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Despite record budgets in recent years, the U.S. military is underfunded and needs more troops, planes, ships, and high-tech assets if it wants to be ready to wage long-term war with foes like Russia and China, according to a Heritage Foundation report released Tuesday.

“As currently postured, the U.S. military is only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests,” Heritage said in its annual “Index of U.S. Military Strength.”

The foundation based its assessment “on the ability of America’s armed forces to engage and defeat two major competitors at roughly the same time,” and judged that the U.S. military currently could handle only one major enemy.

Dakota Wood, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and senior fellow at Heritage, said in an online forum introducing the index that the U.S. military was about “two-thirds the size it should be” to address the two major wars scenario.

The corrective, he said is increased funding — despite current record defense spending in the range of $740 billion.

“It’s all about the money,” Wood said. “We have really under-invested over a number of years.”

China photo

The Heritage Index assessed U.S. military strength across the service branches on a five-tiered scale of “very weak,” “weak,” “marginal,” “strong” and “very strong.”

The ratings for the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps were “marginal;” but the rating for the Navy was trending to “weak,” based on the number of ships, their age and the time it takes to produce more, according to the Index.

Wood noted it takes at least five years to build an aircraft carrier, and two years to build other surface combatants.

The Navy currently has roughly 300 ships, and “over half of those ships are more than 20 years old,” Wood said. Of the 300, “only about 100 are available on a daily basis,” he said.

“Of those 100, perhaps 60 are deployed into the Western Pacific — so 60 U.S. ships going up against a Chinese navy of 350 ships quickly growing to 400 in the next few years,” Wood said.

In its annual report to Congress on China’s military strength issued in September, the Defense Department said that China now “has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines, including over 130 major surface combatants.”

The Heritage report called for a Navy of 400 manned “battle force ships,” a figure essentially in line with the recommendation of former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, accounting for metrics.

On Oct. 6, Esper issued a “Battle Force 2045” plan for the Navy calling for a force of about 500 ships in a to-be-determined mix of manned and unmanned combatants.

The report also noted the factors that will fuel arguments against boosting military budgets.

“Absent a dramatic change in circumstances such as the onset of a major conflict, a multitude of competing interests” will tend to “favor spending on domestic programs rather than investing in defense,” the report found.

“Consequently, garnering sufficient support to increase defense spending to the level needed for a force with a two-war capacity is problematic,” it added.

The Defense Department has argued for increases in spending of 3-5% in the coming years to fund a shift from counterinsurgency wars to potential great-power conflict.

However, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have warned of pressures to cut defense spending in light of the enormous expense of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

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