How to Rebuild a Shrinking, Aging American Military

New report urges next president to boost defense spending

U.S. military exercise
United States Marine Corps Bell Boeing V-22 Ospreys take positions to be refuelled by a Spain's Lockheed C-130 "Hercules", during a bilateral training exercise / AP

Today’s U.S. military is shrinking and using older equipment as troops face more deployments and emboldened adversaries abroad, according to a new report that lays out a plan to revitalize American defenses.

The new report from the American Enterprise Institute said that "America’s military power has been declining ever since the first wave of cuts in the aftermath of the Cold War." The Army has dwindled from a size of 535,000 troops in 1991 to 450,000 during the Obama administration, for example, and the U.S. Naval fleet now has 282 ships compared with 451 at the end of the Cold War.

This smaller military has repeatedly been deployed in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving a force that "has been battle tested, but it is also battle tired," the report said. U.S. forces still use fighter jets, submarines, tanks, and other equipment that were largely purchased by the Reagan administration in the 1980s despite a modest defense buildup after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The military procured 2,083 tanks, artillery, and other armored vehicles between 1975 and 1990, compared with just 334 in the 15 years after the end of the Cold War. The Pentagon’s acquisition of fighter and attack aircraft declined from 349 to 68 during the same period.

"Because the platforms carrying the military into war in Afghanistan and Iraq were largely bought in the late 1970s and 1980s, their sustained use in those conflicts meant that more had to be spent to keep them repaired and ready for combat," the report said. "As a result, from 2001 to 2009, the percentage increase in the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance account topped 50 percent, reducing the availability of funds that might have been spent on recapitalizing the military."

"Since 1945, the one constant of international politics has been the military power of the United States," the report said. "Our next commander-in-chief must rebuild America’s military power."

The report recommends a goal of spending at least 4 percent of U.S. GDP on defense in order to bolster the military and deter adversaries. That would require Congress to repeal the 2013 sequestration agreement, under which automatic budgets are on pace to reduce about $1 trillion from the defense budget in the coming years.

U.S. defense spending would shrink to 2.6 percent of GDP by 2019 under the spending caps currently in place.

The extra spending would help prepare the military to push back against a number of adversaries that have strengthened since the end of the Cold War, when America began to drawdown its defenses.

In just the last few years, China has raised tensions in the Asia-Pacific by constructing artificial islands with military facilities in the South China Sea, Russia has directly challenged NATO by invading two potential members in Eastern Europe, a new terrorist group in the Islamic State has seized territory in Iraq and Syria, and Iran has expanded its support for anti-American proxies in the Middle East.

With a larger and more capable military, the United States could address all of those aggressors with a "three-theater force construct," the report said. The think tank envisions at least two brigade combat teams in Poland to deter Russia along with regular exercises in the Baltics, as well as two aircraft carrier strike groups in East Asia and more joint bases with allies amid Chinese provocations.

In the Middle East, where the report says that conditions have become "remarkably less favorable" since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, the next administration might need to send 25,000 to 50,000 troops to roll back the Islamic State and Iranian influence, and stabilize U.S. allies.

"As in 1979, what is required now will be a renewed U.S. engagement and a recommitment of American forces—one that eschews the temptation to see battlefield successes as the ‘mission accomplished’—for a sustained effort to again create a balance that secures American interests," the report said.

Yet before the military can add more troops, provide them with more training and equipment, and deploy them around the globe, political compromises must be made in Washington. Defense policy has now become ensnared in the annual spending fight, with President Obama threatening to veto the national defense bill unless Republicans agree to spend more on domestic programs.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.), a prominent lawmaker on defense issues, said on Tuesday that a veto would delay the acquisition of several vital ship and plane programs for the military.

"The impact of vetoing that bill, which may very well happen within weeks, is we’ll lose three destroyers, two attack subs, three littoral combat ships, an amphibious ship, and we’ll delay the Air Force bomber program, and the Air Force tanker program," he said. "And you have to say, what kind of image is that putting around the globe?"