None of us want to think about another attack on America. But nor do we want to be unprepared if such an attack occurs. Dakota Wood, the lead editor of The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength, explains that right now the military’s readiness status is “marginal.” In other words, between aging equipment and other problems, we’re far from ready to fight if we have to wage war against two different enemies.
“Near the end of the Cold War, we had 770,000 soldiers in the active-duty Army. Today, we have less than 480,000. We had nearly 600 ships in the Navy; today, we have 290 and most of that stuff is very, very old,” says Wood, a veteran himself.
Read the lightly edited transcript of our interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
We also cover the following stories:
- President Donald Trump reacts to the news that the whistleblower’s lawyer had called for his impeachment in early 2017.
- Democrats have a new proposal to tax millionaires.
- Donald Trump Jr. spars with Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg on “The View.”
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Kate Trinko: Joining me today is Dakota Wood, the senior research fellow for defense programs at The Heritage Foundation and also, he served in the Marines for 20 years. Thanks for joining us today, Dakota.
Dakota Wood: It’s a real pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Trinko: So you are the head editor of The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength, which was just released. The index states, after extensive analysis, that as currently postured, the U.S. military is only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests. So let’s dig into how you and the defense researchers came to that conclusion.
First off, you look at the international scene and what threats might be present. What nations do you think the U.S. should be worried about right now and why?
Wood: Yeah, there’s only one reason to have a military because you think there’s somebody threatening your interest, right? So to your point … it’s, you know, who constitutes a threat and we’ve settled on kind of four major big states and that would be China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran.
But why those four and not somebody else? So you have to kind of back up a bit and say, “Well, what are America’s interests?” Right? A terror attack in a U.S. city is a bad day. It doesn’t mean the end of the United States.
Russia with a very deep nuclear warhead bench and major forces could pose that sort of threat, and that’s what we had to deal with in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
We have this threshold that we use in looking at what nations, what groups rise tool level to really present a serious threat to a vital U.S. interest—[a] direct threat to the homeland, like big missiles or bombers, or something like that. Sparking a big regional war, that would be a serious concern to us.
If Europe is in flames or parts of Asia or what have you, you got trading partners, political instability so a big thing like that would be of concern. And then cutting us out of significant parts of the world.
We have trading relationships. You wouldn’t want, let’s say, China becoming the hegemon, the big actor, and denying us access to the oceans in the airspaces and those sorts of things in that part of the region.
So if you’re going to deter somebody, OK, what do they have in terms of ability to challenge you and what do you have to have in order to be able to have that kind of deterrent sort of push back on them?
So we look at these core interests. We look at the nature of these threats. Like … China, Russia, and North Korea. You have nuclear weapons from Iran, which causes mayhem in the Middle East. And those are the small set of bad actors that challenge our interests at that level.
And then getting to how that relates to American power, we look at historical examples. If you have to go to a big war, how much stuff does it take? But we can get into that, I’m sure.
Trinko: OK. And then you also mentioned that terrorism coming from two regions is a particular concern. Tell me about that.
Wood: [The] Islamic State has been in the headlines a lot, you know, ISIS, is it really a threat to the United States? I mean, I don’t see ISIS battalions marching through New York City or Salina, Kansas, right? So what kind of threat do they pose? And the nature of the threat that al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State, al-Shabab, these sorts of groups [pose] is destabiliz[ing] regions.
So they undermine the rule of law, they destabilize local and national governance structures, and it creates opportunity for a big actor like Russia or China to get involved, or extension of Iranian influences. And so this ripple effect caus[es] refugees to leave that region and go other places like we’ve seen go up into Europe.
That’s the reason why these terror groups really rise to a level of challenging a critical national interest. Not because the terror group itself has a direct threat against the United States.
They’ve got no navies, air forces, artillery, or anything like that. So it’s kind of the second and third order [that] effect [us] and that’s why we include them in the index.
Trinko: You’ve been mentioning what’s in America’s national interest in getting at this a bit, but let’s spell it out a little bit further. Obviously, defending the homeland, none of us want invasion by a foreign nation here, but you say that national interests go beyond that when it comes to defense. Could you expand on that?
