WASHINGTON — U.S. military power was weaker this year than the year prior, according to a new report by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that each year analyzes the strength of the armed forces and the threats to America.
The “2023 Index of U.S. Military Strength” focuses on the need for readiness in not one, but two wars — or “major regional contingencies (MRCs),” as the authors put it — with the theory that such a standard would prevent another competitor from taking advantage of U.S. preoccupation with another challenge. But the U.S. currently does not meet that goal, with the report rating America’s military power as “weak,” down from “marginal” in the previous year’s index.
“The 2023 Index concludes that the current U.S. military force is at significant risk of not being able to meet the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities,” the report read. “It most likely would not be able to do more and is certainly ill-equipped to handle two nearly simultaneous MRCs.”
The report assessed three major factors: the global operating environment, threats to U.S. interests and U.S. military power. Here are the findings:
US can still globally project power
The global operating environment, aggregated across Europe, Asia and the Middle East, is still favorable to the U.S. and its ability to project military power, according to the report.
“This does not mean that we view Latin America and Africa as unimportant. It means only that the security challenges within these regions do not currently rise to the level of direct threats to America’s vital interests as we have defined them,” the think tank explained.
Despite challenges across each geographic region, the U.S. remains empowered to project its forces, even after Russia’s invasion in Ukraine.
In Europe and Asia, alliances and military posture in those regions help the U.S. project its power. However, the U.S. risks losing its “moderate” rating in the Middle East.
“Although the region’s overall score remains ‘moderate,’ as it was last year, it is in danger of falling to ‘poor’ because of political instability and growing bilateral tensions with allies over the security implications of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran and how best to fight the Islamic State,” the report said.
The European and Pacific theaters remain marked as “favorable” to U.S. military projection.
Russia and China
Researchers also said Russia and China each present “aggressive” behavior and have “formidable” capabilities. Meanwhile, the report found Iran and nonstate actors are also “aggressive” in their behavior but less threatening in their respective capabilities.
North Korea’s behavior is less so, while its ability to threaten the U.S. is equal to that of Iran, but stronger than that of nonstate actors.
The report focused on three areas that potential adversaries could threaten: the homeland, U.S. allies in a given region and “international common spaces.”
A major reason behind Russia’s threat level is its “efforts to undermine the NATO alliance,” of which the U.S. in a member.
“[Russia] still maintains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and although a strike on the U.S. is highly unlikely, the latent potential for such a strike still gives these weapons enough strategic value vis-à-vis America’s NATO allies and interests in Europe to ensure their continued relevance,” the report said.
But China remained the most “comprehensive security challenge” to U.S. forces across all areas considered by the report, with the Heritage Foundation citing the technological advances of the Chinese military.
“The Chinese launched their first homegrown aircraft carrier during the past year and are fielding large numbers of new platforms for their land, sea, air, and outer-space forces as well as in the electromagnetic domain,” the report said.
A force in decline
The report also offered an assessment of U.S. military power among the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Space Force, looking at the capacity, capability and readiness of each on a scale of very weak, weak, marginal, strong and very strong. Only the Marine Corps ranked “strong” overall, the report noted.
The Army scored “marginal,” while the Air Force was ranked “very weak” and the Navy “weak.” The report backed calls for a naval force armed with 400 manned ships to meet its missions, but said the service’s fleet of 298 ships cannot keep up with an “intensified operational tempo.”
“Contributing to a lower assessment is the Navy’s persistent inability to arrest and reverse the continued diminution of its fleet while adversary forces grow in number and capability,” the report read.
The Air Force’s main issues are related to pilot training and retention as well as its aging aircraft fleet, the report said. The think tank suggested the service could win in a single major regional contingency but would struggle against a “peer competitor.”
“The shortage of pilots and flying time for those pilots degrades the ability of the Air Force to generate the quality of combat air power that would be needed to meet wartime requirements,” the report noted.
The newest service, the Space Force, also was labeled “weak,” with the report citing “slow and incremental” efforts to modernize aging platforms.
Zamone “Z” Perez is an editorial fellow at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa, where he helped produce podcasts. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched humanitarian intervention and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.