By Kay Coles James
Published October 19, 2018
My children are grown now, with families of their own. I’m proud of them and what they’ve accomplished, but even so, I still worry about them. Mothers are like that.
I worry about thousands of other “grown children,” too – most of whom I don’t even know.
I’m talking about America’s sons and daughters who proudly serve in our armed forces. They’ve volunteered to put their lives at risk to defend our country and our way of life. But I worry that we may be asking them to bear an unreasonable amount of risk.
America may be the world’s only true Super Power, but the power of our military is not what it should be. This is laid out in great detail in the “2019 Index of U.S. Military Strength,” a 475-page assessment of the threats facing our country from abroad and the capability of our armed forces to handle those threats.
Compiled by defense experts at The Heritage Foundation, the Index analyzes how well our military stacks up in terms a key metric rooted in history: its ability to fight and win one major war, while simultaneously deterring other enemies and protecting America’s critical interests in many other areas of the world. The conclusion is truly worrisome.
The bottom line is that our current military is too small, insufficiently equipped and inadequately trained to do the job. And it’s not the fault of those in uniform. It comes down to years and years of overwork and underinvestment in those charged with keeping us out of harm’s way.
How bad is it? Consider the size of our military. In warfighting, the sheer number of warriors and weapons available is a crucial factor. Yet the Index concludes our military can muster on only two-thirds of the force needed to prevail in a two-war scenario.
When the Cold War ended, America rushed to cash its “peace dividend.” But things got hot again – think Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and the ongoing war on terrorism. And new threats emerged – think nuclear North Korea, an increasingly powerful and aggressive China and belligerent and aggressive Russia. Yet Washington’s investment in troops and equipment didn’t keep up with these developments.
The result was a severe downsizing of our military. At the end of the Cold War, the army boasted 780,000 active duty troops. Today, it has 480,000. Our Cold War Navy comprised nearly 600 ships; today we have 285. Meanwhile, our air force went from 134 fighter squadrons to only 32 in the active air force.
The funding pinch has also cut into basic maintenance. Equipment ranging from tanks to fighter jets are still in the field years beyond their original service life. The high tempo of operations has worn out many, and mechanics are often forced to cannibalize some equipment for parts needed to keep others in the field.
This has been going on for a generation, and it’s taken quite a toll. Denied the money needed to develop and acquire modernized weaponry, the services are straining to keep obsolete equipment operational. The cannibalizing process leaves fewer pieces available for battle or for training. This, in turn, seriously undercuts our warriors’ readiness for battle.
Consider our Air Force. Most of its aircraft are older than their pilots – and there aren’t enough pilots to fly them. The service is currently short 2,000 active-duty, guard, and reserve pilots. One of the biggest factors driving that shortfall is a lack of flying time. “Fliers gotta fly,” yet the service is unable to give its pilots the flight time they want and need. During the Cold War, Air Force pilots typically logged 200 or more training flight hours per year to qualify as “combat ready.” Last year, the average fighter pilot got fewer than 140 hours last year; those jockeying the most advanced fighter, the F-35A, managed an average of only 66 hours.
Where does that leave us? Only about half of the Air Force’s 32 active-duty fighter squadrons are deemed ready to engage in any level of combat; only four are rated as ready to execute all wartime missions.
And the Air Force is not the poorest rated of the services. The Index gives that dubious honor to the Marines.
The Corps’ aircraft and tanks – many of them hand-me-downs from other branches – are some of the oldest in the Pentagon’s arsenal. And the wear-and-tear is showing. Only half of the Marines’ amphibious ships are rated “available to support current or contingency operations. Only half of its tactical aircraft are even flyable.
In whatever branch they serve, America’s sons and daughters deserve better. It is immoral to put them in harm’s way without giving them the numbers, equipment and training necessary to win. We can and must do better by them.