Here’s What’s Driving Its ‘Marginal’ Status.
With aging equipment, a lack of adequate funding, and limited production capabilities, the U.S. military is ranked “marginal” at best. That’s the conclusion of the 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength, (Read it ~ Kelly!) an annual report from The Heritage Foundation that assesses the status of the military and the global threat level to the United States, which was released Wednesday.
“It’s right there on the edge. It could handle one major war for, we believe, a limited period of time, but it couldn’t do anything other than that,” said Dakota Wood, the lead editor of the index and a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
Wood joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the findings of the latest index.
We also cover these stories:
- The White House is preparing a plan to vaccinate children against COVID-19 pending the approval of the Food and Drug Administration.
- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announces that the city will extend its COVID-19 vaccine mandate to all public employees, as well as remove the option to opt out of vaccination through regular testing.
- Democrats announce plans to alter a proposal that would give the IRS the authority to obtain information on Americans’ bank transactions.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Christian Mysliwiec: I’m Christian Mysliwiec. Each year, The Heritage Foundation publishes the Index of U.S. Military Strength, an assessment of the U.S. military and the international threat level to the United States and its interests. The 2022 edition was released Wednesday. With me today is Dakota Wood, senior research fellow at Heritage’s Center for National Defense and lead editor of the Index of U.S. Military Strength. Dakota, thanks for joining me.
Dakota Wood: Christian, it’s great to be with you. Thanks.
Mysliwiec: Yeah, thank you. I want to start with the military branches. Before we dig into the individual branches, what is the overall score of the military this year?
Wood: Well, it’s marginal. So if you had a score of one to five with one being very poor or an “R,” we assess the military as very weak, to five, being very strong, it’s right in that middle category, right?
And the reason we use the word “marginal” as opposed to “OK” is you might get the sense with that other word that, well, it’s OK, we’ve got what we need and we’re marching off. But “marginal” really is meant to convey the sense that you’re kind of on the edge. If it gets any worse, you’re going to be weak, and you don’t want to be there.
So it’s a characterization of the status of the military. It’s right there on the edge. It could handle one major war for, we believe, a limited period of time, but it couldn’t do anything other than that. And it actually sends a message to partners and adversaries of not marginal, but you can’t really do much there in the world to protect U.S. interests. So it’s a middling score and it’s not a good one.
Mysliwiec: Good, not great.
Wood: Yeah, and not even good.
Mysliwiec: Not even good—right.
Mysliwiec: So which branches in particular are contributing to that middling status?
Wood: Yeah. So, we’ve got Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, but we also add in the U.S. Space Force. And then we’ve got a sixth, not necessarily a branch, but we deal with nuclear deterrents, the strategic capabilities and missiles, and submarines, and nuclear-capable bombers as a separate entity, because there’s a whole enterprise that goes with that.
So in this world, actually, the nuclear enterprise with the missiles, and warheads, and technicians, and those sorts of things, and the U.S. Marine Corps, we rated as strong. On the nuclear side it’s because it has been paid so much attention just the last three or four years, right? And we also caveat our strong, saying that if it loses support, then it can tip over into the weak category pretty quickly. But there’s bipartisan support, both Republicans and Democrats, we have healthy programs with a replacement bomber, with a replacement ballistic missile submarine.
And so, the trend is in a really good direction, and with the Marine Corps, they are reinventing that service. I mean, they focused on the Indo-Pacific region, and China is the biggest challenge, and they have said that if they can figure out how to operate against a big opponent like China with … what they call distributed forces, small packets of capability that really pack a punch, but they’re spread out over a large area, if you can solve that problem, then you can transfer that capability to any other theater and any other opponent.
So, they have focused, they know what they need to do, and [they are] making really great progress. Readiness is up, but they’re doing that at a cost. The service is shrinking its size because manpower is expensive. And so, they’re trying to free up money to pay for new missiles and robots, unmanned systems, and those sorts of things, but they’re making good. So those are our two big pointers.
The Air Force has tipped over into the weak category, largely because they can’t get their pilots sufficient training. So flight hours, the number of hours a pilot gets in his machine, training as he should, is down 38%. So they’re only getting two-thirds of the training they actually need, when we compare that to the past couple of years.
