March 2, 2015

A weak America in a dangerous world: A recipe for disaster

The world seems to be falling to pieces these days. Russia has annexed Crimea, is methodically dismembering Ukraine, methodically probing the defenses of Northern Europe, and is once again casting a covetous eye on the Baltic and South Caucasus states. Vladimir Putin has expertly judged the hobbled condition of Europe and is exploiting not only its dependence on Russia’s energy resources and markets but also its anemic military condition to the fullest extent, getting all he can while the getting is good and easy.

The Islamic State, homicidally focused on dragging the world back to the seventh century, has carved a caliphate out of the dysfunctional states of Syria and Iraq, fomenting instability across the region through its surrogates and franchises and other like-minded violent Islamists in Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Nigeria.

In a similar fashion, Iran is leveraging a rare strategic opportunity—the absence of a “Great Power” that cares to be involved in the region—to culminate its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, betting on the desperation of the U.S. to secure a “deal” that would preclude it from taking action to prevent such an occurrence, much like Russia is leveraging the similar desperation of Germany and France over the Ukraine disaster. Further, Iran recognizes the window of opportunity that exists to secure its influence over Iraq, thanks to the U.S. withdrawal, for generations to come and to extend its hand against Israel via its surrogate force in Hezbollah.

And to the far east, China is methodically entrenching itself in disputed waters, fortifying atolls, muscling away the fishing and commercial fleets of competitor claimants, and contesting international airspace all the while exploiting vulnerabilities in America’s cyber shields to steal intellectual property worth billions of dollars and millions of man-hours, penetrate government and financial sector systems, and conduct deep cyber reconnaissance of America’s national critical infrastructure.

In times past, the United States would have risen to such challenges to its security interests and to the existing global order, as it did when the Soviet Union or China sought to export their brands of Communism. America’s confident strength steadied friends and allies and pushed back against belligerent opportunism. But those days appear to be receding. The U.S. has elevated other interests to higher priority, a condition most readily seen in the allocation of funds within the federal budget, the mounting obligations (and massive debt) driven by social spending, and the rapid decline of the U.S. military in its ability to protect America’s global interests.

In fact, the U.S. military now finds itself in a state where it would be unable to successfully handle two major conflicts in different parts of the world, a long-held objective of national security policy. America’s Navy, at 285 ships, is approaching pre-World War One levels; its Air Force flies planes more than a quarter-of-a-century old (some more than a half-century); the Army is approaching half the size deemed necessary just a few years ago; and the Marines, with demand for their shrinking force at record highs, have committed indefinitely to near-continuous rotational deployments of their operating forces.

This problem did not suddenly emerge. It has slowly, but relentlessly evolved as funding for the base-budget has declined in constant dollars over the past years and the cost for manpower, equipment, and weapons has steadily risen. Extended production timelines for expensive, high-end platforms, sustained use of the force for the past decade or more, and lack of funding to acquire as many replacement items as are retired or lost in combat have combined to result in a force that is old, small, worn out, and unable to maintained appropriate levels of readiness.

This is but one finding derived from the research conducted to produce The Heritage Foundation’s inaugural Index of U.S. Military Strength, an annual publication that assesses the condition of America’s military forces and their ability to meet national security requirements.

The Index also assesses the condition of key allies and their regions as they factor into the ability of U.S. forces to conduct operations abroad, and the status of states and non-state actors who pose direct, high-level challenges to U.S. national security interests.

Per the Index, America’s allies, though reasonably stable and steadfast, are less capable due to their own neglect of their military forces. Consequently, America’s planning assumptions that include reliance on the contributions of critical friends and allies are flawed, leading to previously unrecognized and unacknowledged risk to U.S. security interests. Further, competitors that pose serious challenges to America are heavily investing in military capabilities carefully matched to their own circumstances and objectives, increasing all the more the challenge U.S. forces would face if called upon.

The situation is worrisome and the trends are ominous, not least because it is far easier to decline still further than to make rapid improvements that take substantial time, money, and attention...all of which seem to be in short supply.

America’s allies see this condition and reassess their own foreign policy objectives, as we have seen in Europe vis-à-vis Russian aggression or in Asia where the Philippines, Vietnam, and others protest China’s expansionism but do little to openly contest it. America’s enemies see this condition too and act accordingly, exploiting an America distracted, financially strapped, and military weakened.

The 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength succinctly describes these trends, noting the contributing factors and providing a wealth of reference material for policymakers, analysts, and the American public who must take a greater interest in the current and future security of their country.

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