The Ripon Forum

Volume 51, No. 3

June 2017

The American Military: At the Tipping Point

By on June 25, 2017


The U.S. military is in a crisis. Decades of underfunding and continuous employment have taken their toll.

Just three of the U.S. Army’s 50 combat brigades and only half the Air Force’s fighters and bombers are fully ready for a major conflict with a serious adversary. The U.S. Navy is smaller than at any time since the end of World War II even as the areas it must patrol continue to grow. The Marine Corps has insufficient aircraft and helicopters to provide an adequate level of flying hours for its pilots.

Our strategic nuclear forces, the bedrock of a strategy to deter a nuclear conflict, are at the end of their life and must be replaced. New conflict arenas have emerged in outer space, the cyber domain and the information space.  The consequences of these shortfalls for U.S. national security were stated starkly by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee:

“The U.S. military’s competitive advantage against potential adversaries is eroding. Over the last decade, sustained operational commitments, budgetary instability, and advances by our adversaries have threatened our ability to project power and we have lost our advantage in key warfighting areas. . . .  without sustained, sufficient, and predictable funding, I assess that within 5 years we will lose our ability to project power; the basis of how we defend the homeland, advance U.S. interests, and meet our alliance commitments.[1]

The reality is that the United States requires a military that is large, well-equipped, highly trained, and technologically superior to prospective adversaries. For reasons historical, political, and even cultural, the kind of military we need is expensive.

The United States requires a military that is large, well-equipped, highly trained, and technologically superior to prospective adversaries.

The U.S. has critical national security interests in at least four major regions of the world – Europe, East Asia, the Middle East, and North America.  Today, there are serious threats to our interests and our friends and allies in three of these or from them to the U.S. homeland, itself. We require a military that is large, agile, and broadly capable in order to deter aggression and respond to crises simultaneously in multiple parts of the globe.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. brought most of its military home.  Hence, it must always be capable of projecting military power overseas in order to address threats and deal with crises. Our lines of communications and supply stretch around the world multiple times. Retaining not only the combat forces, but also the transportation and logistics capabilities to support power projection, is challenging and expensive.

The U.S. military has always sought technological/operational overmatch relative to potential, as well as current, adversaries. We don’t want to fight on an even playing field. We wish to match quantity with quality. Therefore, our weapons systems and training must be better than those of prospective adversaries.

We have an all-volunteer military and must provide the salary and benefits this system entails.  Moreover, some 70 percent of our service personnel today are married, many with children. This adds housing, child care/education and medical costs to the personnel system. Retaining skilled personnel in such areas as information technologies and cyber security in a highly competitive labor market is difficult.

There are functions in our military unlike those in many others, particularly those of potential and current adversaries. For example, there are more lawyers in the U.S. military than most of our NATO allies have infantrymen.

Today’s military is too small to adequately address all the missions it is required to perform.

Every Administration since the end of the Cold War has found that they like the kind of military the nation has and each has found ample cause to employ it extensively in conflicts, humanitarian missions, and peacekeeping efforts.  None has chosen to redesign our military based on deterring fewer threats, supporting fewer allies, a renunciation of military technological superiority, or ending the all-volunteer military.  If this is the military we want and we deploy it continuously, we must pay for it.

Today’s military is too small to adequately address all the missions it is required to perform. In addition, for over a decade we have underfunded the military by more than $50 billion a year. There is at present on the order of a $600 billion backlog of deferred maintenance, training, sustainment, and modernization. In addition, our prospective adversaries have improved their military capabilities substantially over the same time period.

In order to build and sustain the military we require and desire, we need to spend on the order of $100 billion a year more than we do currently (which is $575 billion). This is exclusive of proposed contingency fund spending of $65 billion. I would point out that even at this higher level, the defense budget would amount to only 5% of U.S. GDP and about 15% of total federal spending.

Dr. Daniel Gouré is a Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.





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