Wood: Everybody wants to make money. You want to be able to provide for your family, to have a job, [to] start a business. If we’re only buying and selling amongst ourselves here in the United States, it’s a fairly limited market. Where’s the opportunity? So we have trade relationships with other countries in other parts of the world.
So if you want to have a trading relationship with a country in Asia, but Asia is a wash and war where somebody has denied you access to that market—either the materials, the raw materials or finished products that you bring in and assemble here in the United States, or being able to sell something that we make here in the United States to a partner—we would much rather have more partners on our team than aligning themselves with China, for example, or Russia.
If the United States is going to be viewed as a credible, stable, economically powerful partner, then we have to be able to reassure allies and trading partners. You have to deter the expansionist tendencies of these other large countries like China.
If I’m a small country in another part of the world, who am I going to pick? Which team am I going to be on, essentially? Do I have a strong relationship with China or do I have a strong relationship with the United States?
So U.S. military power reassures friends, it deters competitors, it shows that the United States is serious about being a good neighbor in an important region of the world. And so it actually enhances diplomacy and economic relationships in ways that they just wouldn’t be possible if you didn’t have a competent, credible military.
Trinko: So outside of terrorism, the last few decades have been relatively peaceful, at least for the United States. When you’re looking at these threats, obviously, you can’t predict the future, but do you think that long term we are headed for a period of less or more stability, or about the same as we’ve been the past few decades?
Wood: Oh, we’ll have a war.
Trinko: Oh, OK. Well, that’s a great, happy note.
Wood: I mean, it’s a blessing and a curse, the last 25 years. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, ’92 or so, or I’ll say about that. We have had the luxury in the 1990s of not having any major competitor that has caused us concern. China wasn’t an economic power yet. North Korea didn’t have nuclear weapons.
These sorts of environmental conditions existed throughout the 1990s and then we had the terror attacks of 2001 and now what the United States has been focused on is counterterrorism operations, counterinsurgency operations like we’ve had to deal with in Iraq up to about 2011. And then just the general mayhem, again, that’s in our newspapers, news headlines, and websites, and all of that sort of thing.
So for about 25 years, we have been able to focus on these kind of lesser events. We’ve conducted operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, again, against enemies that don’t have navies, they don’t have air forces, no armor capability and/or artillery, these sort of small units, sorts of actions. And so we’ve been able to deploy places around the world without any interruption at all. We just go and do what we think we need to do without a problem.
There’s a hazard to the individuals on the ground, but in terms of national military power, [it’s] uncontested. But if you look at history since our founding in the late 18th century, I mean the Revolutionary War, you’d go to Wikipedia or any kind of timeline of U.S. events and we are involved in a major war relative to the size of the country and our population about every 15 years.
Trinko: So, we’re long overdue it sounds like.
Wood: Oh, my goodness. So Spanish, I mean, Revolutionary War or War of 1812 … you kind of go up on that. U.S Civil War. We had stuff going on in the American West and with Mexico in the late 1800s. You get into the early 1900s or thereabouts, the Spanish-American War, 1890s, and then you have World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm in 1990-91. You had Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. And that’s just our history.
And then you look at military activities or crises that have affected other countries as well. So history doesn’t give any indication of coming to an end.
You see the rise of China and how it’s been very expansionist in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and muscling other countries aside. You see Russia taking parts of Ukraine, invading that country. [It’s] now involved in Syria. It’s invaded Georgia, previously. It’s been very muscular and its military activities in the Baltic Sea region, the North Atlantic, and the Arctic.
So these are other countries that aren’t happy with the United States being the dominant power. They’re going to push back and in that world of kind of big actors shouldering each other back and forth.
I can’t tell you when or where, but just the patterns of history and the nature of human behavior is we will have another incident someplace and probably sooner than later. And so then the question is, what kind of military capability do we want to have at hand when that crisis does occur?
Trinko: To get into that, what kind of war do you think we need to be ready to fight?
Our foreign correspondent here at The Daily Signal, Nolan Peterson, recently covered the U.S. military doing exercises in Germany with others. And he said it was interesting. He himself fought in Iraq and he was saying … they’re looking at doing a traditional old school. It’s a weird way of putting it, but …
Wood: No, it’s true. Conventional, right?
