Heritage Foundation: Russia Threat to U.S. 'Formidable'

Conservative think tank lays out how to bolster U.S. military to fight and win two major wars

NATO military exercises in Georgia
NATO military exercises in Georgia / AP
November 16, 2016

Russia poses a "formidable" and "aggressive" threat to the vital interests of the United States as the American power declines, according to new analysis prepared by a conservative think tank.

Moscow, through its continued presence in Ukraine, military intervention in Syria, provocations of NATO allies, and maturing military capabilities presents the most significant threat to U.S. interests globally, according to the 2017 Index of U.S. Military Strength rolled out by the Heritage Foundation Wednesday morning.

Russia is one of six threats that have together soured the global environment over the past year as U.S. military strength has declined due to budget and force reductions, the analysis shows. The remaining five—namely China, North Korea, Iran, terrorism based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and terror groups in the Middle East—are all assessed as "high" threats to U.S. interests, while Moscow is the only "formidable" one.

"Russia seeks to maximize its strategic position in the world at the expense of the United States. It also seeks to undermine U.S. influence and moral standing, harasses U.S. and NATO forces, and is working to sabotage U.S. and Western policy in Syria," the report states. "Moscow's continued aggression and willingness to utilize every tool at its disposal in pursuit of its aim leads this Index to assess the overall threat from Russia as 'aggressive' and 'formidable.'"

The analysis comes amid a debate over how President-elect Donald Trump, a Republican, should approach relations with Russia and execute his intention to "rebuild" the U.S. military at a time of high tensions between Moscow and Washington.

James Jay Carafano, who is currently leading Trump's State Department transition, contributed to the report. Carafano, who served 25 years in the U.S. Army, is vice president of the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.

On Monday, Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the phone and expressed his desire for a "strong and enduring relationship" with Russia, according to a statement released by the president-elect's transition team. The Kremlin said the two discussed cooperating on resolving the years-long conflict in Syria.

Trump has also spoken to several other world leaders, including Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who on Tuesday asked the president-elect to help counter "Russian aggression" against Kiev, according to the Ukrainian government.

The newly-released Index highlights how Russian air strikes in Syria have "allowed [Bashar al-] Assad to stay in power and have made achievements of a peaceful political settlement with rebel groups nearly impossible" and "undermined American policy in the Middle East, including by frequently targeting forces backed by the U.S."

The Index also focuses on economic and defense challenges facing NATO member states that have compromised the alliance's power to enforce security in Europe as Russia has emerged as a formidable threat.

As NATO partners have agreed to bolster forces in Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression, Moscow has met the planned buildup with deployments of forces and military equipment westward and frequent "snap" military exercises.

The Index underscores Russia's nuclear capabilities and efforts to threaten neighbors with cyber attacks, propaganda, and other forms of unconventional hostile behavior as evidence of current threats posed to NATO partners. Russian military craft have also provoked the United States and its allies at sea and in air in the region, demonstrating an "existential" threat to NATO partners.

"Through NATO, the U.S. is obliged by treaty to come to the aid of the alliance's European members. Russia continues to seek to undermine the NATO alliance and presents an existential threat to U.S. allies in Eastern Europe," the experts write.

"NATO has been the cornerstone of European security and stability since its creation 67 years ago, and it is in America's interest to ensure that it maintains the military capability and the political will to fulfill its treaty obligations."

The future of NATO emerged as a major point of discussion on the 2016 campaign trail, with Trump arguing that alliance partners need to pay more in order to meet defense spending obligations. The Republican nominee was criticized after indicating in a July interview with the New York Times that he would only come to the defense of a NATO member state invaded by Russia if it was paying its fair share in the alliance.

Currently, only five of 28 NATO member states meet the alliance's guidelines for military spending.

Meanwhile, Trump has unveiled plans to rebuild the U.S. military through funding increases.

The Heritage Foundation's Index, which is nearly 400 pages, assesses global threats to U.S. interests and America's ability to provide for the common defense, spotlighting how the U.S. military has been degraded by budget and force reductions during the Obama administration.

The authors analyze whether the military can handle two major wars with competitors simultaneously or in a condensed time frame, a metric sometimes used by lawmakers and defense officials to assess the ideal size of the U.S. military.

The analysis says that current U.S. military force would not be able to engage and defeat two competitors—the "most worrisome" being Russia and China, given their investments in military modernization—at the same time.

The Index concludes that "the current U.S. military force is capable of meeting the demands of a single major regional conflict while also attending to various presence and engagement activities—something it is doing now and has done for the past two decades—but that it would be very hard-pressed to do more and certainly would be ill-equipped to handle two nearly simultaneous major regional contingencies."

Through a review of forces used for major wars since World War II and federal government defense studies, the experts conclude that an active-duty joint force capable of handling two wars at the same time would need to have an Army comprised of 50 brigade combat teams, a Navy of 346 surface combatants and 624 strike aircraft, an Air Force of 1,200 fighter and ground-attack aircraft, and a Marine Corps of 36 battalions.

These figures are similar to those unveiled by Trump during a foreign policy address in September.

The experts point to funding shortfalls and force reductions in recent years that have pressured forces to deploy for longer, delay equipment maintenance, and forgo technological advancements, issues that the service chiefs spotlighted in congressional testimony earlier this year. The four service leaders told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September that U.S. forces would not be able to defend the homeland if sequestration continues.

Trump, who enjoyed significant support from military voters and veterans, has called for an increase in military spending and an end to sequestration.

The Index assesses U.S. military power in terms of capability, capacity, and readiness, rating the individual military forces independent of comparison to other powers. The Army scored as "weak," while the Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps also scored as "marginal." The overall U.S. military posture in 2016 is considered "marginal" but trending toward "weak," identical to the previous year.

"America's leadership role remains in question, perhaps more so than at any other time since the end of the Cold War, and its security interests are under significant pressure. Challenges are growing, old allies are not what they once were, and the U.S. is increasingly bedeviled by debt that constrains its ability to sustain its forces commensurately with its interests," the Index states.

"Informed deliberations on the status of the United States' military power are therefore needed today more than at any other time since the end of the Cold War."