The military strength of the United States again is rated as only “marginal” in a new report, the “2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength“, from The Heritage Foundation.

Russia is identified as the main threat to the U.S., but China is identified in the report as “the most comprehensive threat that the U.S. faces, [and] continues to modernize and expand its military and pay particular attention to its space, cyber, and artificial intelligence capabilities.” How should these challenges be addressed?

Dakota Wood, senior research fellow for The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense and the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss.

We also cover these stories:

  • Biotechnology company Moderna is asking the Food and Drug Administration to give it an emergency authorization for the coronavirus vaccine. 
  • The results of Georgia’s presidential election continue to be contested. 
  • The White House is ready for Christmas! First lady Melania Trump announces that the theme for this year’s decor is “America the Beautiful.” 

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Rachel del Guidice: I’m joined today on “The Daily Signal Podcast” by Dakota Wood. He’s the senior research fellow for The Heritage Foundation Center for National Defense and the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. Dakota, it’s great to have you with us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”

Dakota Wood: Rachel, it’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me on this episode.

Del Guidice: Your defense shop just released the 2021 Index of U.S. Military Strength. First off, Dakota, can you tell us more about what the Index of U.S. Military Strength is, for those who might not know about it?

Wood: It’s a comprehensive report card. So, we’ve all been in school or know somebody in school, and you get to the end of the academic year and you want to know how you did in that year. So a report card isn’t a futures document. It doesn’t look way, way in the past. It’s, “You finished this year. How did you do it?”

So what we’ve done is we’ve provided a report card for the U.S. military and U.S. military power. And it’s important to understand the context of military power in order to understand the power itself.

So in our report card, we talk about the world is a place the military would have to operate in. We talk about the nature of challenges or threats to the United States and how they’ve done during the assessed year.

And then we talk about the U.S. military services—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines—and we give them a score on how big they are, how ready they are, and how modern they are with respect to defending U.S. interests against challenges or threats.

So it’s the only thing like it in the world. It should be viewed as this report to the American taxpayer. And we’re just pleased to be able to put something like this together.

Del Guidice: The military strength of the United States is, again, rated as only marginal, which also happens to be the third consecutive year it has received this rating. Dakota, why is this the case?

Wood: Yeah, so it is not an indictment or a measure of the individual service member. We’re taking a big picture look and saying, “The military that we have, is it big enough and ready enough to defend U.S. interests in more than one place around the world?”

And so on a scale of one to five, three or four doesn’t really resonate. So we use words to try to present a picture. So it goes from very weak to weak, to marginal, to strong, to very strong.

And the reason we used marginal is it does kind of conveyed the sense that it’s not really where you want it to be. And so when we look at the U.S. military going up against anybody else on a one for one, we think that our military would win a major fight against a major competitor.

But the U.S. has global interests. It’s a global power. The world is a very big place. And unlike during the Cold War where we just had to deal with the Soviet Union, today we need to deal with challenges from China and Russia and North Korea and Iran.

So the military needs to be big enough and have enough readiness embedded in it to be able to do more than one thing. And as we conclude, it’s only big enough and only ready enough to take on one major problem in one part of the world. And we just don’t think that that’s sufficient.

So we gave it a marginal rating. It’s being better in readiness, but it’s certainly not big enough and it has very old equipment.

Del Guidice: Before we continue further, can we talk about some of the bizarre facts or interesting items that you have found not only in your research for the index, but also in related research?

I know I believe one of those items was that China has been buying more ships in the past three years than the British navy total. Dakota, can you unpack that for us and tell us more about what’s going on there?

Wood: Yeah. I mentioned that kind of relative context. We’ve got a military that’s certainly very capable, but relative to what? So when you look at a major competitor or economic power like China, well, how big is their military? How is it postured? Are they training and doing things? Is it modernizing?

And they came from a very weak position several years ago, but with their financial wealth have made huge investments in expanding the numbers, the capacity of their military, and being very serious about analyzing how the United States has fought wars over the past 20, 30, or 40 years.

And what would they need to do and have if they had to prevail on some kind of a military context? So we point out that most people aren’t aware of how rapidly the Chinese have been expanding their Navy.

