The U.S. military not only is weak overall but “at growing risk of not being able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests,” according to a new report from The Heritage Foundation.
“In our index, we score or measure the status of American military power in the year that’s just passed. Over years, you can start to see trends and you can see the implications for the United States, and our foreign policy, and economic health, and those sorts of things,” says Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)
“I think it’s the easiest way to think about it, is how did the Army do? The Navy, the Air Force, and [other] military services? And what was the nature of the world?” Wood, who served for over two decades as a Marine, says.
Wood joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to break down the findings of the Index of U.S. Military Strength, how America’s military compares to that of China, and what he hopes Americans will take away from the report.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Samantha Aschieris: Joining the podcast today is Dakota Wood. He is a senior research fellow in the Center for National Defense at The Heritage Foundation. Dakota, thank you so much for joining us.
Dakota Wood: Just a great pleasure. Thanks for having me on and looking forward to chatting.
Aschieris: Yeah, absolutely. And I want to talk about this Heritage Foundation report that was unveiled this week. It’s the 2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength. Can you tell us a little bit about this report?
Wood: It’s a report card. If you just think about daily living—so you’re in school, you go the entire year, and then you get your grades at the end. So it’s kind of a retrospective, how did you do in that specific year?
An annual report card doesn’t look at what you did 10 years ago and it doesn’t forecast what you’re going to do 10 years from now. So in our index, we score or measure the status of American military power in that year that’s just passed.
Over years, you can start to see trends and you can see the implications for the United States, and our foreign policy, and economic health, and those sorts of things, based on the findings that we have in each report.
But I think the easiest way to think about it is, how did the Army do? The Navy, the Air Force, and military services? And what was the nature of the world? A nice place, an evil place? Are the bad guys badder? Are they less bad? And so we try to capture all of that in this single report.
Aschieris: Absolutely. It was very fascinating to read. It’s about 600 pages long, so it really gives some really good insight into the military strength of the United States. And you talked about trends, how does the U.S. military compare from this index from this year to last year and even the prior year?
Wood: Unfortunately, the trend lines are almost all down. And so what are those lines? Well, do you have a military that is big enough? It has sufficient capacity?
So if all we had to worry about was Canada, and Canada’s a great friend, well, you don’t need any military at all. In the Cold War, the monolithic Soviet Union, you can kind of focus on one capital and one military structure on a global scale, but it was a single actor. Today, you’ve got Russia, and China, and North Korea, and Iran scattered all over the place. Instabilities in various regions.
And so we think that this capacity issue, how much military you have, is really, really important. It continues to shrink. That’s a bad trend line. The equipment you have—so, it’s modernity or it’s capability. Am I working with old stuff or new stuff? Again, trend line bad. Almost all the equipment in numbers is very, very old. And that’s not just a few years, it’s measured in decades.
The average age of an Air Force fighter’s 32 years old, if you can imagine that. Or ICBMs, the ballistic missiles and our nuclear inventory. Minuteman III were brought into service in 1973 and they were only meant to hang around for about 10 years, and here we are 50 years later.
And then the third trend line would have to do with readiness. So I can have good or bad equipment, I can have a small force or a big force, but are the people training? Shooting, and driving, and flying, and those things, sufficient to be competent in their skill sets. Again, a negative trend line. They just aren’t doing those things enough to really be proficient. The people are great, they’re just working with old gear and there’s not enough of it.
Aschieris: Well, you just talked about these negative trend lines. Was there anything from this report that showed or pointed to the military’s strong point?
Wood: Yeah. So, there’s a growing recognition in the services. A lot of times, whether it’s a sports team, or in a family, or military unit, you kind of want to put the best face on things. You want to buck up morale, encourage people, be very optimistic.
And so what we have usually is the service is saying, “We got it. We understand the threat. We can protect America. We got some challenges, but by dent of good spirit and bravery and all that, we can get the job done.” So it oftentimes masks bad things.
What we’re seeing now is waking up to the reality of a small forest with old equipment, not able to train enough. And you’ve seen what Russia did in Ukraine with this invasion. The Russians have performed poorly. But even with that, the amount of destruction, the munitions that have been used, the casualties, the toll in death, it’s still a really big thing.