Mysliwiec: Now, why is that?
Wood: Well, a lot of it comes down to money, right? So it costs money to buy an airplane, it costs money to repair and maintain the airplane. So then when you fly it, you’re using up part of the lifespan of that airplane, and you’re also then requiring repair parts and technician time, and those sorts of things. So flying is just inherently expensive. And so, if you don’t have the money to fund what they call a flight hour program, then you’re going to fly less.
Now, the Air Force would say, because we’ve got great simulators, that compensates for this lack of time in an actual airplane. But when you talk to actual pilots, there is a different emotional experience being in an on-the-ground simulator and learning what buttons to push and how to respond to warning lights, and use your weapon systems, and all that. I get that. But if you flame out on an engine or you make a bad turn, you can restart the program. If something goes bad in the air, it’s just a different world. So they need that in-the-air time, actually flying a machine to maintain these combat-credible skills, and they just aren’t getting that kind of time.
And in the other services, the Navy and the Army, for example, are kind of in that middling ground where they’re kind of holding their own, they’ve got a sense of what they want to do, but they don’t have the money that they need to actually buy the ships or to train the units to a level that would really make them competent at scale. I can have a couple of units that are really, really good, but when you get into a war with somebody, you’re going to take losses. And so, you need more than just a bare minimum number of people or units to be able to do the things that you want to do.
And especially in the case of the Navy, a ship, like an airplane or a person, can only be at one place at one time on the planet. So, if you have a relatively small Navy, given the size of the world, and you look at a competitor like China, which has more ships than the U.S. Navy does, and if you look at the distances, only one-third of our Navy of approximately 300 ships is available in any given day. So you’re taking 100 ships and spreading them all over the planet. And so, they know what they need, they just don’t have the money to buy the equipment and to train the units to the level that they really need to have.
Mysliwiec: It sounds so much like a funding issue. It boils down to money.
Wood: It is, and I completely understand the criticisms about we spend more money than any other single country or group of countries combined, but what’s lost in that criticism, again, is scale, right? That if a lot of your allies, if you stack them all together, don’t even get close to what the U.S. is spending, well, it’s actually the case that the allies aren’t spending enough. They have very weak militaries with very little ability to project power any other place in the world, in their own home country, right? Cold War West Germany alone had at 5,000 tanks. Today, the combined Germany has fewer than 300.
So it’s an indicator, right? This comparison of what the U.S. spends versus others doesn’t take that into account, and it also doesn’t take into account the context of the theater. So if the United States has to project our capabilities 8,000 miles from the U.S. to the South China Sea, but China only has to go 300 miles, and they can use a lot of land-based capability to attack our airplanes and ships that are operating at great ranges, there’s a balance there too, right?
It’s all context. It’s, what are we spending money on? What is the cost of labor and people, and training in the West, and in the U.S. in particular, and how does that compare to the cost of similar things in China or Russia? They don’t have to worry about environmental compliance, and safety and health standards, and pay and benefits, and those sorts of things. So if you’re going to be a global power, you just have to spend enough to have the military that is commensurate with that status and those interests, and we’re just not keeping pace with that.
Mysliwiec: Right, right. I noticed that Space Force was ranked “weak.” So why is it doing so poorly, and what’s at stake with this poor ranking?
Wood: It stood up about a year ago, and it did a great job of transferring the space things, the control of satellites, the people that do that mission, transferring those from the other services that it was getting them from. It’s a new service, and “I’m going to get some stuff from the Army, from the Air Force, and the Navy.”
So they did a wonderful job at transferring that, but now you look at what they have, the number of satellites they control, the number of people they have to do the job, and you compare that to the demand for that kind of support, those services by all the regional combat and commands—the U.S. Central Command, and Pacific Command, and European Command, on and on—and they just don’t have enough capacity to deal with all the demands for that kind of support from these other organizations.
And what we point out in this report is how much and how rapidly things have skewed toward the commercial sector. So, whereas the United States in the past year, the United States government actually launched about, I think it was nine or 10 rockets to put satellites into space, on the commercial side, it was like 320, or something along those lines.