When you look at the other part of context, it’s our own friends and allies. It’s always better, if you have to go fight, that you’re accompanied by friends, that you have the combined capability of these military powers.

And Great Britain isn’t so great anymore in terms of its military capabilities. It only has about 17 or 18 surface combatant warships in the whole Royal Navy. China has added that many ships or more just in the last three years or so.

So, whereas the U.S. Navy has just under 300 ships for global operations, China’s navy is already at 350 ships. And they’re adding chunks the size of other countries’ navies to its own capacity every year or two.

It’s just a stunning insight that tells you how big of a challenge we would have in the greater Indo-Pacific region if we had to go support an ally like Japan or Korea, or the Philippines, or somebody along those lines.

Del Guidice: Something else you highlighted, Dakota, is that ships and tanks have increased the cost five times the rate of inflation and the cost to equip a soldier has jumped 16 times the rate of inflation. Can you talk more about this and some of the challenges it poses?

Wood: Well, I think by any measure, if you looked at the U.S. defense budget of $700 billion or more, that is an eye-watering amount of money. And so, people usually are skeptical about calls to spend even more than that. I mean, $700, $740 billion. But what’s hidden in that number is how expensive things have gotten over the years.

So oftentimes, military analysts or people providing an opinion on defense matters will talk about us spending in real dollars more than we have spent in previous areas. And on a dollar-for-dollar comparison, just looking at dollars adjusted for inflation, that is true. But what is the dollar buying?

So if a tank costs five times more than the rate of inflation today than it did say back in the Vietnam era, well, just because your defense spending is keeping pace with inflation, it’s not accounting for the dramatic increases in the cost of modern military equipment.

So back in the old days, you’d send a soldier to the field with a helmet, a rifle, a first aid kit, and a couple of canteens, and it didn’t take much to outfit that soldier at all.

Today, much more modern weapons, optics, sights that are on the weapons itself, night vision goggles, modern-day radios, the better body armor. It’s just 16 times more than the rate of inflation to put an American man or woman in uniform in the field and have them do what we would want them to do.

So when we talk about defense spending and any increases in defense spending, it’s just not a dollar-for-dollar comparison. It’s what does that dollar buy and how relevant is that dollar’s worth of investment in a particular place in the world against a particular opponent? And these are the sorts of insights that we have embedded in the index throughout.

Del Guidice: Another point, Dakota, I wanted to talk to you about is how the Air Force section talks about how old Air Force aircraft are, with tankers averaging 50 years old and fighter jets being 30 years old. Can you talk more about this?

Wood: The Soviet Union went away in 1992. So the early 1990s, it was in the throes of a collapse. And during that decade of the ’90s, there were no major military or economic challenges in the entire world. So in many eyes, it made sense to dramatically reduce the cost of the U.S. military.

We just didn’t need as big a military. We certainly didn’t need to replace a lot of equipment that was being retired at that particular point in time. So we went a full decade without buying any new fighter aircraft, as an example.

Meanwhile, those pilots still have to fly to maintain their skills. So every time an airplane leaves the runway, flies around for a two-hour training mission or an operational vision, it comes back, you’ve used up some of the planned life for that airplane.

And the same thing occurs with trucks and tanks and generators and ships. You have to use it on a daily basis to maintain competence. So we’re using equipment for the whole decade of the ’90s, and yet you’re not buying any new aircraft to replace that stuff that’s getting older.

Then the attacks of 9/11—September 11th, 2001—occurred. And we were at very high levels of operational use of these fighter aircraft to provide support to our troops on the ground for 15 or 20 years, from 2001 until today. And yet the rate of buying new equipment was one-fifth or less than it was at any previous time.

So we still were using up equipment at a very accelerated rate and not buying new stuff to bring it in.

So when we see video clips today on the news or what have you, when you’ve got some Air Force fighter pilot flying a modern F-16 or an F-15, those aircraft average, as you mentioned, 30 years old.

They look great, they perform well, we put better radars on them, and they carry very advanced weapons, but the airplane itself, all the metal components and whatnot that make that plane what it is, are three decades [old].

