US Military Strength Continues to Atrophy in Wake of Budget Cuts and Lack of Prioritization

By Brian Slattery | October 30, 2015 | 4:49pm EDT
President Obama walks between service members. (AP Photo)

The state of our military isn’t good.

The Heritage Foundation released its 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength today, and its findings are cause for concern. While potential adversaries have either grown more threatening or maintained their levels of aggressiveness, U.S. military strength continues to atrophy due to budget cuts and lack of prioritization from the Obama administration.

To give a couple of key examples: the current size of the Marine Corps is 184,100, which is smaller than the Corps was during the Korean War, and the Navy’s battle force ships is the smallest since before World War I.

But the world needs the U.S. to maintain a strong military. Though some of America’s allies have begun to take their own security more seriously, the U.S. remains the primary underwriter of maintaining global stability.

Since the first Index was published last February, there have been new signs of instability, including:

  • Russia has forayed more blatantly into its occupation of Ukraine while asserting its position in the Middle East through its support of the Assad regime.
  • ISIS controls territory across Iraq and Syria and continues recruitment efforts around the globe.
  • China furthered its aggressive activity in the South China Sea by placing military equipment on its man-made islands in disputed waters.
  • Terrorism remains problematic to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
  • North Korea’s provocations grew over the past year such that the Index elevated its threat to “Severe.” This was driven by the rogue nation’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and development of long range missiles as well as the cyberattack against Sony in retaliation of a farcical film of the Kim regime.

The Index found that no threat actor had grown less alarming over the past year.

Meanwhile, as the Obama administration continues to prioritize its political agenda over the security needs of the nation, the state of the U.S. military has worsened. Of note, the 2016 Index assessed the U.S. Army as “weak,” a reduction from last year’s score of “marginal.” This drop was driven primarily by a large cut to the number of troops in the Army. The Army, in fact, is the smallest it has been since before World War II.

The Air Force score also dropped over the past year, from “Strong” to “Marginal,” caused largely by the service’s growing readiness challenges and its aging fleet of aircraft, including bombers that were built in the 1950s.

Though the Navy and Marine Corps’ scores did not change, the Index’s analysis indicated that these services continue to face challenges, particularly in terms of capacity and deferred maintenance of major weapons systems that is steadily accruing future problems

The Global Operating Environment is the only area of the 2016 Index that showed improvement, albeit modestly. While South Korea and Japan strengthened individual security agreements with the U.S. and a number of Middle East nations displayed a greater commitment to securing their own region from ISIS’s expansion, NATO members continue to underinvest in defense spending.

Overall, the 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength finds that the military is marginally capable of meeting current security challenges and is trending downward.

Though we cannot predict what major conflict might next confront the U.S., we do know that one will arise. Despite current fiscal challenges, America’s policymakers have the power to reverse some of these disturbing trends by making a greater commitment to funding defense commensurate with America’s vital national security interests.

Brian Slattery is a research associate for Security Studies at The Heritage Foundation. In this capacity he advocates for a strong national defense and robust security enterprise. Brian focuses particularly on maritime security, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Arctic.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Heritage Foundation.

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