Trinko: Yeah. Conventional warfare like World War II or something, not terrorists hiding and the way many of our military now know how to fight. So is that a kind of war, conventional warfare, you think we need to be ready for or are there other kinds? What kind of war does the U.S. need to expect at this point?
Wood: If you make a bet that you know what kind of war is going to happen, you’re probably going to be wrong. And the history of warfare, and again, human interaction [shows that] new technologies always add to the pile of concerns. They never get rid of concerns.
Trinko: You are full of so much good news.
Wood: Why do we have personal insurance, life insurance, car insurance? I can’t tell you when I’m going to have an auto accident, but I’ve got an auto insurance policy. So I think our military is a national insurance policy as a guard against hazard, which you know is going to come up.
You can’t plan for the deer running across or somebody that blows through a red light. You would like to be able to predict that, but it’s just not possible, and world affairs are the same way.
So when we see new things come on—and this is what a lot of people in our business, my business will talk about as cyber robotics, unmanned or autonomous weapons platforms, the use of space-based assets, artificial intelligence—[it makes it] possible to kind of understand what your opponent is doing, and more artfully kind of grapple with them.
So old stuff like tanks are so passe. That’s so 20th century. You don’t have to worry about them anymore and it’s just nonsense.
So here we have the United States going into Afghanistan in 2001 and we’ve got strategic bombers, satellites, the rudimentary forms for cyber capabilities, magical weapon systems compared to what the Taliban have. And yet we had U.S. special operations forces riding horses in league with the Northern Alliance and the magical part to this is an American operator with a radio on his back able to call in an advanced airstrike.
But you still have to operate in that environment. So horses, mules, foot patrols going through towns to interact with shopkeepers and gather intelligence that way.
To think that this is just a kind of standoff war and it’s all going to be robots and digits and directed energy, laser beams, and those sorts of things—those will be features, but my opponent is also developing those capabilities.
Our colleague, JV Venable, has written about this in terms of advanced fighter aircraft, you know, the stealth technologies that make planes like the F-22 and the F-35—which is what the Air Force leading vehicles are right now—very, very, very difficult, not impossible, but difficult to see on a radar scope.
So I have an advantage of closing with my enemy’s air force. Well, if my enemy develops that same kind of capability, then the two planes cannot see each other at any meaningful distance. So the very fact that they have advanced capabilities and design characteristics will likely mean that they have to get within visual sight of each other and you’re actually returning back to World War II or Korean War vintage dogfights where these planes are going to have to use guns and try to shoot each other out of the sky.
It’s weird how history kind of circles back because technologies kind of cancel each other out. And what’s left is who is most competent with the tools at hand to contest control of key terrain. … I think warfare just has a way of reminding us that it’s ugly, it’s brutal, it’s very physical. We add new things to it like robots and directed energy, but it doesn’t replace the things in the past. So in a potential war with China, if we wanted to imagine that, a lot of cyber going on, there’s a lot of advanced technologies.
Trinko: And what does that mean when you say a lot of cyber going on? And what does that look like completely?
Wood: You see things about ransomware attacks on the city of Atlanta, Georgia. So somebody used malware, some kind of a virus to get into a city’s official records system and it locks down all the information. And then the perpetrator, the bad guy who got that stuff inserted in, usually a bad link or something is going to charge you a lot of money to give you the key to unlock your records. So that’s the use of cyber as a shorthand way of saying computer-based sorts of technologies.
So if I know that my opponent has a sophisticated radar system, are there ways for me to use computer linkages to insert some kind of a virus or a surveillance type of program to … mess with them? Does he actually see something on his radar scope or are they false images that I projected? Am I able to just sit there and watch what he’s watching and then I know how better to deploy my forces, right?
So these uses of malware, of computer viruses, and these sorts of worms is another word for it, a different type of software coding, or you get inside the enemy’s command and control system, their communication system.
Maybe you mess with their banking system. Anything connected. Power grids, right? Hospital types of mechanisms and all that. Any way to mess with my opponent so that it distracts them and makes them less effective I’m going to try to do that sort of thing and … they’re going to try to do it to us as well.
