If you were asked to rate the readiness levels of the U.S. military, what would you say?
For this exercise, assume you have a scale with five choices: very weak, weak, marginal, strong and very strong. Think about each branch of the military. Where would it fall?
Perhaps you're thinking, "I'm not an expert, so I can't say for sure." So let me refer you to the latest report from The Heritage Foundation's Center for National Defense. The authors are, in fact, experts -- and their conclusions are sobering.
I'm referring to the 2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength. The editors take a hard, detailed look at all the facts, and using the scale mentioned above, rate the Navy and the Air Force as "marginal" and the Army and Marines as "weak."
How is this possible, you may ask? It's simple. For years now, we've been asking our military to do more with less. They've taken on more work and more missions, all while enduring budget cuts that eat into their ability modernize and equip themselves properly.
Do that long enough, and even the best military in the world will start to feel the effects. It's not a question of dedication or determination. Our soldiers are doing the best they can, and we should be proud of their professionalism. But if we don't meet them halfway with the money they need to do all the work they're being asked to do, should we be surprised when we find them running on fumes?
"The common theme across the services," the Index editors write, "is one of force degradation resulting from many years of underinvestment, poor execution of modernization programs, and the negative effects of budget sequestration (cuts in funding) on readiness and capacity."
So how does one best judge the right size, strength and capability of our armed forces? The Index editors used a formula long embraced by successive presidential administrations, Congresses, and Department of Defense staffs: the ability to handle two major wars at the same time.
This is why readiness issues rarely become apparent to the public -- until it's too late. It's like a household living paycheck to paycheck with no savings or line of credit. Everything seems okay until an emergency comes along.
And as the Index also demonstrates, such an emergency is hardly a remote possibility. The editors also assess the various threat levels to U.S. interests around the world (Asia, the Middle East, Europe) and find some troubling storm clouds on the horizon.
All of the six noted "threat actors" in the Index -- Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups in the Middle East and Afghanistan -- now rank “high” on the scale of threats to U.S. interests, with Russia coming close to being elevated to “severe” from its past score of “high.”
Russia and China are the "most worrisome," the editors note. Both are modernizing and expanding their offensive military capabilities in ways that indicate it won't be long before they could pose a more serious threat than they already do.
And I hardly need to remind everyone of North Korea's nuclear ambitions. The latest tests by Kim Jong-un’s bellicose regime clearly hint at North Korea’s ability to reach targets in the United States and among its allies.
In short, the world is becoming more dangerous, even as America's ability to counter that danger continues to degrade.
But it doesn't have to be this way. There's still time for Congress and the president to turn the ship before it hits an iceberg.
Yes, they have taken some positive steps recently to fund readiness more robustly. But they haven't overturned the Budget Control Act that caps defense spending. And they haven't yet shown a real commitment to funding the military at levels necessary to modernize aging equipment and make the military capable of meeting its many obligations.
President Reagan often spoke of "peace through strength." Our strength is clearly ebbing. Will peace soon follow?