So in the commercial sector, they’re putting all sorts of things in orbit, and somebody has to track that. How do you use those as communication relays? How do you download imagery? How do you make sure that things don’t bump into each other, right? And that’s just the U.S., not with the Europeans, and the Chinese, and the Russians. So we scored Space Force as weak almost exclusively because of a lack of capacity, their ability to support things at the level that’s really needed.
Mysliwiec: And is there cooperation between Space Force or the U.S. government and these private U.S. entities?
Wood: Yeah, there is and it really is wonderful. I mean, if you’re a private company, you would like contracts from the government to help support that, right? Now, the commercial sector uses space stuff a lot for navigation and communications. The agriculture industry really uses that imagery to understand what’s going on in their fields. I mean, there’s just so many uses for this stuff.
So if you look at dollar value, the U.S. government, as a percentage, is getting smaller and smaller, but there is a recognition of the national security aspects of having a meaningful presence in space and leveraging that as an operating domain in support of the United States’ interest.
So there is a good relationship between government and private company, but on the government side, you’ve got to have a management team and the specialists. A private company can probably offer a much better salary than if you were a [General Schedule] employee on the government payroll, right? So, you’re competing for talent, for skilled labor—
Mysliwiec: With the private sector.
Wood: … with the private sector. And the private sector gets more and more complicated with more and more things going in. I mean, you can see the launch of the billionaires, right? The Jeff Bezos and others that are putting things into space, and somebody has to track all that.
So the U.S. space service, not for lack of patriotism, or competencies, or anything like that, we scored weak, just because they don’t have enough to do the job that we would want them to do.
Mysliwiec: I see. Now, in terms of threats to the United States, you already mentioned that China is one of the most comprehensive threats. It’s certainly forefront on everybody’s mind. But I was surprised to see that in the index, it states that Russia remains the most pressing threat to the United States. So should we be more concerned about Russia than China?
Wood: Well, it’s kind of both, right? And it’s not trying to dance around the issue at all, but when somebody says, “What’s the biggest threat?” Well, what do you mean by that? Is it a very near-term, acute, something might happen tomorrow, or is it more of a broad, comprehensive, profound challenge at very large scale? And so, the differences between how we look at Russia and how we look at China is really at those ends of the spectrum, right?
Russia has been very aggressive, especially in northern Europe, really probing the sea and air of northern NATO allies and other partners that aren’t part of NATO up in that part of the world. They’ve been very aggressive, obviously, in Syria and in the Middle East. And they’re trying to develop a lot of capabilities, and they’ve got a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, they’ve got some underwater torpedoes, which are pretty scary. And they’re very aggressive in their rhetoric, in what they’re saying.
They’ve had very large military exercises alongside Ukraine and the Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and all. So there’s kind of an acute, near-term, “something bad could happen” sort of challenge from Russia, but they’ve got a problematic economy, their public health sector isn’t doing very well at all, and so, they’ve got their own challenges.
But when you look at a global competitor, I mean, China’s economy, you got 1.3 billion people, they’re making ships like no tomorrow. I mean, they add the equivalent of another country’s navy to their navy about every couple of years.
They already exceed the size of the U.S. Navy at 350-plus ships, plus their Chinese coast guard, plus their Chinese kind of maritime militia. So they’ve got a lot of vessels where if they have 350 to 500, depending on how you count those vessels, versus 60, 60 U.S. Navy ships in that part of the world.
So there’s a scale involved here and kind of a weight that they can throw around is they argue over territorial water disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines, and this testy exchange they’ve had with Australia and other countries in the region. So they’re both a challenge. They differ in scale and scope, and we address each of them and their particulars inside the index.
Mysliwiec: Yes. China’s certainly been aggressive lately—
Mysliwiec: … posturing in Taiwan, and it still is—
Wood: They’ve got 150 to 200 incursions of the Taiwanese airspace, these big military drills where they’ll fly a lot of bombers and fighters in the airspace around Taiwan.
