WASHINGTON — U.S. military capabilities continued to stand still or erode as world threats proliferated during 2017, a new study is warning.

Those are the findings of The Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength, which offers reviews of the past year’s defense issues.

The index, which will be released Oct. 5, may take on extra influence this year. While previous editions were well regarded, Heritage is the think tank with the closest ties to the Trump administration and is viewed as having a major influence on discussions within the White House and conservative members of Congress.

The report comes as several major policy reviews of the Trump Pentagon are pending, including a broader national security review, a missile defense review and a nuclear posture review.

Broadly speaking, the index covers two pots of information — a look at the global operating environment and an internal assessment of U.S. military strength. All topics are rated on a one-to-five scale with various descriptions, such as “very weak” or “marginal” attached.

Defense News was given an exclusive interview with Heritage expert Dakota Wood, who edited the over 400-page report, ahead of its formal release. The full report can be read here.

International instability

“For decades, the perception of American strength and resolve has served as a deterrent to adventurous bad actors and tyrannical dictators,” the report reads. “Regrettably, both that perception and, as a consequence, its deterrent effect are eroding. The result is an increasingly dangerous world threatening a significantly weaker America.”

Statements like that are certainly eye-grabbing, but for the most part, the Heritage report shows a world that has not changed much from 2017.

“Unless someone drops a nuke on New York City, events kind of move slowly,” Wood said. “You want to see a significant change in order to say, all things considered, out of a full year, this is a meaningful shift.”

A good example of that thinking shows in the fact that Heritage did not change North Korea’s threat ranking from 2017 despite a series of missile and nuclear tests and increasingly heated rhetoric.

“They haven’t moved any different types of forces closer to the South Korean border. They haven’t shelled an island or sunk a ship. The missile shots are clearly very provocative, but they haven’t put a warhead on the end of them, even a conventional warhead, to blow something up,” explained Wood.

“Do we look at testing and improving their nuclear sets of capabilities as worrisome? Absolutely. Does it look like it’s heading in a direction we’d rather not see it go? Absolutely,” he continued. “Does it shift it into the worst category in terms of a threat to the United States? We weren’t quite ready to make that leap.”

However, changes did occur, particularly in the Asia Pacific region. Overall, Heritage downgraded alliances in the region from “excellent” to “favorable” and political stability from “favorable” to “moderate.”

Tied into that is a change in posture from China, which saw its capability raised by its threat downgraded. In essence, Wood said, China has stopped being as aggressive towards its neighbors since it has successfully militarized islands around the South China Sea.

“You can get more capable and your behavior becomes less worrisome,” Wood noted. “You can do that once you’ve established your positions.”

In positive news, Heritage judges that the behavior of threats of Middle Eastern terrorism actually decreased over the last year from “hostile” to “aggressive.”

Graphic from the Heritage Foundation's 2018 Military Strength Index showing the shift from 2015 to now. (Heritage Foundation)
Graphic from the Heritage Foundation's 2018 Military Strength Index showing the shift from 2015 to now. (Heritage Foundation)

Service questions

The index gauged America’s armed forces’ as “marginal” in their ability to win wars against two major adversaries simultaneously, its yardstick for what the nation needs.

In the report, Heritage calls for an Army of 50 brigade combat teams, a Navy of 346 ships and 624 strike aircraft, an Air Force of 1,200 fighter/attack aircraft and a Marine Corps of 36 battalions.

Any buildup would be a tall order under current Capitol Hill dynamics. Lawmakers championing a larger military have for years run into the cross-currents of Republican opponents of deficit spending and Democratic allies of nondefense spending — all pressurized by statutory budget caps passed in 2011.

Heritage gave the Navy, Air Force and nuclear suite a collective grade of “marginal” for total power — a kind of D grade — compared with a top score of “very strong.”

The Marine Corps, meant to be the nation’s expeditionary armed force, which sustained decreases in amphibious ships and available aircraft as aging aircraft have been decommissioned. The index downgraded its readiness from “marginal” to “weak,” alongside its capacity — attributed to a number of aging air and land platforms.

“The Marine Corps dropped because of their aircraft woes and its general readiness,” Wood said. The index cited the USMC’s reporting at the end of 2016 that only 41 percent of its fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft were flyable.

The Heritage index judged the Army’s capacity and readiness as “weak” and its capability as “marginal.” Despite end-strength increases, modest progress with the Oshkosh Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the BAE Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle and inadequate procurement budget levels won the Army a “weak” for “capability of equipment.”

Heritage cited congressional testimony from Gen. Daniel Allyn, who served as Army vice chief of staff from August 2014 to June 2017. According to Allyn, a third of its BCTs, a quarter of its combat aviation brigades and half of its division headquarters are ready — and only three BCTs would be ready to “fight tonight.”

The 2017 defense policy bill reversed the Obama administration’s planned cuts to set the active Army’s authorized end strength to 476,000, the Reserve to 199,000 and the National Guard to 343,000. Still, the Army has decreased to 31 BCTs, with only 10 considered “ready.”

Heritage calls the 276-ship Navy’s capacity “marginal” and pushes for increases of aircraft carriers from 11 to 12, large surface combatants from 88 to 104, attack submarines from 48 to 66 and amphibious ships from 34 to 38.

Its readiness was downgraded from “strong” for 2017 to “marginal,” and its ability to surge to meet combat requirements went from “weak” to “very weak,” as the service has sacrificed long-term readiness to meet heavy operational demands.

The Navy experienced three ship collisions and one grounding during 2017, where 17 sailors were killed. That led to a brief operational stand down and fueled calls on Capitol Hill to increase defense spending.

“People were really quick to talk about readiness, and it was too low in the defense budget or [budget caps], but we did not make that jump because the investigation isn’t complete yet,” Wood said. “But it does indicate [a deficiency] in basic attention and ship-handling skills.”

The Air Force remained “marginal,” but its capacity was downgraded from “strong,” as Heritage highlighted the service’s fall from 70 combat-coded active-duty fighter squadrons in Desert Storm to 32 currently. Also of concern: the remaining fleet’s old age and hiccups in the F-35 joint strike fighter and KC-46A air tanker aircraft.

“Of 36 squadrons, only four are assessed as full-spectrum mission-capable, so pilots have enough hours to fly the various profiles, fly high, fly low, fly in contested airspace,” Wood said. “If you aren’t flying as many hours, you have to pick and choose what you train to do.”

Heritage, in part, highlighted recent congressional testimony from Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson that the service is too small to meet mission requirements and that the Air Force is at its least ready in its history.