Three great misconceptions of America’s martial power delude both the public and our decision-makers into thinking, and too often acting, as if our nation’s military preeminence is permanent, a preordained birthright. Americans believe we are ― and always will be ― more capable than our adversaries and can rapidly build up to overcome any threat.
Without significant investments, we’re probably wrong.
In fact, America’s 2018 military is a smaller, more expensive force largely operating Desert Storm vintage equipment. The lack of a serious conventional foe in either Iraq or Afghanistan masks the real state of the U.S. military. For example, the Air Force went into the first Gulf War with 134 fighter squadrons in its arsenal; of that, 32 deployed and fought. The average age of those fighters was 10 years.
Today, the Air Force has only 55 fighter squadrons, average age of 27 years, with one we fund through contingency resources. Because of readiness gaps, the Air Force couldn’t deploy 32 fighter squadrons today without destroying airplanes and risking aircrew lives.
Desert Storm also informed the world about U.S. advances in technology and operational concepts ― new capabilities that enabled U.S. forces to dominate Iraq’s military, the fifth-largest in the world in 1990. Unfortunately, our success led us not only to accept America’s lead in technology and innovation, but to assume we’d always retain it — a feeling reinforced by the experiences in Bosnia-Herzegovina and early on in Afghanistan and then Iraq.
Simultaneously, however, our competitors recognized our capabilities and refused to cede the advantages we had created. They’ve invested heavily to counter our edge.
When seeking its cancellation, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously called the F-22 a Cold War relic, saying we were generations ahead of both the Chinese and Russians, so that such a massive investment was foolhardy in the face of ongoing counterinsurgencies. Instead, we now see both China and Russia gearing up production lines to deliver stealthy counters to the F-22, while we closed the F-22 production line after buying less than half of what Air Force leadership said we needed simply to sustain a “high” risk level.
For the first time since 1953, there’s now a chance that an airplane above American surface forces may be hostile.
Perhaps more dangerously, in some critical emerging technologies such as hypersonics, the United States finds itself behind. Both in terms of innovation and fielding existing technology, our sclerotic acquisition system has throttled our industrial base, increasing the rate at which our military superiority erodes.
Finally, most American’s believe our nation enjoys the same defense-industrial base that served as the “arsenal of democracy” in World War II, capable of scaling up production and innovation when truly needed, or the so-called military-industrial complex that powered the United States through the Cold War.
Today, instead of a robust bench of large and mid-sized companies and their myriad small-business suppliers competing and producing new capabilities at the speed of information-age innovation, our defense industry has shrunk to a few standout corporations. This has obscured fragile supply chains that are hampered by a risk-averse government acquisition system that takes 10 years to field a replacement handgun for the services.
Should a real national emergency occur, our industrial base does not have the capacity to surge, leaving our defense at significant risk.
These three misperceptions — the military’s capacity, its relative capabilities and industry’s ability to supply it quickly with weapons systems that can dominate our peers — have put the United States in a precarious position. Today’s increasingly chaotic and dangerous set of national security threats coupled with a return to great power competition challenge the U.S.-led international order that delivered relative peace and prosperity to this nation, and much of the world, for almost four generations.
We still have the most capable military in the world, but that position is increasingly in jeopardy. It’s time to see reality, recognize these challenges and their root causes, and make the hard reforms necessary to reinvest in American strength.