And that’s just the average. Some are 40 years old, some are in their late 20s. But we wouldn’t drive around town in a 30-year-old car very often. And yet that’s the state of our military and its equipment that we send out into harm’s way.

Del Guidice: The Marines are shrinking in size, even though historical use shows they need to grow. Dakota, why is this the case and what are the implications down the road of this happening?

Wood: So, what we did in the index is we tried to avoid kind of futurism: What might war look like 10 or 15 years from now? Because so many things change and new technologies promise a lot, but you really don’t know what it could do until you actually get it into the force and they use it and you find out what works and what doesn’t.

So to try to be as helpful to the public as possible, and to members of Congress, we said, “What does the historical record look like?”

So every time the U.S. military has been committed to war in Korea, and Vietnam, and Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and then Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, we find that about the same size military is used every time.

And I think that what it does, it accounts for technologies of the era, the nature of your competitor, how far away from home you are, and you have to operate.

So, the Marine Corps, to use your example, we found that about 15 battalions, infantry battalions, with all the supporting stuff [are] used whenever the Marine Corps commits to a big war. So if you want to have more than one basket of capabilities, you can double that 15 and say 30 battalions gives me a two-war capacity force.

When I retired from the Marine Corps in 2005, we had 27 battalions. That seemed pretty good. But then in succeeding years with budget cuts and all this nonsense, we saw it shrink from 27 to 24, down to 21.

Twenty-one is far less than 30, which, historically, you’ve needed. And what we see now is with increasing budget pressures, while they climb back to 24 to account for modernization efforts by the current crop of Marines, they’re going to shrink back down to 21.

So we compare the Marine Corps’ current low 20s against a historical need for 30 to do what they would need to do and we find that they’re just coming up very short in that capacity figure.

Del Guidice: Looking now at the international scene, the new index identifies Russia as the main threat to the U.S., but says China is the most comprehensive threat that the U.S. faces and continues to modernize and expand its military and pay particular attention to its space, cyber, and artificial intelligence capabilities. Dakota, can you unpack this more for us?

Wood: Yeah. A really common, understandable question is, what’s the biggest threat? And the answer to that is, well, it depends. I could have a very acute threat at my doorstep right now, really causing problems, like a terrorist group.

We see that Russia has been very aggressive along the northern tier of NATO countries in Northern Europe. We’ve seen it get involved in Syria, propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad there in Syria. Just doing all kinds of things that cause problems. It invaded the country of Ukraine, is taking territory from it.

So near term, Russia is a very active, aggressive problem that the United States has to account for in Europe and especially in the Middle East.

But then you can look kind of bigger picture. Which ones are more comprehensive and more profound over a longer period of time? And that’s then how we turn to China.

China is not actively involved in military operations to destabilize governments in the way that Russia is, but it is making extraordinary investments in the most advanced technologies. It is rapidly expanding its military. It’s being very intimidating in the East China Sea and South China Sea. We’ve seen what it’s done to citizens in Hong Kong and the threats that it makes against Taiwan.

So Russia, we would view, and as we do in the index, as the most acute, short-term, immediate sort of problem at the big state category. And the longer term, more comprehensive problem has just got to be China. Investments in hypervelocity munitions and artificial intelligence and unmanned systems—just a full range of modern warfare weaponry that you would expect to encounter over the next decade or two.

Del Guidice: Iran is listed as the biggest security challenge because of its support of terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, and its hate of not only in the U.S., but also Israel, the nation’s strongest ally. What are improvements that need to be made so that the U.S. military can meet security threats such as Russia, China, and Iran head-on?

Wood: Well, capacity. I keep coming back to that word. So, numbers really do matter in warfare. I could have an absolutely super ship or soldier or airplane, but at some point, that ship, soldier, or airplane is going to take a hit. I might lose them as a fatality or a complete combat loss, or even in the short-term state.

And so, when we talk about attrition in warfare, I have to be able to replace these battlefield losses. And the smaller military you have, the more challenging it is to do that.

Whereas a country like Iran is operating in its very near vicinity, the Arabian Sea or the Persian Gulf, depending on how you want to term it, its involvement on the ground in Iraq and Syria. China is involved in maritime operations and air operations fairly close to its homeland, and Russia does the same.