In the news here, just this past weekend, was reports of a Chinese test of a hypervelocity nuclear-capable, meaning nuclear warhead-capable, vehicle, or a platform, where they launched it on a very large missile. It circled the planet at 27 times the speed of sound and then it releases this hypersonic or hypervelocity glide vehicle that would have a warhead on the end of it, a nuclear warhead, and that was still moving at five times the speed of sound, right?
And their first test missed the target that they were aiming at by about 25 miles, but holy cow, I mean, you got to account for that and that they will improve their targeting capabilities.
This is the kind of investment they’re making, building their own aircraft carriers, new classes of submarines. Their Navy is growing, as I mentioned, by leaps and bounds. So the U.S. Navy, if they can get the funding, which is a major question, they don’t plan to have 350 ships until the mid-2030s, possibly 2040, and yet, that’s what China has now. The U.S. Navy, even if they did get to those numbers, that would be distributed globally, as opposed to focused and concentrated like the Chinese are.
So I think there are a lot of elected officials in Washington who just don’t account for this and the nature of these competitions and direct funding where we really need it, and that’s to have a more capable military with modern equipment that can deal with challenges like Russia and China, and we haven’t even got to Iran and North Korea, and some of these other places.
Mysliwiec: Right. Well, staying on China for a minute, let’s say the U.S. engaged in some conflict with them. How would the U.S. military fare?
Wood: It would be problematic. I mean, we’ve got wonderful people in the military. There’s no time better to be joining up. And it’s amazing what our young men and women are doing with the resources they have. We ask them to go a lot of places and do very challenging things with old equipment.
I mean, more than 50% of our ships are greater than 20, 25 years old. The average age of an Air Force fighter aircraft is better than 30 years old. I mean, who drives a 30-year-old car? And yet, these are the high-performance fighters that were built 30 years ago that we’re asking our pilots to deal with. A lot of the Army’s equipment was built in the 1980s and 1990s.
So they’re great people, they’re having to use old equipment that is shrinking in numbers, right? Shrinking in numbers, and yet, they have to operate thousands of miles from home.
If you envisioned a war, for example, between the United States and China, there’s a distance thing. How do we project military capabilities 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 miles away from home? How many major bases or ports can we operate from to sustain that effort with food, and fuel, and ammunition? Can we replace equipment that would be destroyed in combat? Because that’s going to happen, right? Whereas in China, because they’ve been building new equipment at great rates of production, their production capabilities are set for that, and they’re only operating a few hundred miles from home, so they can use land-based things.
So I think it’s really up in the air, and I do know that there have been studies produced by organizations like the RAND Corp. and all that say that in a major war, let’s say, over Taiwan or something, the U.S. would probably lose and it’s because of the delay in getting equipment into theater. How do you operate it far from home bases? How do you replace losses?
So right now, for the new ballistic missile submarine that’s being built, a Columbia-class, it takes six and a half years to build one of these ballistic missile submarines. It takes four years to build an attack submarine. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is only produced in one factory in Fort Worth, Texas. One place, right? Abrams main battle tanks, if you thought you would have use of a tank in the Pacific theater, they’re only produced in one manufacturing facility in Lima, Ohio, by General Dynamics, right?
So we’re at single points of failure. We have minimum sustained rates of production for things like bombs and missiles, just enough work to keep the workers employed and keep the factory open, but we’ve been working on that for a few years.
Now, if I even wrote you a huge check, well, you can’t hire the workers very quickly. It takes five years to train a welder for the specialized welding on a submarine or a Navy ship. So, you just couldn’t dramatically increase production capacity once you’re now in a conflict.
So we have to be thinking in terms of national security about what might happen years down the road, and this is the ultimate insurance policy. You don’t know when you’re going to have an auto accident or a hurricane impact your house, and yet, you carry coverage, insurance coverage, in that event. So we can’t predict when a war happens, but when it does happen, it’s too late to build another military, and yet, in the history of the United States, we’re in a war about every 15 or 20 years, going all the way back to the 1770s.
Mysliwiec: Yeah. So slow production, and it seems like we’re being swiftly outnumbered.
Mysliwiec: But in terms of quality, like pound for pound, are the vehicles, equipment that we’re producing, how does it measure up to other countries?
Wood: Yeah, to the competition, right?
