"The 2020 Index concludes that the current U.S. military force is likely capable of meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities,” The Heritage Foundation said in its 2020 Index of US Military Strength, released on Wednesday, noting the Pentagon would “be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies (MRC).”
According to the report, all branches of the US Armed Forces must continue to grow in order to meet the think tank’s standard of being able to wage two separate wars at once. The trend in government policy has been in this direction since US President Donald Trump took office in early 2017.
In the White House’s National Security Strategy from December 2017, Russia and China were identified as “revisionist powers” seeking to upend the global order established at the end of the Cold War in 1991, at which time the US became the unquestioned sole global superpower. As a consequence of their rejection of this unipolar world, the White House warned that “great power competition” had returned.
“Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security,” the Pentagon’s February 2018 National Defense Strategy concluded.
In fiscal year 2019, the Trump administration’s defense budget totaled $693 billion; the proposed budget for FY2020 is an even bigger $738 billion. The country spent almost as much on its military in 2018 as the next eight largest-spending countries combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
On the Heritage Foundation’s five-point index ranging from “very strong” to “very weak,” the US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and nuclear forces all registered “marginal,” the middle position - a C grade, essentially.
Despite the Army’s overall rating of “marginal,” its readiness score was “very strong.” The branch scored low because it only has 35 brigade combat teams (BCTs), the Army’s most basic deployable unit, and the Heritage Foundation wants 50. Intended to be self-sufficient on the battlefield, the Army cut back on its BCTs drastically after withdrawing from Iraq, where it battled an insurgent movement opposed to US occupation through the 2000s. In 2017, the paring back begun in 2013 was completed, and the Army was reduced from 45 to 33 BCTs. The Army stands presently at 480,000 soldiers, but the Heritage Foundation wants it at 500,000.
The Navy is in the process of a large expansion as it attempts to return to its late 20th century strength by growing from 290 to 355 ships. However, the Heritage Foundation goes still further, calling for a 400-ship fleet. The think tank also says the Navy needs 13 aircraft carriers, although it only has 11 at the moment, and even a 12-carrier fleet is considered extreme by those holding the Navy’s purse strings. At any rate, at least six of those carriers are undeployable at the moment.
The report found the US Marine Corps at only two-thirds of its desired strength of 36 battalions, also earning it a “marginal” grade.
The Air Force has only 971 of the 1,200 fighter and attack aircraft the Heritage Foundation thinks it should have and is facing a continuing pilot shortage, earning it a “marginal” grade as well. However, Business Insider noted the previous report card gave the Air Force a “weak” grade.
While not a separate branch, US nuclear forces were judged separately from the other services. The aging Minuteman III and Trident nuclear missiles that form the core of the land-based and sea-based arms of the US nuclear triad also got the arsenal a “marginal” grade, despite the fact that the US has more nuclear weapons than any other nation. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the US has a total of 6,185 nuclear weapons, although more than half of them are not immediately ready for use. This is marginally more than Russia, but well ahead of the rest of the planet.
The report notes, however, that the nuclear arsenal is “trending towards strong,” as new programs like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, designed to produce a replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, push forward. The US is also building new nuclear weapons in the wake of its completed modernization of the W76 nuclear warhead that sits atop the submarine-launched Trident missile.
The US nuclear expansion follows the Nuclear Posture Review, a February 2018 document that closely accompanied the National Security Strategy in outlining how the US can maintain hegemony.
Across the board, the think tank faulted unstable funding by Washington, noting, "The common theme across the services and the US nuclear enterprise is one of force degradation caused by many years of underinvestment, poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of budget sequestration (cuts in funding) on readiness and capacity.”
However, the report does acknowledge that lawmakers have taken steps to roll back the extreme budgetary constraints introduced by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and the subsequent sequestration that gutted funding indiscriminately across departments when it took effect in 2013. The law was designed as a compromise solution to avoid a default on US debt payments while also taking action to address the debt’s long-term growth projections.
One of the most influential think tanks in the world, the Heritage Foundation acknowledges its conservative interest on its website. In addition to receiving funding from billionaire industrialist public policy architects like the Kochs, Heritage collects money from defense contractors, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and oil giants like Chevron and ExonMobil - entities with a huge and direct stake in continued US military expansion and adventurism.
The think tank has pulled closer to the White House since Trump took office, holding major influence over the appointment of administration officials. The New York Times Magazine described how the think tank’s “Project to Restore America” assembled a list of more than 3,000 vetted conservative figures to fill the political neophyte president’s offices, giving it the kind of leverage over policy not seen since Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s.