And then you look at China’s discussions about Taiwan, you look at Iran trying to get nuclear weapons and all that. And so the strong points are a growing awareness and willing to admit among the services that there are some challenges that we need to deal with.
Among the services, the Marine Corps really came out big. We gave it a strong rating. It’s still way too small, in our view, and based on historical analysis for where it should be. But they’ve got a solid plan, they’re reorienting to conventional warfare, as opposed to counterinsurgency or counterterrorism. What does it mean to project naval power? And there are being some dramatic changes in the service, some of them are very controversial, but at least they’ve got a plan and they’re moving forward.
The other services almost can’t seem to get out of their own way, that they’re not scrambling for missions, they know what they need to do, but making decisions on how you go about preparing for the future, what things you need to buy, how are you focusing your training, not really strong points there.
Aschieris: You brought up a number of our adversaries—China, Russia, Iran, North Korea. There were so many sections in this report that kind of broke down the different military capabilities and the strength of specifically China and their military, what they’ve been able to accomplish over the last couple of years and even within the last year. From your perspective, how do we, as the United States, reverse our course of this negative downward trend?
Wood: Well, money’s going to be part of it, but I want to fixate on the money thing. So before we get into that, you’ve brought up some wonderful things about the index. It’s the length, 600 pages almost, and all these other sections. You don’t read this from front to back.
So we’ve structured the index in a way that if you’re interested in China, there is a section on China and you could just go to that, and it’s 15 pages long or whatever. So you can pick and choose the things that you’re interested in and then dive deep on that, it was structured that way intentionally.
So then when we look at this competition between China and the United States, and our various military power comparisons, money is a big aspect of this. So during the Cold War, again, it’s a great reference point about a global contest, they get some serious competitor. We were spending about 5%, 5.5% of the gross domestic product, GDP. Today, we’re spending 3%, or thereabouts.
And the money that is brought into the Defense Department is usually wrangled and argued over in the preceding year, and then they finally get it. Well, if today we’re dealing with 8% to 9% inflation, well, the money that was allocated a year ago just doesn’t buy as much.
And then also kind of hidden in all this stuff is that, to buy a similar sort of thing today that would’ve replaced something that you bought 30 years ago, accounting for inflation, it’s still five times as expensive just because sensors are better, so your equipment has to be better protected. We want greater precision. If you launch your missile, is it going to kill a bunch of innocents or does it go right to an enemy command post? And all those things are just inherently more expensive.
So this money aspect of getting the force that you want and enabling you to train, fuel, the price of fuel for planes, and ships, and trucks is much more expensive than it was a year or two ago. Are you going to spend that money or not? And so we just need the off sided 5% more than the rate of inflation to start digging out of these holes.
And then the other aspect to this would be the attitude of the American public to think that military stuff is valuable. And you have probably seen lots of headlines about the recruiting challenges of the services. So the Army fell something like 15,000 or 20,000 soldiers short, about 25%, of the recruiting goal for this year, and so you have a shrinking Army. The other services have had similar sorts of problems.
So more funding to replace the old gear and to be able to train. And then having our society think that military power—not because it’s aggressive and we’re trying to dictate and conquer, but to protect yourself, and to protect your interests, and to meet treaty obligations—it’s an essential component to the nation being able to decide what it wants to do, instead of being dictated to by others.
And so I think we’ve lost a sense of that and this idea of serving the country, serving in the military, and the nobility of that effort.
Aschieris: Absolutely. And as we’re talking about the military, it would be difficult to have this conversation without thinking about our commander in chief, President [Joe] Biden. And if he were hypothetically sitting here right now, what would be your No. 1 fact or takeaway from the report that you would want to share with him?
Wood: In spite of his insistence and his advisers’ that combating climate change is the most important activity and that diversity is our greatest strength, I would say that on a battlefield, it really comes down to tanks, ships, weapons, and a well-trained force.
So if we think that we want to support Taiwan defending itself against a potential invasion or takeover by China or you want to assist the Ukrainians who have just been doing amazing things and fighting back against this horrific aggression by Russia, if you want to be able to do that, you have to have a military force that can do military things in a military way. I know that sounds simplistic, but it seems to have just escaped the understanding of President Biden and his advisers.
