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Air Force, Space Force rated weakest branches in new Heritage Foundation report

F-35A Lightning II aircraft receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., July 13, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown)
October 21, 2021

The U.S. Air Force and recently established U.S. Space Forces have both been classified as “weak” in the Heritage Foundation’s 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength published Wednesday. 

The Washington D.C.-based think tank published their annual scorecards for each of the U.S. military branches, ranking them in terms of their capacity, capability and readiness.

The Air Force received a “marginal” score for its capacity and capability and a “weak” score for readiness, with an overall ranking of “weak.”

In terms of capacity, the report assessed the Air Force has “86 percent of the capacity required to” fight in two major regional contingency operations. “However, the disposition of those assets limits the ability of the service to deploy them rapidly to a crisis region.”

“While the active fighter and bomber assets that are available would likely prove adequate to fight and win a single regional conflict, when coupled with the low mission capability rates of those aircraft …, the global sourcing needed to field the required combat fighter force assets would leave the rest of the world uncovered,” the report added.

In terms of capability, the report stated the Air Force has a “strong” effort to modernize its aircraft fleet, but gave a “marginal” rating for the age of its equipment and the health of its modernization programs. The report also rated the overall capability of the Air Force’s equipment as “weak,” stating, “New F-35 and KC-46 aircraft continue to roll off their respective production lines, but these additions are more than offset by aircraft retirements. As a consequence, this score will probably not improve over the next three to five years.”

The report also questioned the Air Force’s plans to acquire F-15EX, stating, “The Air Force is using precious acquisition dollars to buy an aircraft that, by all indicators, will have very limited utility in a conflict with a peer competitor.”

In terms of readiness, the Heritage Foundation determined the Air Force had dropped from a “marginal” to “weak” rating since its 2021 report, noting the “impact of COVID-19 on already low sortie rates and flying hours.”

Explaining its overall score for the Air Force, the report said “there is little doubt the Air Force would struggle in war with a peer competitor.”

The Space Force, which formed in December of 2019, received “weak” scores across its capacity, capability and readiness assessments.

In terms of its capacity, the report said “the Space Force is not capable of meeting current—much less future—on-demand, operational, and tactical-level warfighter requirements.”

In terms of its capability, the report said the Space Force’s “backbone” weather satellites and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites are “unrivaled” but “have exceeded their designed life spans” and is further limited by the Department of the Air Force’s “willingness to delay and/or defer the acquisition of replacement systems.” The Space Force also gets a weak capability score for its “lack of defensive and offensive capabilities.”

In terms of readiness, the report said the efforts to transfer mission sets, space assets, and personnel from the Air Force to the newly formed Space Force “have not missed an operational beat” however, “There is little evidence that the USSF has improved its readiness to provide nearly real-time support to the operational and tactical levels or that it is ready in any way to execute defensive and offensive counterspace operations to the degree envisioned by Congress when it formed the Space Force.”

The U.S. Navy faired slightly better in the Heritage Foundation’s assessment, with an overall strength assessment of “Marginal Trending Toward Weak.” The report recommends a 400-ship Navy fleet, instead of the 297-ship fleet the service currently has. The service’s capability is considered to be trending towards “weak” because near-peer powers like Russia and China are catching up to it in terms of its technological edge. The service also gets its poor readiness score due to an “overwhelmed maintenance infrastructure.”

The U.S. Army received an overall “marginal” score, with a “weak” capacity, a “marginal” capability but a “very strong” readiness rating. The Heritage Foundation report assesses the Army should have at least 50 brigade combat teams (BCTs) to fight two major regional conflicts and still have a strategic reserve force. Currently, the Army has 31 BCTs. The report explains that the Army gets a marginal score in terms of capability because its efforts to acquire new armored and light tactical vehicles have made modest progress, but many new Army equipment programs “remain in the development phase and in most cases are two to three years from entering procurement phases.”

The U.S. Marine Corps received the best strength score of the branches, with an overall “strong” score derived from “strong” capability and readiness scores and a marginal capacity score. The Heritage Foundation assessed the service should have at least 30 battalions to have a sufficient warfighting capacity, rather than the current 24. The foundation credits the service with “aggressively pursuing a host of new capabilities that will modernize the force over the next decade” and “an especially focused and aggressive commitment to ensuring that Marine Corps forces are ready for action.”