The military strength of the United States is rated as only marginal in a new report from The Heritage Foundation, and the first female combat veteran elected to the U.S. Senate finds that disturbing.
“As the index indicates, the United States is facing increasing global threats in all domains of warfare,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said of the 2019 Index of U.S. Military Strength during an event marking its release Thursday at the think tank’s Capitol Hill headquarters.
“I will be the first to admit that the world has changed since I have served in the military,” said Ernst, who served for more than 23 years, including as a company commander in Iraq and Kuwait, leading 150 soldiers from the Iowa Army National Guard during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“The threats of near-peer adversaries, once assumed contained, have re-emerged, and they have had technological intersections that are now clearer and present, rather than hypothetical and futuristic,” she said.
With regard to the marginal rating of U.S. military readiness, the index’s executive summary notes both positive and negative indicators.
It identifies “progress in bringing some new equipment into the force, filling gaps in manpower, and rebuilding some stocks of munitions and repair parts, alongside worrisome trends in force readiness, declining strength in key areas like trained pilots, and continued uncertainty across the defense budget.”
“What we come down to on the big takeaways are, it’s still too small,” Dakota Wood, a senior defense fellow at Heritage who edited the index, said of the military at the document’s unveiling.
“If you think about the end of the Cold War, that was a period where there was a global contest against a major competitor. You had lots of people and things in different places around the world, and at that time, the active-duty Army was about 780,000 soldiers,” Wood said. “Today, the Army is 480,000.”
The 2019 Index of U.S. Military Strength rates the strength of the Army, Navy, and Air Force as marginal and the Marine Corps as weak.
“I strive to be a voice for individual service members across the service branches,” Ernst said. “They know it, they see it, they breathe it, and they understand perhaps better than anyone the successes and the failures of the national security policies that we put forth in Washington, D.C.”
“Lives are lost, and wars are won, on whether a new handgun fires, or whether the armor fits correctly, or if a weapon system is completed in a timely manner,” she added.
The 2019 index cites China and Russia as the “most worrisome” threats because of the “ongoing modernization and expansion of their offensive military capabilities, and because of the more enduring effect they are having within their respective regions.”
It also ranks threats to U.S. interests from terrorist organizations in the Middle East and in Afghanistan as high.
“Terrorism and extremist groups are not going away,” Ernst said. “The United States must retain our counterterrorism capabilities and lean more on our allies to keep America and its interests secure.”
The index also notes that total aircraft for the military has decreased by 57 percent over 30 years, that all combat vehicles in the Marine Corps first started serving the branch before the 1990s, and that the number and kinds of ships commissioned by the Navy have decreased over the past 20 years.
U.S. nuclear weapons capability also earned a mixed grade in the index:
On one hand, the U.S. maintains some of the world’s most advanced nuclear facilities. On the other, some parts of the complex—most importantly, parts of the plutonium and highly enriched uranium-component manufacturing infrastructure—have not been modernized since the 1950s, and plans for long-term infrastructure recapitalization remain uncertain. The infrastructure therefore receives a grade of ‘weak.’
Ernst said U.S. leadership must be cognizant that other, seemingly unrelated issues also affect national security.
“What we continue to see in terms of emerging threats is a continued blending of civilian concerns with our national security threats,” she said.
“Issues like trade, technology, and the economy cannot be walled off from our considerations with defense policy,” Ernst said. “Our allies and adversaries do not view these items in a vacuum, and certainly, we should not either.”