Trinko: It seems like the practical impact would be civilians would be affected a lot more by a war.
Wood: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Here in the United States, you think World War II or the war is over in Europe, right? Or it’s across the Pacific. Not a lot went on back here in the continental United States.
In future war, actually, it’s occurring today, you can have hackers that might be in some office building outside of Moscow or in North Korea or Iran or what have you. And as long as they’ve got a computer connection to the internet, you can find your way through that worldwide web through these connections, through computers. And you can start messing with the American stock exchange system out of New York.
Or it could be a power distribution plant located in Minnesota or it could be traffic signals directing traffic in downtown Dallas. So anything connected to the internet is potentially exploitable by an adversary who has the right skill set and the right programming and knows how to use that. So that will be a feature of future war.
And we have seen instances where Russia has actually done that. They’ve brought down the power grid of other countries, like say, in Ukraine. They’ve completely messed with all the government systems in, I believe … Estonia some years ago.
So a lot of these countries that are closer to our major competitors have dealt firsthand with this sort of cyberwarfare. And I think it’s going to be, again, like I said, a feature of future warfare, but it doesn’t get rid of the need to have things like submarines and tanks and artillery and infantrymen.
Trinko: OK, well, now I want to move to a log cabin in the woods.
Wood: You and me both, right?
Trinko: Speaking of submarines, when the index looked at the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, you rated all four branches as marginal in terms of readiness. Can you explain to me what does that mean and how did you come to that rating?
Wood: Yeah, so, we chose the word intentionally to be a little bit alarming. If we said that it was OK, well, it’s OK. … I’d like to be better, but OK is OK. If you say that you’re marginally able to do something, well, what does that mean, right? A little bit of an alarm there.
What we looked at was, again, the United States is a major power. We have interests all around the world. So you can’t really say, “I just want to focus on Europe and I’m going to forget about other places.” “I’m just going to focus on China and not be concerned about Iran and their support to terrorism, and those sorts of things in the Middle East.”
As a global power, you have to be able to reassure partners and allies in many regions at the same time. And if you have a small military—let’s say China tried to take Taiwan, which is a big island off the coast of China and they view it as part of mother China, we have a relationship with Taiwan, [so] we’re going to prevent the physical taking of that island.
To go 8,000 miles from the United States, it would take a lot of our capability to do that. Well, if we have a small military and you’re using up 80% or 90% of it to respond to one emergency, does Russia now have an opportunity to do things in Europe or to Iran, [does it] have the opportunity to push through Iraq and Syria and attack Israel?
So, [in] our assessment on our scoring, we said that the United States, based on the historical use of force over 150 years, needs to have the ability to handle two major crises nearly simultaneously. And it’s not that we think that we will be in two wars, but if all you have is the ability to handle one, you either don’t allow yourself to get drawn in because then you would be exposed [in] other places or if you do have to commit now that provides opportunity exploited.
So we look at the amount of military force that was needed for something like a Korea or Vietnam or Desert Storm, which was the big war against Iraq that kicked them out of Kuwait back in 1991, and we said we need two baskets of that. Be able to do something and then have enough left over where any other potential competitor would be deterred. Oh, the United States could respond if I tried to get crazy over here.
And so now we look at the size of the current U.S. military, which has dramatically shrunk since the end of the Cold War. And we say that given what we’ve got, our current military is marginally able to protect U.S. critical interests, but it would take everything we have to respond to one major war and you just wouldn’t have much left over.
We’ve got great people, they do a lot of work deploying all around the world and the service of the country, we just don’t have enough. And a lot of our equipment is very old. And again, we’ve shrunk in size.
… Near the end of the Cold War, we had 770,000 soldiers in the active-duty Army. Today, we have less than 480,000. We had nearly 600 ships in the Navy, today, we have 290 and most of that stuff is very, very old. And we can talk about some of those ages if you’d like.
Trinko: One question I’m curious about is why stop with two major threats? Isn’t there a chance—let’s go full worst-case scenario here—China, Russia, and then Iran decide to join in [on] the fun and start a third war. How did you decide that two was enough?
