US military capabilities a cause for concern


US military capabilities a cause for concern

US soldiers conduct a military drill in Chonkok as part of joint annual US-South Korea military exercises. (Reuters)

A report about the current state of the US military was published in Washington last week and it sent shock waves through the policy community. The report, by the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission, finally acknowledged what many analysts have known for years: That the US military is not prepared to defend US interest and obligations around the world. 

The report, which runs to 116 pages, bluntly states that “US military superiority is no longer assured and the implications for American interests and American security are severe” and that “the US military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict.”

It was a wide-ranging report that assessed different defense-related issues: From the ability of the military to recruit new volunteers to cyber warfare to America’s nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, in all these areas the commission found looming problems that need urgent attention.

Not exactly what a nation wants to hear about its military. 

So what does this mean in layman’s terms? Basically, the US military would be increasingly challenged to fight China or Russia because it does not have the people, training or equipment needed. Add another adversary like Iran into the mix and the situation becomes even more challenging. 

For those in the policy community who have been following this issue, the National Defense Strategy Commission’s report came as no surprise. For example, Washington-based think tank the Heritage Foundation similarly found in its annual “Index of US Military Strength” that the military is unprepared for the challenges it is expected to face. 

While things have been looking up for defense funding under the Trump administration, it is still not enough. The recent news that President Donald Trump has asked for all government departments to make budget cuts for the fiscal year 2020 (in the case of the Department of Defense, this figure is approximately 4-5 percent) does not help matters. 

Just look at the facts. Collectively, the US military is the smallest it has been since the start of the Second World War. The Navy is woefully short of its goal of 355 ships — it currently has only 286 and even its most optimistic plans do not get it to its goal until the 2040s. Some military experts suggest that the US Navy actually requires 400 ships to meet America’s maritime commitments: A number that seems all but impossible to reach under the current circumstances. 

While things have been looking up for defense funding under the Trump administration, it is still not enough.

Luke Coffey

The US Air Force is significantly short of the squadrons needed to execute the missions it has been given. It has 312 squadrons, but even the Secretary of the Air Force says that 386 squadrons are needed to meet America’s needs. There is no plan or funding to close this gap. 

The Army Secretary has stated the Army needs to be above 500,000 active duty soldiers, roughly 30,000 more than it has today. 

All these facts corroborate the commission’s findings that the US military is in deep trouble, to the point that the commission said it could be considered an “emergency.”

The findings of the National Defense Strategy Commission should not only alarm Americans, but also many of its allies across the world — especially in the Middle East. First, many countries in the region have placed a lot of reliance for their own defense onto the US. This is also true in Europe through NATO, and in Asia through a network of bilateral defense treaties the US has in the region.

There is no doubt that the US would stand by Israel or its Gulf allies if Iran were to attack. However, in light of the commission’s report, the bigger question is what the US military could do, and for how long it could do it, in the event of a war with Iran? Especially when the US, as a global power, has other adversaries to worry about, such as Russia, China and North Korea.

Secondly, countries in the Middle East should be wondering about the levels of readiness and capabilities of their own militaries. If the US military, with all its resources and recent combat experience, is having problems, what does this say for smaller countries? This is connected to Trump’s focus on burden-sharing among US allies. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the commission’s report is how bipartisan the recommendations are. Bipartisanship is something rare in Washington these days. Hopefully this will mean that policymakers and politicians will take the report seriously and act before it is too late — not just for America’s sake, but for that of its allies too. 

  • Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey


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