Forget about the longtime standard of a military capable of fighting two major wars simultaneously, which the United States abandoned four years ago. The current military would have trouble fighting one major conflict.

That is the assessment of some prominent defense experts, who contend the military has degraded to dangerous levels after eight years under President Obama.

“We are no longer technologically superior in a whole list of areas … This is a military that is on the brink of collapse.”

“We have lost our edge,” said Daniel Goure, senior vice president of the Lexington Institute. “We are no longer technologically superior in a whole list of areas … This is a military that is on the brink of collapse.”

That assessment, echoed by others, suggests President-Elect Donald Trump faces major challenges in fulfilling his campaign promise to rebuild America’s military. Trump addressed the issue again this week in a North Carolina speech in which he introduced his choice for defense secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis.

According to a comprehensive analysis of the U.S. Armed Forces produced last month by The Heritage Foundation, military power is “marginal,” with the Army rated even worse, as “weak.” At the same time, the think tank rates as “high” six major threats to U.S. vital interests — Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Middle Eastern terrorism, and terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The assessment of the North Korean threat represents a downgrade from the the “severe” rating found in last year’s Heritage report — the report found that risks from Iran and Middle Eastern terrorism have worsened.

“We are actually below peacetime levels,” said John Venable, a retired Air Force colonel who serves as a senior research fellow with The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. “But we’re actually fighting a war.”

Trump has drawn heavily on the think tank to put together his defense proposals. Venable, who spent 25 years as a combat pilot, said he wrote an article for Defense One earlier this year pointing to deficiencies in the Air Force. He said that military branch has fallen to levels of readiness not seen since the “hollow force” days of the Jimmy Carter years.

“I was expecting pushback [from senior Air Force officials],” he said, “and I didn’t get any.”

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Senior military commanders have also raised concerns. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in September that planes are getting older and budget constraints are jeopardizing preparedness.

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“We need the flexibility to retire aging weapon systems and reduce excess infrastructure in order to afford the technology needed to maintain our advantage,” he said. “If we don’t have stable budgets, we mortgage the future to pay for the current readiness.”

Degraded Capacity
Conrad Crane, chief of historical services for the Army Heritage and Education Center, said The Heritage Foundation report calculates military strength based on the outdated two-war model. He acknowledged that the capacity to fight two wars might be necessary but added that it is a different question.

“That argument can be made, whether that’s an adequate strategy or not,” he said.

But Venable said readiness issues would make it difficult to meet the challenges of even a single major war. From the report:

  • The Army needs 25 brigades to fight one major conflict. It has 31, but Venable said only 10 are “mission ready.”
  • The Navy had 272 ships, below its 308-ship goal, and Venable said only about a third of the vessels are ready for combat.
  • The Air Force needs 600 planes to fight one major conflict. Although the service currently has 1,159, Venable said less than half are ready for combat.
  • The Marine Cops has 23 battalions, more than the 13 needed to fight one major conflict, but the Heritage report estimates only half are ready.

Goure, the Lexington Institute expert, noted that the military has shrunk to pre-World War II levels. Part of that can be explained by the ability to accomplish more with fewer men and women. But he added there is a limit to that for a global superpower.

A weakened military makes the world more dangerous because it tempts America’s adversaries, Goure said. He noted that the U.S. Army currently has two small brigades in Europe and an armored battalion that it rotates in. That is down from a peak of 18 brigades. In addition, he said, Russia has bigger tanks with a longer reach. U.S. forces would find themselves outnumbered and outgunned if they responded to, say, a serious Russian incursion in Europe.

“They couldn’t defend Eastern Europe if they were asked to … and the Russians know this,” he said.

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So dominant has America been in controlling air space that the country has not lost a pilot in air-to-air combat in nearly 70 years.

“We’re about to experience all of that joy again,” Goure said, alluding to the fact that China and Russia have closed the gap.

What’s more, Goure said, China has the capacity to knock out U.S. satellites while America does not possess similar capability.

Venable said the military could “cobble together” enough combat-ready forces by pulling from various units if a major war broke out. But it would leave the rest of the military vulnerable and the homeland exposed.

Crane said one of the reasons why military leaders have been eager to wind down wars in the Middle East is to shift away from counterinsurgency operations in order to focus more on building back up conventional warfare capabilities.

Pendulum Has Swung Back
“The pendulum has swung back because they recognize some of these skills have eroded,” he said. “I don’t see the missions that can’t be done.”

Crane said the biggest danger is not that the United States would lose a conventional war with a major power but that it would suffer much greater casualties in the process. He paraphrased Eric Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, whose philosophy was to ensure that the U.S. military had a lopsided advantage in any confrontation.

“We don’t want to win 51 to 49,” he said. “We want to win 100 to nothing.”

Venable said air power is a particular concern. Both Russia and China have upgraded air defense systems. The S-400 missile system is capable of downing all but the most sophisticated fighter jets in the U.S. fleet, the F-22 and F-35 jets.

“But we don’t have the numbers that are required to do the mission sets,” he said.

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Beyond the limited number of the most advanced aircraft, Venable said, the United States is flying fourth-generation airplanes. Trump is not exaggerating, Venable said, when he talks about the military having to raid spare parts from museums to keep planes in the air. That has happened with Harrier jets, he said.

“Those planes are all old, and they would not survive an S-400 situation,” he said.

Goure said training also is an issue; pilots are spending only a half to two-thirds of the amount of time flying that they should.

“The only advantage that we really do have — and we’re losing that fast — is we train people,” he said.

Some argue that the United States spends more than enough on national defense. According to a study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, America spends more on the military than the next 10 countries combined.

Goure said it is a fallacious comparison because America pays its military personnel so much better and provides more benefits than most other countries. And, he added, “The next 10 countries do not have global interests.”

Trump will find that his military buildup will not come cheap, Goure said. He estimated it would cost at least $100 billion more than the current Pentagon budget, which, itself, is $35 billion to $39 billion more than the caps that Congress and Obama had agreed to as part of a budget deal.

“A hundred billion a year may not be enough,” he said. “That’s the stark, bloody reality.”

Added Crane: “There’s the rub. We’ll see what he does. The money is going to have to come from someplace … We’ve got to square the circle someplace.”