Wood: Yeah. So, yeah, there [are] kind of practical realities. So, we did not use a reference of World War II or World War I. If the entire war is at that level … you’ve got to do everything you can. We don’t anticipate on a daily basis we’re going to maintain 10 or 12 million people in the U.S. military. So those are weird occurrences in history where all bets are off [and] the entire national economy has been toward waging war against a competitor who is doing the same thing. Nazi Germany just [took] over the entirety of Europe, right? Japan [took] over most of Asia.
So there is a scale that starts. When it gets to that point, you can’t really plan those sorts of numbers. But these, I want to say smaller wars—but think of Korea relative to World War II, it was a regionally contained sort of thing. And so again, when we look at the behavior of these potential enemies, we look at the size of their militaries and what can they do.
There does seem to be a deterrent value in the U.S. being able to respond to some kind of a major conflict like we’re talking about here. And then other people say, “Wow, if they can do that there, they might be able to do that someplace else.”
And it would be, I think, unreasonable for us to say, “Hey, America, you need to triple your defense budget.” It’s just not going to happen, you know, short of some kind of an existential threat.
So it seemed to us that the two-war construct—which has been repeatedly visited by administrations since the end of the Cold War, every major defense panel that’s been commissioned by Congress since 1992 or thereabouts, they keep coming back to this same basic number.
We think we’ve got history on our side. It’s well justified or validated by other major studies. We’re just not making this up. We think having a small military that can only do one thing is too risky, because of all the things we’ve just talked about. And so that kind of two-war sort of basket seems to be small, medium, large. It’s kind of in that nice, comfortable level in terms of manageable risk.
Trinko: OK. So the Heritage Index of U.S. Military Strength also says that our nuclear capabilities are marginal. Could you expound on that?
Wood: We haven’t invested much in that. I mean, again, I keep referring to the Cold War, but that’s when the country was serious in terms of the amount of money or the insurance policy we wanted to have relative to a major competitor like the Soviet Union.
So at that time, there were only a few powers with nuclear weapons. Most of them were on our team like France and the U.K. and all. Just a few like Russia, later on China. But since that time, you’ve got now a nuclear-armed North Korea, you’ve got an aspirational nuclear power in Iran and there’s no telling where that might go.
If you see an Iranian breakout, does Saudi Arabia get them? Turkey has talked about having them and all that. So it seems that however much we might think that nuclear warfare is inconceivable, people keep investing in that capability.
On the U.S. side, most of our stuff was developed in the 1960s and the 1970s. We have a self-imposed moratorium on what we call yield-producing experiments, meaning detonating a nuclear weapon above ground, messing up the air.
We stopped that a long time ago, but we used to dig these very, very deep tunnels and we would do subterranean sorts of explosions with lots of sensors.
I designed something, does it work as I think it should work? That’s important because if I’m using my nuclear capabilities as a deterrent to tell somebody like Russia or China, “Don’t go that route,” then I have to be able to show that my nuclear capability is actually valid. That it’s not just this kind of fictional paper sort of capability.
We stopped actually physically testing weapons in 1992. Our nuclear assurance protocols are computer-based. So our models, when we test various components, say that the components work. If you extend that out in a computer, the whole system should work. And so we’re pretty confident, so we tell ourselves that that actually will work.
We haven’t designed any new warheads. We haven’t done any yield-producing experiments since probably the late 80s early 1990s. I mean, that’s almost 30 years ago, right?
Where we have seen improvement is in the delivery system. So the airplanes that would deliver a nuclear bomb, like the B-2 bomber, the B-21 Raider that’s being developed by the Air Force are missiles, which are also getting very old, 1970s or 1980s, but at least there’s attention being spent on them.
Where the marginal problem comes in is that all the talent, the humans involved in this are all old. There aren’t many left in that whole system that have ever even seen yield-producing experiments. So for a lot of them, it’s a lot of theory and academic sorts of understanding.
The National Nuclear Laboratories in places like Los Alamos and Sandia were also built in the 1950s and 1960s, and they just haven’t been maintained. So we have a capability, we’ve got people that are serious about making sure we can do what we say we have to do and our submarine force and those sorts of things, but we just haven’t made the investments to make sure that it’s modernized.
