Throughout the year, news organizations have feasted on stories of terror attacks, saber-rattling provocations and outright wars.
Is the world really as dangerous as all that? And is the military’s ability to protect us against these dangers really on the decline?
Unfortunately, the answers to both questions are: “yes.”
The adequacy of U.S. military power must be assessed in terms of what our troops must be prepared to deal with: the “bad actors” that threaten our vital interests. And, across the board, our greatest rivals and enemies grew increasingly powerful and belligerent during 2016. In quick review:
Russia systematically intimidated our NATO allies. It conducted massive “snap exercises” (that included nuclear attack elements) near the Baltic States and violated the territorial waters and airspace of the Nordic countries, the UK, Canada, and even the U.S. It continued to foster civil war in Ukraine and used its fire power to support the Assad regime—and hit civilian targets—in Syria. And it continued its extraordinary commitment (at least 5 percent of GDP) to military modernization.
China has now fully militarized the islands it has built in the South China Sea. Some now boast 10,000-foot runways and air defense systems. Two decades of annual, double-digit increases in defense spending has produced the J-20 5th generation stealth fighter and a stronger deep-water navy that includes a nascent aircraft carrier capability. All the while, it has aggressively asserted ever-expanding territorial claims in the South and East China Seas and the Sea of Japan.
Iran expanded its destabilizing activities across the Middle East, supporting Houthi rebels (Yemen), and Shia militia units (Iraq) as well Hezbollah and Hamas. And it’s negotiating a $10 billion arms purchase from Russia to better protect its nuclear development program.
North Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests in 2016, advanced its intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities and tested submarine launched ballistic missile systems. With over one-million soldiers and a willingness to sell its technology to other regimes, it poses a clear threat to U.S.-ally South Korea and stability across East Asia.
Terror groups, from ISIS to Boko Haram and a resurgent Al Qaeda, wreaked havoc across the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe during 2016. The instability created by these murderous attacks spilled over into other countries, releasing a flood of refugees into Europe.
What does all this matter to the U.S.? America suffers whenever the bad guys disrupt markets, suppress freedom and threaten our friends and partners.
The surest protection against such dangers is a military force large enough, strong enough, and modern enough to deter the bad guys from acting up and, if they choose to make trouble anyway, to stop them before they cause substantial harm.
Unfortunately, Washington over the last five years has cut investment in our armed forces by 25 percent. As a result, our military is only two-thirds the size it should be to counter these growing threats. And only a third of those diminished forces are combat-ready.
Acquisition programs needed to replace worn out and rapidly aging equipment are being postponed or cancelled.
Pilots fly half the hours they should and in airplanes approaching 30 years old. Soldiers operate aging tanks—and there’s no program to replace them for another 15 or 20 years.
A Navy fleet that should number 350 ships has dwindled to 273; its budget for building new ships is barely three-quarters what the Navy says it needs to get to just 300 ships over the next 20 years.
Funding our troops at a reasonable level—one commensurate with the missions they may be required to undertake—isn’t about militarizing U.S. foreign policy, seeking to be interventionist, or subsidizing the defense-industrial complex.
It’s about deterring the forces of disorder, ensuring our homeland is protected, incentivizing other countries to be on our team rather than our competitors’, and maintaining a secure domestic environment in which freedom, opportunity and prosperity can flourish.
A strong, confident, and engaged America is good for the world. That has been the case since the close of World War II when America took up the mantle of leadership in opposition to the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union.
Today, the free world needs a force for good that is able to stand against the darker future presented by terrorism and the repressive regimes in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang.
A 20-year veteran of the Marine Corps, Dakota L. Wood is The Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for defense programs and editor of the think tank’s 2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength.