Speaking before the release of the Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said the American public would be shocked to know about the same number of people died in recent military accidents than were killed by a lone gunman firing into an outdoor concert crowd in Las Vegas.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, (R-Texas), said the fatal collisions of guided-missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain that killed 17 sailors and the crash of a Marine KC-130T aircraft that killed 15 Marines and a sailor as examples of the decline of the armed forces’ capacity, capability and readiness.
In the Navy, he specifically mentioned 100-hour workweeks and an unrealistic operational tempo as barriers to fielding an effective force.
The Heritage Index changed the overall assessment of Navy’s overall readiness from “strong” to “marginal” because of the string of accidents, said Heritage’s Dakota Wood.
Likewise, the Marine Corps readiness has been hampered by “a dramatic shortage in usable aircraft and pilots.” Overall, he said the Marine Corps is “under-strength relative to taskings.”
The index said the military’s readiness in decline, leaving the armed forces capable of resolving favorably one regional conflict” but allowing an “opportunistic power” to rise in another, Wood said.
As a result, the American military “has become a one-war force.”
In the past, Heritage’s Index put the United States military as “marginal,” Wood said it “is trending toward weak.” He added the decline is not new. Defense spending has been falling since the end of the Cold War with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Thornberry noted Congress has played a role in this decline, starting with its inability to pass a budget on time. Again this year, the government is operating under a Continuing Resolution [CR] limiting how and when the Pentagon and the services can spend the money authorized and appropriated to them. The combined defense budget for the coming fiscal year is just under $700 billion. The fiscal year began on Oct. 1; the continuing resolution covers government spending into December.
“Every single day of a CR does damage.” Thornberry said the effects are “felt immediately” in maintenance and reduced training, including flight and steaming hours. He said the House, Senate and Trump administration are “moving together … to solve the problem” of declining military strength but it will not be changed overnight.
Wood said a correction in the trend will take a decade or more and if it is not addressed the authors of the index see a “death spiral” from sustainability in a high-end conflict to current readiness to modernization.
In answer to an audience question on the impact of the Budget Control Act of 2011, Thornberry said, “I would get rid of all the caps on defense and domestic” spending. Wood said the impact on the armed forces has “only worsened by BCA” creating “a spiral of problems.”
Thornberry added there is a growing consensus in Congress not only to increase spending but eliminate the sequestration provisions of the 2011 law.
Wood, in detailing the report, said it concentrates on Europe, the Middle East and Asia and deals only with hard power, which does not include quality of personnel, logistics or even cyber.
By that measure to successfully resolve a major regional conflict and at least deter another, the United States would need a fleet of between 345 and 350 ships, 36 battalions of Marines, 50 Army Brigade Combat Teams and Air Force with 1,200 tactical fighters.
He added, “This is not a futures document, but it is “like getting a report card of your kid in school.” The index is based on open-source documents are presented as chapter footnotes.
As to why cyber was not included in the report, Wood said, “I don’t know how to measure cyber” and “can’t know its value” and “is used in combat.”