Trinko: So what can be done to reverse the military decline? Is it a matter of appropriating more money or [are] there other things as well that need to be done?
Wood: Well, yeah. So, money is a controversial piece, but money is what allows me to pay salaries. If I need more people in the military, it allows me to replace old equipment. The average age of a fighter attack aircraft in the Air Force is 29 years old. We don’t drive cars that are that old, right? Most of our tanker fleet, which is the aerial refuelers, refuel other planes [that] are in the mid-40s, about 46 years old.
Well over half of our U.S. Navy, all the 290 ships I mentioned, something like 57% of those are all older than 20 years old. To include almost all the aircraft carriers, ballistic missile, submarines, etc.
So when something finally wears out, however good its systems are, the plane itself just can’t take the stresses of taking off and landing and pulling maneuvers and all that stuff. You have to replace that. If we don’t make the money available to replace the equipment, then we no longer have a viable military.
So as a percentage of federal budget, we’re at historic lows. We used to spend between 20% and 25% throughout the Cold War on defense because government had a limited role and one of its constitutional responsibilities is protecting the country.
Since that time, it’s gotten involved in lots of other things. And as a share of our budget, military spending has dropped from 25% to 20% and now it’s only 15%.
As the share of our gross domestic product, how much stuff we produce here in the United States, it used to be around 5% or 6% of GDP. And today it’s down to just a little over 3%. So if you were going on historical averages, in other words, [if] the country was able to afford [it] and thought it was important enough, we would actually be spending somewhere between $850 billion and $1 trillion.
That is an eye-watering amount today. But if we were back in the 1980s, that would be normal, adjusting for inflation and all.
So you have to have modern capabilities. You have to have a sufficient amount of those capabilities to actually conduct operations. You’re going to take losses. People have to be able to train. You have to be able to [be in] more place than one.
So there is a budget component to this and what squeezed out defense spending is spending on things like expanded entitlement programs where Congress has gotten the country involved in things that really the federal government shouldn’t be doing. It could be better handled at the local and state levels.
Trinko: So, we’ve been talking very abstractly about the military this whole interview, but we are coming up on Veterans Day. You yourself are a veteran. Are you doing anything this weekend, and how do you think Americans, especially those of us who never served, what should we be thinking about this weekend?
Wood: It’s a blessing and a curse, right? In some ways. I mean, it’s wonderful when somebody will come up and say, “Thank you for your service.” Almost all the time, it’s very well-intended. You know?
I, as an individual, and colleagues, friends of mine that I served with for 20 or more years, kind of think this way: It can kind of get too much almost, so you don’t want to be forgetful or dismissive. People want to serve their country. I think that’s a noble and honorable sort of thing. We want to be appreciative of that in some way. Just like we have front line, first responders and the law enforcement and then fire departments and hospital personnel, and all that. So all those are great services to the general public.
And so I think being well-intentioned, shaking a hand if you know somebody, what have you. But for most of the military people I know, they kind of are quiet about it.
They’ll exchange emails, “Hey, you remember when we were in ‘pick a country’ in an operation sometime back?” So, yeah, [we] might hoist a beer or something along those lines and salute those who aren’t with us that were lost in combat or what have you, but I think Veterans Day is a moment of reflection for what it takes to have a safe and secure and prosperous America.
It just doesn’t happen magically. There [are] other forces in the world that either want to take from us or carve us out of other regions or impose authoritarian regimes, and they can’t be talked out of that. Usually you have to have a strong stance that prevents them or deters them from doing that.
I think Veterans Day is an opportunity to think about what we have had to do in the past to have the nature of the kind of country we have today. And it should also call upon us to really think that we will need to continue to have those capabilities in the future, right?
Trinko: OK. Well, if you’ve been interested in what we’re talking about, please check out the index itself, The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength. Dakota has a copy in front of us and it is a huge tone, but we also have it broken down on the website, so check it out. Dakota, thanks so much for joining us.
Wood: Really appreciate it. Thanks for having me on.