They’re more interested in electrifying the military department, the Department of Defense, and harnessing its energies to combat climate change. And making sure that the makeup reflects America’s diversity, even at the expense of military competence, the services. I think that their perspectives are just so wildly divergent from the reality of global affairs, national security.
Look what’s going on domestically even on our border. So take that as an analogy and apply it to their worldview and how we deal with a near-nuclear Iran, the crazy guy in North Korea, President Xi [Jinping] over in China, who’s going to get a third, five-year term and probably be premier for life. And they’re just mistaken in their understanding.
Aschieris: Yeah. And you just brought up President Xi. Just on Sunday of this week, he re-upped his calls to reunify Taiwan—I say that in quotes, “reunify” Taiwan and China. And as you also mentioned earlier with this report, there is a section that’s dedicated to China, Iran, North Korea. Specifically talking about China, how does the U.S. military compare to what we could potentially face if we went to war with China?
Wood: So, the Navy comparison is representative of a larger comparison. We have a navy that, I just checked this morning, 292 ships. In the report, we say 298, but between the time that was written and where we are today, we’ve lost six.
Wood: It’s just the decommissioning of platforms and you’re doing that faster than you’re bringing in new ones. So 292, but let’s round that to 300.
In the Cold War we had nearly 600 ships. Back then, you kept about 100 deployed on a daily basis. Today, we still keep 100 deployed. So you’ve got half the Navy doing the same amount of work, it’s going to wear out your ships and crews. Of those 100, about 60 are in the Indo-Pacific, so on a daily basis. China has gone from 215 or 220 ships just 15 years ago or so to 360 I believe is where they’re at.
So our 60 ships at sea versus China’s 360, that’s a 6-to-1 disadvantage. And then China’s operating just a couple of hundred miles from its coastline. How close is Taiwan? You can almost see each other. Our ships are operating 6,000 or 7,000 miles from the United States, and very few ports in close proximity.
So I know it’s a long-winded explanation, but when you take a 6-to-1 disadvantage and you see that China can use all this land-based stuff for a naval fight, cruise missiles, and aircraft, and these other sorts of things, this numbers game really is important. And they’re able to invest money in missiles in short-range systems, so their equivalent dollar goes further. We have to invest in platforms that can transit the Pacific Ocean and operate thousands of miles from home.
So again, money then comes into about, is it important enough to support Taiwan, or Japan, or South Korea, or the Philippines against a major opponent that has more equipment, is producing modern gear at a much higher rate than the United States is, and has a geographic advantage because it’s working in its own neighborhood and we’re playing the away game, operating at distance? And I think we just haven’t reconciled the cost of preserving and protecting your interests when that fight is so far away from home.
Aschieris: Yeah, definitely. That is super interesting. I know constant tension between Taiwan and China and kind of just waiting to see what President Xi is going to do next is keeping everyone on the edge of their seats.
Dakota, one final question for you, is there anything about this report that we didn’t discuss that you think is important or that you want our audience to remember?
Wood: State craft, diplomacy, economic relationships, propaganda in the positive sense, the exchange of ideas, and getting your message out there are all important, but they don’t replace the effectiveness of military power. And so if other countries see the United States as strong, they’re more willing to stay on our team, as opposed to seeking other partners.
Look at the bashing that the current Biden administration is laying on Saudi Arabia, and yet we’ve made ourselves more energy-dependent on foreign sources. And yet, the Saudis, because of all the insults, and bashing, and whatnot, are seeking greater alliances with China, and Russia, and other countries.
And so there comes a point where if other countries fail to have confidence in the United States because of our weakened military posture, then they will seek alliances elsewhere.
And so if we want a country that’s free, prosperous, safe, if we want economic vitality, if we want a strong business climate, the military component to national power is essential. It’s not a nice to have. And so that’s the overarching message that we try to convey in this. And we use these examples of the status of military power to make the point.
Aschieris: Yes, definitely. Dakota Wood, thank you so much for joining me, again. He’s a senior research fellow in the Center for National Defense here at The Heritage Foundation. I will include a link to this year’s Index of U.S. Military Strength in the show notes. If anyone is interested in reading that, I highly suggest it. Thank you so much, Dakota.
Wood: Great. What a great pleasure, thanks.
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