Storm relief strains US military as new report gives sober look at readiness

Key Points
  • The U.S. military is at "marginal" readiness status today and trending toward "weak," concludes a report issued by the Heritage Foundation.
  • The conservative think tank said two service branches, Army and Marines, are now rated as "weak" and added that Russia's ground combat capabilities may soon surpass that of the U.S.
  • One sign of the U.S. military's stress is current storm-relief efforts are straining the Pentagon's plans to send additional troops to Afghanistan.
U.S. Navy aircrewman carries an evacuee off an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter in the Caribbean region as part of Defense of Department support for those affected by Hurricane Maria.
Getty Images

The U.S. military has deteriorated in strength by years of underinvestment and lack of modernization to the point that some service branches are in "a dire state of readiness," according to a report issued Thursday.

At the same time, the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal is suffering from "degradation" even as other nations such as Russia are engaged in an aggressive buildup of nuclear capabilities, said the report from the Heritage Foundation, the conservative Washington think tank.

"We believe that the U.S. military is at marginal status and it's trending toward weak," said retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow for defense programs at Heritage and editor of its 2018 "Index of Military Strength" report.

Wood, speaking at an event where the report was presented, said the current troublesome status of the U.S. military is due to a general decline in U.S. defense investment since the end of the Cold War and was only made worse by decreased spending under the Budget Control Act and sequestration. It comes as there are increasing threats from nuclear-armed North Korea as well as more hostile military activities by superpowers such as Russia and China.

Air Force and Marine Corps aircraft conduct a mission with the South Korean air force over the Korean Peninsula, Sept. 18, 2017.
Source: U.S. Army

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, spoke at the Heritage event Thursday and said, "We have the best military in the world. There's no question about that. But I also believe we have not been resourcing our military commensurate with what we ask our military to do."

According to the report, "Overall, the 2018 Index concludes that the current U.S. military force is likely capable of meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities but that it would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies."

In perhaps a sign of the U.S. military being stretched too thin, the Pentagon said Thursday new U.S. forces flowing into Afghanistan have been delayed due to hurricane relief efforts. The Pentagon has sent extensive resources to help with assistance to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other Caribbean islands in the region.

"Forces are flowing to Afghanistan; they have been slightly delayed by ongoing hurricane relief efforts," Joint Staff Director and Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told reporters late Thursday.

The Pentagon said part of the delay is due to the shortage of available military transport planes, which were mobilized to bring in food, water, generators and other critical supplies as well as personnel to help with the storm relief. Thousands of active duty and National Guard troops have been sent to areas with devastation caused by Hurricane Maria, and the Pentagon said the number of troops helping on the mission may rise as they are needed.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress in hearings that the U.S. had about 11,000 troops in Afghanistan and an additional 3,000 U.S. troops would be arriving. The increased troop strength is part of President Donald Trump's new strategy on fighting the 16-year war in Afghanistan.

Meantime, the Heritage report listed the Army and Marine Corps readiness as "weak" given readiness challenges driven by the current operational demands and low funding. That means half of the nation's service branches are essentially considered in troubled shape in terms of readiness.

The report scored the Air Force and Navy as "marginal" in the readiness category.

In addition to readiness scores, the Heritage report provides a break down of military strength based on capacity and capability scores. The think tank uses a five-point scale for scoring, from "very strong" at the high end to "very weak" on the low end; the score of "marginal" is in the middle.

The Marine Corps readiness rating represented a decline from the think tank's previous report, and it noted that roughly two-thirds of the Marine Corps' aircraft today "are un-flyable." It said the aviation challenges for the Corps are due to "maintenance and flight hour shortfalls combined with old platforms to cause the service to self-assess a dire state of readiness."

As for the Army, it said just one-third of the service's current force is at "acceptable levels of readiness, and even for units deployed abroad, the Army has had to increase its reliance on contracted support to meet maintenance requirements."

Wood said the Army is smaller and the level of readiness of many of the brigade combat team units is lower than they should be today. "Only three units are in 'ready to fight' status," he said. "At the end of the Cold War, it was 780,000 active-duty soldiers; now they're below, I believe, 480,000."

Added the retired Marine Corps officer, "You just have fewer people trying to shoulder a massive load with obsolescencing equipment and not enough money to actually get out there [for sufficient field training]."

Another worrisome trend is Russian technological advances in ground combat vehicles when compared with the U.S. military.

The Abrams tank introduced by the American military in the 1980s has had upgrades but still is "inherently the same tank," said Wood. Yet the Russians have improved their capabilities in tanks and now have the T-14 Armata, which some reports indicate has about three times the range of the American M1 Abrams tank. Russia's T-14 uses a completely automated turret and advanced loading system that Wood said "enhances survivability."

"Per one official, Russia will soon surpass the U.S. in a majority of ground combat capabilities," Heritage said.

On the Air Force, the report said the service is currently short around 1,000 fighter pilots and estimated only about four combat fighter squadrons out of a total of 32 are considered "ready for combat." Although the Air Force's overall readiness score didn't change from last year, Heritage said the fleet of 923 combat-coded tactical fighter planes is now 236 below last year's count and 277 short of what the think tank believes is needed.

"Combined with a continued capability score of 'marginal,' the Air Force's overall military strength score continues to trend downward at a time when America's dominance in the air domain is increasingly challenged by the technological advances of potential adversaries," the report said.

As for the Navy, the readiness was listed as "marginal," but it scored "weak" in capability, which Heritage said was "largely because of old platforms and troubled modernization programs." As of today, there are 279 deployable battle force ships in the fleet compared with the Navy's requirement of 355 ships to respond to needs around the world. Still, the Navy has been budgeted with 308 ships in the current 30-year shipbuilding plan.

"While the Navy is maintaining a solid global presence (slightly more than one-third of the fleet is deployed at any given day), it has little ability to surge to meet wartime demands," the report said.

Also, the Heritage report concluded that the nuclear capabilities of America's military are "marginal," explaining that warhead modernization efforts, weak investment and talent drain are among the top problems facing the nation's nuclear capability. It said investments in the next-generation bomber and ballistic-missile submarine programs are encouraging but the age of the nuclear arsenal is a concern given more aggressive programs of competitors.