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US military getting weaker; Navy ‘weak’, Air Force even worse says Heritage study

President Joe Biden holds a meeting with military and civilian defense leadership, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen H. Hicks, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, combatant commanders, and the Coast Guard, the White House, Washington, D.C., April 20, 2022. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
October 18, 2022

A new strength assessment by the Heritage Foundation sees the U.S. military is growing weaker and weaker as it continues to face an “aggressive” set of threats and challenges around the world.

On Tuesday, the Heritage Foundation released its annual U.S. Military Strength assessment. The conservative think tank gave the overall U.S. military a “weak” rating, with the U.S. Marines rated as “strong,” the U.S. Army as “marginal,” the U.S. Navy as “weak” and the U.S. Air Force as “very weak.”

The Heritage foundation gave the Army and Marine Corps virtually the same strength scores as last year, but the Navy and Air Force slipped from their scores last year of “marginal” and “weak,” respectively.

The foundation said the Navy’s “worrisome” decline in strength last year is “driven by problems in capacity (‘very weak’) and readiness (‘weak’).”

“The Navy’s current battle force fleet of 298 ships and intensified operational tempo combine to reveal a service that is much too small relative to its tasks,” the assessment states. “Contributing to a lower assessment is the Navy’s persistent inability to arrest and reverse the continued diminution of its fleet as adversary forces grow in number and capability. If its current trajectory is maintained, the Navy will shrink further to 280 ships by 2037.”

This year, President Joe Biden’s White House unveiled a 2023 defense budget proposal that would see a net loss of 15 Navy warships this year.

The Air Force has seen the sharpest decline in its strength, dropping two full score blocks in two years. In 2020, the Heritage Foundation assessed the Air Force strength as “marginal” before downgrading it to “weak” last and now “very weak” this year.

“During FY 2022, the year assessed for this Index, problems with pilot production and retention, an extraordinarily small amount of time in the cockpit for pilots, and a fleet of aircraft that continues to age compounded challenges even more, leading to the current score of ‘very weak,’ the lowest on our scale,” the new strength assessment states.

The Heritage Foundation assesses the Air Force’s capacity against the benchmark of the force being able to effectively fight in two major regional conflicts (MRCs).

“The USAF currently is at 86 percent of the capacity required to meet a two-MRC benchmark, it is short 650 pilots, the average age of its fighter aircraft fleet is 32 years old, and pilots are flying barely more than once per week across all types of aircraft,” the assessment states. “New aircraft like the F-35 and KC-46 are being introduced, but the pace is too slow. Although there is a chance the Air Force might win a single MRC in any theater, there is little doubt that it would struggle in war with a peer competitor.”

“Both the time required to win such a conflict and the attendant rates of attrition would be much higher than they would be if the service had moved aggressively to increase high-end training and acquire the fifth-generation weapon systems required to dominate such a fight,” the Heritage Foundation added.

For the second year in a row, the foundation once again listed the three-year-old U.S. Space Force as “weak.” The foundation noted the fledgling service had gained mission sets, space assets, and personnel that “have enabled the service to sustain its support to the Joint Force” but “there is little evidence that the USSF has improved its readiness to provide nearly real-time support to operational and tactical levels of force operations or that it is ready in any way to execute defensive and offensive counterspace operations to the degree envisioned by Congress when it authorized the creation of the Space Force.”

The Heritage Foundation also assessed that U.S. nuclear forces are still rated as “strong” but are trending toward “marginal” or even “weak” ratings.

“The reliability of current U.S. delivery systems and warheads is at risk as they continue to age and the threat continues to advance,” the foundation wrote.

This flagging U.S. military strength assessment comes at a time when the U.S. faces an “aggressive” and “gathering” threat environment.

The foundation listed China as “the most comprehensive threat the U.S. faces.” The foundation assessed China exhibits “aggressive” behavior; the second-highest level of threatening behavior behind outright hostility toward the U.S. The foundation also assessed the highest threat capability as a “formidable” fighting force.

Even as Russia has seen setbacks in its war in Ukraine, the foundation assessed the country would pose a “formidable” threat to the U.S.

Despite Russia incurring heavy losses in Ukraine, the foundation believes the threat Russia poses is only growing

“Though Russia is consuming its inventory of munitions, supplies, equipment, and even military personnel in its war against Ukraine, it is also replacing those items and people,” the foundation wrote. “Unlike Ukraine’s, Russia’s industrial capacity remains untouched by the war, and will allow Moscow to replace older equipment lost in the conflict with newly manufactured items. Russia’s military is also gaining valuable combat experience. Consequently, the war may actually serve to increase the challenge that Russia poses to U.S. interests on the continent.”

The foundation also noted that “Russia and China are aggressively expanding the types and quantities of nuclear weapons in their inventories.”

In addition to the “formidable” threats posed by both Russia and China, the Heritage Foundation assessed Iran and North Korea pose “gathering” threats to U.S. interests.

This year’s strength assessment also raised alarms over the U.S. military’s recruiting struggles. This last fiscal year, the Army missed it’s total recruiting goal by 25 percent, a record-setting shortfall.

“There are many reasons why this is the case,” the foundation said of the military’s recruiting struggles. “And there are substantial consequences for America’s military power should the services continue to fall short in their efforts.”

The foundation listed a couple factors harming the military’s reputation for potential recruits.

“The increased political polarization of America has crept into perceptions of military service,” the foundation wrote. “The military is portrayed negatively as either a breeding ground for racist, extremist, or insurgent behavior on the one hand or weakened by ‘woke,’ fragile, and social experimentation policies on the other. Both portrayals, neither of which is either true or productive, undermine youth propensity to serve and therefore military recruiting.”

The foundation also raised warnings that troops being discharged for defying the military-wide COVID-19 vaccine mandates could also undermine the military’s strength.

“The shifts in policy governing military service for transgender individuals between 2018 and 2021 and the COVID-19 medical standards and vaccine
policies of 2020 and 2021 are cases in point,” the foundation wrote. “While these policies are of interest from a societal or public health perspective, their impact on military readiness is hotly debated. One thing is quite clear, however: They increase both the cost and the level of effort needed to recruit military personnel.”

The foundation later said “it remains to be seen whether retention rates can be sustained to meet long-range manning needs in the face of a tightening labor market and dismissals for non-compliance with COVID vaccine mandates.”