthusiastically adopts this latter approach: interests, threats, requirements, resulting force, and associated budget. Spending less than the amount needed to maintain a two-MRC force results in policy debates over where to accept risk: force modernization, the capacity to conduct large-scale or multiple simultaneous operations, or force readiness. The decision to fund national defense commensurate with interests and prevailing threats is a policy decision reflecting national priorities and acceptance of risk. This Index assesses the ability of the nation’s military forces to protect vital national security interests within the world as it is so that the debate over funding hard power is better informed. In fiscal year (FY) 2015, debate about how much funding to allocate to defense was affected by a larger political debate that pitted those who wanted to see an overall reduction in federal spending against those who pushed for higher levels of spending for defense and those who wanted to see any increase in defense spending matched by commensurate increases in domestic spending. Efforts to repeal or substantially modify the Budget Control Act (BCA) were stymied by those who feared losing a mechanism that disciplines federal spending. Yet there appears to be a consensus that more money is needed for defense, given the BCA requests for FY 2016 funding from the White House and both chambers of Congress. The FY 2015 defense budget was only $1 billion more than the FY 2014 budget. Adjusted for inflation, this is actually a 1 percent cut. The President’s budget request for FY 2016 was $561 billion, which would represent an almost 6 percent real increase over FY 2015. For comparison, President Obama’s 2012 defense budget, the last under former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, proposed spending $624 billion on defense in FY 2015. A bipartisan consensus, as seen in the National Defense Panel report in 2014, has identified the so-called Gates budget as the minimum the United States should be spending on national defense.7 As seen in Chart 3, the FY 2015 enacted budget and the FY 2016 budget proposal are well below this minimum. The restrictions placed on defense spending by the BCA continue to be a major concern of the military service chiefs, who have consistently testified about the damage these restrictions are causing to readiness, modernization, and capacity for operations. As FY 2015 ended, the budget debates about FY 2016 had not been resolved, but it appears unlikely that any resolution will bring the national defense budget close to even the minimum levels proposed by the Gates budget.
“Purpose” as a Driver in Force SizingThe Joint Force is used for a wide range of purposes, only one of which is major combat operations. Fortunately, such events have been rare, averaging roughly 15–20 years between occurrences.8 In between (and even during) such occurrences, the military is used in support of regional engagement, crisis response, strategic deterrence, and humanitarian assistance, as well as providing support to civil authorities and U.S. diplomacy. The U.S. Unified Combatant Commands, or COCOMS (EUCOM, CENTCOM, PACOM, SOUTHCOM, and AFRICOM), all have annual and long-term plans through which they engage with countries in their assigned regions. These engagements range from very small unit training events with the forces of a single partner country to larger bilateral and sometimes multilateral military exercises. In 2015, these engagements included training and assisting Iraqi military forces and participating in joint training exercises with NATO members. Such events help to establish working relationships with other countries, acquire a more detailed understanding of regional political–military dynamics and on-the-ground conditions in areas of interest, and signal U.S. security interests to friends and competitors. To support such COCOM efforts, the services provide forces that are based permanently in respective regions or that operate in them temporarily on a rotational basis. To make these regional rotations possible, the services must maintain a base force sufficiently large to train, deploy, support, receive back, and make ready again a stream of units ideally numerous enough to meet validated COCOM demand. The ratio between time spent at home and time spent away on deployment for any given unit is known as OPTEMPO (operational tempo), and each service attempts to maintain a ratio that both gives units enough time to educate, train, and prepare their forces and allows the individuals in a unit to maintain some semblance of a healthy home and family life. This ensures that units are fully prepared for the next deployment cycle and that servicemembers do not become “burned out” or suffer adverse consequences in their personal lives because of excessive deployment time. Experience has shown that a ratio of at least 3:1 is sustainable, meaning three periods of time at home for every period deployed. (If a unit is to be out for six months, it will be home for 18 months before deploying again.) Obviously, a service needs a sufficient number of people, units, ships, and planes to support such a ratio. If peacetime engagement were the primary focus for the Joint Force, the services could size their forces to support these forward-based and forward-deployed demands. Thus, the size of the total force must necessarily be much larger than any sampling of its use at any point in time. In contrast, sizing a force for major combat operations is an exercise informed by history—how much force was needed in previous wars—and then shaped and refined by analysis of current threats, a range of plausible scenarios, and expectations about what the U.S. can do given training, equipment, employment concept, and other factors. The defense establishment must then balance “force sizing” between COCOM requirements for presence and engagement with the amount thought necessary to win in likely war scenarios. Inevitably, compromises are made that account for how much military the country is willing to buy. Generally speaking:
- The Army sizes to major warfighting requirements.
