2017 Assessment is here.
Our analysis concluded with these assessments:
Army as “Weak.” The Army’s score remained “weak” for reasons similar to those cited in the 2016 Index. The Army has continued to trade end strength and modernization for improved readiness for current operations. However, accepting risks in these areas has enabled the Army to keep only one-third of its force at acceptable levels of readiness, and even for units deployed abroad, the Army has had to increase its reliance on contracted support to meet maintenance requirements. Budget cuts have affected combat units disproportionately: A 16 percent reduction in total end strength has led to a 32 percent reduction in the number of brigade combat teams and similar reductions in the number of combat aviation brigades. In summary, the Army is smaller, older, and weaker, a condition that is unlikely to change in the near future.
Navy as “Marginal.” The Navy’s readiness score increased from 2016 Index’s “marginal” to “strong,” but only by sacrificing long-term readiness to meet current operational demands. While the Navy is maintaining a moderate global presence, it has little ability to surge to meet wartime demands. Deferred maintenance has kept ships at sea but is also beginning to affect the Navy’s ability to deploy. With scores of “weak” in capability (due largely to old platforms and troubled modernization programs) and “marginal” in capacity, the Navy is currently just able to meet operational requirements. Continuing budget shortfalls in its shipbuilding account will hinder the Navy’s ability to improve its situation, both materially and quantitatively, for the next several years.
Air Force as “Marginal.” While its overall score remains the same as last year’s, the USAF’s accumulating shortage of pilots (700) and maintenance personnel (4,000) has begun to affect its ability to generate combat power. The Air Force possesses 1,159 tactical fighter aircraft, which normally would support a score of “very strong” for capacity, but the lack of ability to fly and maintain them, especially in a high-tempo/threat combat environment, means that its usable inventory of such aircraft is actually much smaller. This reduced ability is a result of funding deficiencies that also result in a lack of spare parts, fewer flying hours, and compromised modernization programs.
Marine Corps as “Marginal.” The Corps continues to deal with readiness challenges driven by the combined effects of high operational tempo and low levels of funding. At times during 2016, less than one-third of its F/A-18s, a little more than a quarter of its heavy-lift helicopters, and only 43 percent of its overall aviation fleet were available for operational employment. Pilots not already in a deployed status were getting less than half of needed flight hours. The Corps’ modernization programs are generally in good shape, but it will take several years for the new equipment to be produced and fielded. As was the case in preceding years, the Index assesses that the Corps has only two-thirds of the combat units that it actually needs, especially when accounting for expanded requirements that include cyber units and more crisis-response forces.
Nuclear Capabilities as “Marginal.” Modernization, testing, and investment in intellectual and talent underpinnings continue to be the chief problems facing America’s nuclear enterprise. Delivery platforms are good, but the force depends on a very limited set of weapons (in number of designs) and models that are quite old, in stark contrast to the aggressive programs of competitor states. Of growing concern is the “marginal” score for “Allied Assurance” at a time when Russia has rattled its nuclear saber in a number of recent provocative exercises; China has been more aggressive in militarily pressing its claims to the South and East China Seas; North Korea is heavily investing in a submarine-launched ballistic missile capability; and Iran has achieved a nuclear deal with the West that effectively preserves its nuclear capabilities development program for the foreseeable future.
In aggregate, the United States’ military posture is rated as “Marginal” and is trending toward “Weak,” a condition unchanged from the 2016 Index.
Overall, the 2017 Index concludes that the current U.S. military force is capable of meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities—something it is doing now and has done for the past two decades—but that it would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies. The consistent decline in funding and the consequent shrinking of the force over the past few years have placed it under significant pressure. Essential maintenance continues to be deferred; the availability of fewer units for operational deployments increases the frequency and length of deployments; and old equipment is being extended while programmed replacements are either delayed or beset by developmental difficulties.
The military services have continued to prioritize readiness for current operations by shifting funding to deployed or soon-to-deploy units at the expense of keeping units that are not deployed in “ready” condition; delaying, reducing, extending, or canceling modernization programs; and sustaining the reduction in size and number of military units. These choices and their resulting condition, driven by the lack of funding dedicated to defense, hazard America’s ability to secure its interests now and erode America’s ability to shape conditions to its advantage by assuring allies and deterring competitors.
As currently postured, the U.S. military is only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.