Analysis & Opinions - Council on Foreign Relations Press Foreign Affairs

America’s Awesome Military

| September/October 2016

And How to Make It Even Better

The United States has the best military in the world today, by far. U.S. forces have few, if any, weaknesses, and in many areas—from naval warfare to precision-strike capabilities, to airpower, to intelligence and reconnaissance, to special operations—they play in a totally different league from the militaries of other countries. Nor is this situation likely to change anytime soon, as U.S. defense spending is almost three times as large as that of the United States’ closest competitor, China, and accounts for about one-third of all global military expenditures—with another third coming from U.S. allies and partners.

Nevertheless, 15 years of war and five years of budget cuts and Washington dysfunction have taken their toll. The military is certainly neither broken nor unready for combat, but its size and resource levels are less than is advisable given the range of contemporary threats and the missions for which it has to prepare. No radical changes or major buildups are needed. But the trend of budget cuts should stop and indeed be modestly reversed, and defense appropriations should be handled more rationally and professionally than has been the case in recent years.

Most major elements of U.S. defense policy are on reasonably solid ground, despite innumerable squabbles among experts over many of the details. Through­out the post–Cold War era, some variant of a two-war planning framework (with caveats) has enjoyed bipartisan support and should continue to do so for many years to come. Forward presence and engagement in East AsiaEurope, and the Middle East remain compelling pillars of U.S. national security strategy. Robust research-and-development programs continue to be supported, as does an unparalleled intelligence com­munity. The Defense Department’s procurement budget—the first victim of budgetary austerity in the 1990s and in the early years of this century—is once again relatively healthy. Pentagon leaders are spurring innovation, and the men and women of today’s armed forces display high standards of professionalism, expertise, and experience.

Yet there are also areas of concern. Excess base capacity remains a problem. The navy’s fleet and the army are too small, and current budget trajectories imply further cuts rather than increases. And the scale of some hugely expensive weapons programs in the pipeline or on the drawing boards, such as the F-35 fighter jet and some new nuclear weapons, needs to be reassessed. The challenge for the next president will thus be how to build on the strengths, address the problems, and chart a course for contin­uing to maintain U.S. military dominance in a strategic environment that never stops evolving.

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For Academic Citation: O'Hanlon, Michael and David Petraeus.“America’s Awesome Military.” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2016.