- The Marine Corps focuses on crisis response demands and the ability to contribute to one major war.
- The Air Force attempts to strike a balance that accounts for historically based demand across the spectrum since air assets are shifted fairly easily from one theater of operations to another (“easily” being a relative term when compared to the challenge of shifting large land forces), and any peacetime engagement typically requires some level of air support.
- The Navy is driven by global presence requirements. To meet COCOM requirements for a continuous fleet presence at sea, the Navy must have three to four ships in order to have one on station. To illustrate with a simplistic example, a commander who wants one U.S. warship stationed off the coast of a hostile country needs the use of four ships from the fleet: one on station, one that left station and is traveling home, one that just left home and is traveling to station, and one that fills in for one of the other ships when it needs maintenance or training time.
Our ApproachWith this in mind, we assessed the state of military affairs for U.S. forces as it pertains to their ability to deliver hard power against an enemy in three areas:
- Capacity, and
- The proper tools (material and conceptual) of sufficient design, performance characteristics, technological advancement, and suitability for it to perform its function against an enemy force successfully.
- The sufficiency of armored vehicles, ships, airplanes, and other equipment and weapons to win against the enemy.
- The appropriate variety of options to preclude strategic vulnerabilities in the force and give flexibilities to battlefield commanders.
- The degree to which elements of the force reinforce each other in covering potential vulnerabilities, maximizing strengths, and gaining greater effectiveness through synergies that are not possible in narrowly stovepiped, linear approaches to war.
- The manufacturing sector attempts to satisfy the requirements articulated by the military.
- “Unexpected” technological hurdles arise that take longer and much more money to solve than anyone envisioned.
- Programs are lengthened, and cost overruns are addressed (usually with more money).
- Then the realization sets in that the country either cannot afford or is unwilling to pay the cost of acquiring the total number of platforms originally advocated. The acquisition goal is adjusted downward (if not canceled), and the military finally fields fewer platforms (at higher unit cost) than it originally said it needed to be successful in combat.
- Army: 50 BCTs.
- Navy: 346 ships, 624 strike aircraft.
- Air Force: 1,200 fighter/attack aircraft.
- Marine Corps: 36 battalions.
- General Raymond T. Odierno, former Chief of Staff of the Army, has stated that the Army can maintain only one-third of its force at acceptable levels of readiness. Each shuttering of a BCT incurs a lengthy restart cost. Specifically, “it takes approximately 30 months to generate a fully manned and trained Regular Army BCT,” and “senior command and control headquarters…take even longer.”12
- General Mark A. Welsh, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, has noted that if the Air Force shut off all utilities at all major installations for 12 years or quit flying for nearly two years, it would save $12 billion—enough to buy back just one year of sequestered funds.13
- The Navy is accepting risk in its ability to meet defense strategy requirements according to Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations. He has testified that under current spending limitations, “ships will arrive late to a combat zone, engage in conflict without the benefit of markedly superior combat systems, sensors and networks, or desired levels of munitions inventories.”14 Also, the Navy can now surge only one-third of the force required by Combatant Commanders to meet contingency requirements.15
- How does one place a value on the combat effectiveness of such concepts as Air-Sea Battle, Network-centric Operations, Global Strike, or Joint Operational Access?
- Is it entirely possible to assess accurately (1) how well a small number of newest-generation ships or aircraft will fare against a much larger number of currently modern counterparts when (2) U.S. forces are operating thousands of miles from home, (3) orchestrated with a particular operational concept, and (4) the enemy is leveraging a “home field advantage” that includes strategic depth and much shorter and perhaps better protected lines of communication and (5) might be pursuing much dearer national objectives than the U.S. such that the political will to conduct sustained operations in the face of mounting losses might differ dramatically?
- How does one neatly quantify the element of combat experience, the health of a supporting workforce, the value of “presence and engagement operations,” and the related force structures and deployment/employment patterns that presumably deter war or mitigate its effects if it does occur?