By Charles V. Peña
According to my long-time friend, Dan Gouré, “the U.S. military is a pale shadow of its former self.” Furthermore, it is now too small to succeed because the “demand for U.S. military forces continues to grow even as their overall capacity declines.” But if the U.S. military is too small to succeed, the core question is: Succeed at what?
Missions drive requirements and capabilities. If America’s responsibility is to be the world’s policeman and provide security in every region around the globe, then Gouré is correct. But polling shows that Americans are increasingly tired of U.S. overseas military interventions and want our allies to carry their own weight in defending themselves.
To begin, the paramount responsibility of the U.S. military is to defend against existential threats to the homeland and American way of life. In that regard, there is only one truly existential threat: Russia’s nuclear weapons inherited from the former Soviet Union. That is offset by the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal, which acts as a powerful deterrent, just as it did vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold war – when both sides had significantly more warheads pointing at each other threatening Armageddon. Unlike during the Cold War when the U.S. and Soviet Union were engaged in an arms race, both countries weapons are capped at 1,550 warheads and at relative parity as a result of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty agreed to by Washington and Moscow in 2010.
Moreover, the U.S. strategic arsenal is also a deterrent against China’s nuclear weapons, North Korea, or any other unfriendly country— such as Iran—that might eventually become a nuclear power.
In terms of having to defend against a conventional military invasion, the U.S. is in a fortunate and relatively unique geostrategic position with two vast oceans on its flanks and friendly neighbors to its immediate north and south. And while both Russia and China have expeditionary military capability, neither has sufficiently large power projection capability to be a credible military threat to invade America.
So if America as a country is relatively safe, how big a military does a superpower need?
According to a world’s 20 strongest militaries index developed by Credit Suisse that used six weighted variables – number of active personnel (5 percent of total score), tanks (10 percent), attack helicopters (15 percent), aircraft (20 percent), aircraft carriers (25 percent), and submarines (25 percent) – the U.S. is already ranked as the strongest military in the world. Russia and China were ranked second and third, and it’s worth noting that countries such as North Korea and Iran didn’t even make the list.
It’s hard to fathom how a country that spends more than the next eight countries in the world combined—including both Russia and China—can have a military that’s considered too small.
I would argue that what we have is a military that’s worn down from more than a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq—and to a lesser extent, Syria. What we have is a military that is spread thin, providing primary defense for wealthy allies in Europe and Asia who can more than afford to take greater responsibility for their own defense.
If, as Gouré asserts, “NATO allies lack enough forces in Europe to oppose a determined Russian offensive,” it’s largely because our European allies want to engage in “crises and conflicts beyond NATO borders” rather than focus on collective defense against direct military threats to Europe, which is the raison d’être for the alliance.
Similarly, Japan and South Korea are the 4th and 11th largest economies in the world, respectively. Along with Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and India – all of whom have a stake in what happens in the region – these countries have enough economic horsepower to shoulder the primary burden of balancing China in their own neighborhood, as well as countering North Korea.
If our allies took more responsibility for their own defense and policing their neighborhoods rather than over-reliance on U.S. military forces to defend them, the U.S. military would be more than big enough to fight a major war against an adversary that was a direct threat.
Indeed the U.S. military is anything but small. According to a July 2016 Congressional Budget Office report, the U.S. active duty military force structure includes:
- 30 Army brigade combat teams (about the equivalent of 10 divisions); more than 450,000 active duty military personnel
- 101 Air Force tactical aircraft squadrons (nearly 200 attack aircraft and more than 1,000 fighter aircraft) and 9 bomber squadrons (more than 100 bombers) plus airlift, air refueling, and unmanned air system squadrons; more than 300,000 active duty military personnel
- 11 Navy aircraft carriers, 10 carrier air wings, more than 100 surface combatants, and 51 attack submarines; more than 500,000 active duty military personnel, which includes 24 Marine Corps infantry battalions
The problem isn’t that the U.S. military is too small. The problem is that we keep asking the military to do too much. Or worse, what it shouldn’t do: regime change, democratic nation-building, and humanitarian intervention.
Dr. Gouré concludes that a “force that is too small to fail is one that the U.S. increasingly could be reluctant to send in harm’s way save when national survival is at risk.” Yet that is exactly only when the U.S. military should be sent in harm’s way.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute.
This piece was originally published by Business Insider on December 7, 2016. Read more HERE.