The Heritage Foundation released its 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength on Oct. 20, which found that the United States military was declining in its ability to perform its missions, largely due to aging resources and a lack of investment. It also found that China presented a major challenge to the continued military effectiveness of the United States.
“China is the most comprehensive threat the U.S. faces,” the report reads.
“As currently postured, the U.S. military continues to be only marginally able to meet the demands of defending America’s vital national interests.”
The document is the eighth edition of the annual index, which is designed to provide policymakers with an authoritative measure of the ability of the U.S. military to perform its missions, as well as to assess changes in the condition of the military year by year.
The Dragon Ascending
The index ranked China as a “formidable” threat, the highest of five possible values, and found that U.S. armed forces required more hard assets to successfully carry out their missions in the event of a war.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, discussed the condition of the U.S. military and the rapid ascent of China’s military at a launch event for the Index hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.
“We’ve been through two decades of war, and we’ve worn everything we’ve got out, including manpower,” Rogers said. “China is in the middle of an unprecedented military modernization. I fear they’ll leapfrog us in many advanced technologies like AI and quantum computing.
“We know they’ve done so with hypersonics.”
Rogers noted the importance of China’s reported test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle in August, apparently carried out unbeknownst to the U.S. intelligence community, and he said China’s rush to reach nuclear parity with the United States could undercut security efforts globally.
“We know the CCP is constantly studying our actions and looking for weaknesses,” Rogers said. “As the world’s sole superpower, we have to get in the race or we will lose the race.”
Rogers further expressed a commitment to pursue funding for space-based platforms, unmanned assets, and a more distributed defense architecture, all of which would be necessary to confront the Chinese regime in a future conflict.
He said China was set to ascend from its position as a “near-peer” in space technologies to a full peer, capable of directly confronting the United States.
A Growing Threat at Sea
China’s ambitions for space and its nuclear arsenal weren’t the only subjects raising concerns, however. The growing importance of U.S. naval capabilities was discussed at some length.
Dakota Wood, a senior fellow for defense programs at the Heritage Foundation and 20-year U.S. Marine veteran, underscored that China’s naval forces now number about 360 vessels, significantly more than the U.S. Navy’s 297.
Wood, who edited the 2022 Index, also said that the growing threat of the Chinese navy was often obscured by a tendency to overemphasize U.S. big-ticket resources, such as its 20 aircraft carriers.
That tendency, according to Wood, was a mistake.
“Oftentimes you’ll hear comparisons that the U.S. Navy has as many carriers as the next [so-many] countries combined, but only a percentage of that naval capability is available on any one day, and you have to take that and project that abroad,” Wood said.
He noted that, though the United States has nearly 300 warships, only about a third of that force might be immediately available on any given day and that third is further spread across the entire globe.
In all, only about 60 U.S. warships are deployed in the Indo-Pacific region.
The majority of the Chinese fleet, meanwhile, is stationed within 300 miles of the country, and that number rises to more than 600 vessels if the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia forces are counted.
This means that, should a war break out in the Indo-Pacific, the United States would be starting at a sizeable disadvantage.
“If our navy goes against Russia or China, it’s only a small percentage of ours against the totality of theirs,” Wood said.
“You’re at a six-to-one disadvantage before a conflict would even start. Is that reassuring allies? Is that deterring bad behavior from competitors who are looking at the aggression of Russia and China? Perhaps not so much.”
Compounding this issue are two further variables: the age of the U.S. fleet and the geography of the Pacific region.
The index found that more than half of the ships in the U.S. Navy were over 20 years old and that current funding and building initiatives mean there likely won’t be significant growth in the fleet for another 15 to 20 years.
In terms of geography, the United States also has to contend with difficulties posed by the “tyranny of distance” in the Indo-Pacific region, the index noted.
This predicament refers to the placement of Chinese and U.S. military resources in the region, which means that, in the event of war, China would be able to quickly amass a far larger force and provide that force with ground-based elements such as artillery or missile support. The U.S. Navy would lack this capability unless it were near an allied nation.