Wood: So, because China has harnessed its great wealth, is a major economic power, all the stuff that it is now building is new stuff. It’s new design airplanes, new design ships and submarines.
And it used to be in the old days, not too long ago, that the People’s Liberation Army, the PLA, was inward-focused. It was more about security and stability inside of China. And over the last 20 years, it’s now started to focus outward, as China becomes more dependent on energy outside of China, access to markets outside of China, its fishing fleets go to foreign waters, it’s buying beef from Argentina. I mean, it’s very interconnected with a global economy and so, its military has been refocused in this outward-looking thing.
You have to have newer equipment that is able to do these very modern, complicated sorts of operations and train to do that, and they have been very serious about that in the last 15 or 20 years. So the new stuff that they are producing is about on par with United States’ stuff. Whereas the U.S. military was largely purchased, as I mentioned, in the 1980s and 1990s, we do have, again, wonderful talent and we have very sophisticated pieces of equipment, but we’re not introducing them quickly enough.
So the overarching theme for the U.S. military is it’s getting old before it gets modern, and we’re starting to retire things like ships and old airplanes faster than we’re introducing the new replacement items, right? So you have this downward decline of aging and shrinking, even though wonderful designers, we’re just not introducing new equipment fast enough.
So China is almost on par quality-wise with the United States, and it depends on the area, right? It depends on the area we’re talking about. Great in cyber, being very capable in space, their aircraft are almost as good as the United States. This hypervelocity stuff is pretty scary, and the ships that they’re putting to sea are all modern builds.
Russia is not quite in that category. Its economy doesn’t compare with China’s or the United States’, but it realized that it’s largely a land power, and so, it can field very large land forces to have its way in places like Georgia and Ukraine, and if it wanted to do something around Belarus and up into the Baltic States and all that. So, it puts its money where its real strengths are, and that’s mostly land power, and it augments that with cyber capabilities and space-based stuff to make it more effective.
Mysliwiec: Right. Seems like a grim picture for the United States.
Wood: It’s not a happy picture.
Mysliwiec: No. Well, what are our advantages? What are we doing good at or what could we really invest in to have that competitive edge?
Wood: We are very, very good at conducting complex operations at great distances from home. There is no other navy that operates on a global scale like the United States Navy. There is no other air force in the world that could do the sorts of things that we saw the Air Force do in the debacle out of Afghanistan. Right?
I mean, how the Afghanistan departure was handled, policy-wise and decisions, was just an absolute travesty, but when the Air Force was told, “Hey, we’ve got to get these people out,” it’s amazing what they were able to do, right?
So good on the Air Force, and the airplanes, and the air crews to be able to coordinate that. They flew in controllers to operate an airfield within the enemy sector. We had planes arriving and departing like clockwork.
And so, this ability to do things at a large scale across several different time zones in different parts of the world, nobody else can do that right now. Does China have to do that? Well, not really. I mean, they’re playing kind of a home game in the air and water around China, for the time being. Russia really isn’t doing anything along our coasts in large numbers. It doesn’t go to the South Atlantic and other places, but it doesn’t need to. It focuses on what we call the near-abroad, those areas right around Russia, and it’s got more than enough capability to do that stuff.
The real challenge is projecting U.S. military power into somebody else’s neighborhood. And while we can do that and we do it better than anybody else on the planet, how long can you sustain that, especially given that you will start to see some combat losses? I mean, it’s just the nature of warfare, right? And so, numbers really matter. What is it? Quantity has a quality all of its own, and so, I might be able to shoot down two or three airplanes for the loss of every one of ours, but if he has got 10 times the number of aircraft, the numbers still play to the enemy’s favor, right?
It’s these kind of calculations that planners really need to look at, and I think there is real cause to be concerned because on our domestic policy side, the defense accounts just aren’t funded to the level that others are.
Even in the president’s proposed budget for this upcoming fiscal year that we’re already in, another continuing resolution, so we’ll use a quarter-year in spending, across the board, federal agencies have an increase of something like 16% on average. The Defense Department, 1.8% to 2%. So if we’re running with inflation at 3% or better, your spending power, I know this gets kind of geeky, but what you can buy with that dollar gets less, and less, and less.