Counter to that is the United States, which has to operate [3,000] or [5,000] or 8,000 miles from home, and yet try to sustain those sorts of operations. …

We look at a country like Iran that has now developed an inventory of 3,000 ballistic missiles, lots of artillery, and the ability to really provide a strong presence on the ground in its near vicinity.

So for the US military to be prepared for something like that, you have to have missile defense, you have to have a sufficient number of soldiers and armor equipment and aircraft that can get in close to that sort of competitor, that enemy force, and be able to sustain hits.

So we spend a lot of time talking about the size of the force and whether our forces and equipment are moderate enough to deal with the types of very modern anti-platform weapons, missiles, and those sorts of things that would pose a threat to the force that we would need just to get to the battlefield.

Del Guidice: And then wrapping up, Dakota, this last question I have for you is a two-part question.

Given that the U.S. Index of Military Strength has received a marginal rating in the past three years with the Trump administration, how do you see the state of the military in the next coming months and years with a Biden administration? And then on top of that as well, what needs to be done to improve that marginal rating?

Wood: I think it’s going to be very challenging.

We’re accumulating massive amounts of debt because of the coronavirus pandemic response, the hit that it’s taken on our economy with people out of work and service industries and everybody else just not making any amount of money, which then relates to the taxes, and that goes into the federal coffers.

So it’s going to be extraordinarily challenging to maintain adequate levels of defense spending if people don’t care about that.

The other thing that will compete is, especially if a Biden administration comes in with a Democratic Party, they’ve always put a lot of emphasis on expanding social entitlement programs, which are very expensive as our population continues to grow. And especially if we bring in 11 or 12 more million undocumented, illegal, what have you call it, workers here in the United States. It just makes the loading, the financial loading that much greater.

So maintaining adequate defense spending will be under a lot of pressure in a Democrat administration as we would go into the next year. And it can only really come from the American people.

What kind of military do they want to have to defend U.S. national interests and our productivity and wealth and security back here at home as we go forward into a future where you have a very aggressive China, and Russia, and North Korea, and Iran, and certainly terrorist settlements, and the entire continent of Africa, the Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific region?

Del Guidice: Dakota, as someone who has served for two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps, what do you have to say about implications for our service members when the military isn’t given the resources it needs?

Wood: Well, you have lack of confidence. I mean, if I’m only able to fire my weapons system, our artillery piece, or a missile off of the ship maybe once a year, you just don’t have that confidence and developed competence to really, with confidence, go off into battle, to be assured that your equipment is going to work and that you know how to use it very, very well.

The more you train, the more confident you get, and the more, I would say not personal courage, but the confidence that you have in really mixing it up with an enemy. And so this focus on readiness of the current force within the Defense Department has been very important.

We have a small force. They’re trying to get it out to the training ranges much more often to be able to shoot things and fire things, and maneuver and use equipment, but that consumes a lot of money in terms of the rounds or the munitions, the ammunition used, the fuel used to drive vehicles, and sail ships, and fly airplanes. It’s just the wear and tear on the equipment, the repair parts.

So funding current readiness is very important. And I know that my fellow Marines and certainly soldiers and airmen and sailors, they want to be able to train sufficiently so that they know what they’re doing and they can do that very effectively anywhere in the world.

As you use that equipment, and we’ve already discussed, you’re using it up. And so then you’re talking about what new equipment might be coming in to make you more capable. And then do I have the sufficient numbers of pieces of equipment, and units, and personnel so that I can do more than one thing at one point in time?

So, I think if we can support, in kind of an echeloned way, our current military, can the current military train sufficiently, that would be current readiness.

Are we bringing new equipment in to replace the old stuff so that it is competent and relevant to today’s battlespace? And then can we expand the force to give greater opportunity for more Americans to serve their country, and certainly, in operational settings, the ability to sustain operations in that kind of a battle environment?

Del Guidice: Dakota, thank you so much for joining us today on “The Daily Signal Podcast.” It’s been great having you with us.

Wood: It’s been a real pleasure and just keep up the good work. Thanks.