So how do you compete for really talented young folks to join the military as opposed to a commercial enterprise? How do you buy things that are just more expensive than their older counterparts? The cost of outfitting a U.S. soldier today compared to their Vietnam counterpart, it’s 16 times more expensive today above the rate of inflation. So that’s accounting for how a dollar changes over time, right? To build a ship is like five times as much, accounting for inflation.
So our spending just doesn’t keep pace. Even though we spend a lot, it has to be considered in the context of the world and who you might go to war against, and what you would need to win that fight.
Mysliwiec: You mentioned Afghanistan, the debacle that was the withdrawal. So what is that? What do the decisions that were made back then say about the U.S. military and also, what message does it send our adversaries around the world?
Wood: Yeah. The decision to use military for power is always a political decision. The Pentagon just doesn’t decide to go to war someplace or deploy. I mean, this is a presidential decision. Whether Congress is involved in making that decision, they ultimately are involved because they continue to fund, they provide the money that makes those operations possible, right? So a political decision’s made to use military outpower or to bring it home. Once that decision is made, our military is very good about getting where it needs to be, establishing conditions on the ground, repairing things, and staying in the fight.
The past 20 years, when we think about Afghanistan and how we went there in 2001, is who were you fighting against? I mean, these were the Taliban. They didn’t have fielded armies, and aircraft, and navies, and the ability to interdict or to stop anything the United States wanted to do.
So fighting that fight, we were able to do whatever we wanted to, almost without opposition—now, absent a roadside bomb attack, or a sniper, or an ambush, or something on forces on the ground. But there was no threat to our air power, there was no threat to offloading ships with capabilities and then driving it or flying it to wherever you wanted it to be, right? So our lessons have to be kept in that setting, right?
Going to war against a China or a Russia is a completely different issue. Modern air defense systems, modern navies, sub fleets of submarines, I mean, all these sorts of things, when you think about a big war, that’s what our major competitors have at that state level, right?
So our military is very, very good at doing what it does. They don’t have enough capacity to do things at scale, and they’re still having to use equipment that, like we were talking about, was purchased 20, 30, 40 years ago. I mean, the average age of an aerial refueler, the tanker airplanes that refuel other airplanes, is better than 60 years old. So I mean, how are you supposed to use technology that was invented in the ’50s, and the ’60s, and the ’70s against a modern anti-air defense system that is currently in the field today, put forward by China and Russia?
Mysliwiec: It’s amazing that they’re still flying.
Wood: A testament to the mechanics that keep this stuff really going.
So again, I can’t speak highly enough of the soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, Space Force guardian that’s out there. The young people we’ve got coming in are tremendous, doing what they have been asked to do with the equipment that they have. But you can’t play that game forever, right?
And as Russia; and China; and Iran with a nascent nuclear program, the largest ballistic missile inventory in the entire Middle East; North Korea, its people are on starvation diets, and yet, they developed a submarine launch ballistic missile. So you can tell what’s important to the regime. It’s not the people, it’s its military power.
So, we have to take these competitors, these aggressors, these opponents seriously based on the real-world capabilities that they’re developing and then match those things, because if you don’t, we can talk about arms race or what have you, but it’s not that, it’s, does the U.S. have interests in different parts of the world?
This withdrawal from Afghanistan, China has been leveraging that, telling Taiwan, “Are you sure that you can count on the United States to be there for you at that thing?” So these send messages that sometimes are not very, very good, they’re not reassuring friends and allies, and they certainly are not deterring our adversaries.
Mysliwiec: Now, before we finish up, where can our listeners check out the index for themselves?
Wood: So if you go to heritage.org/military, it’s the Index of U.S. Military Strength for this year coming up, 2022, and just a wealth of information. We’ve got 20 authors. Any statement we make is backed by research. We’ve got almost 2,300 footnotes, if you’re really into the research sort of world and all that. One hundred and twenty major programs were assessed, we have 156 or so major graphics that really powerfully illustrate some of the things that we’ve been talking about. And so, that’s the website, heritage.org/military.
Mysliwiec: Excellent. Dakota Wood, thank you so much for joining me.
Wood: Great pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Mysliwiec: Thank you.