At no other time in history have we faced greater security threats than we face today. Yet for two decades, we have decreased funding and scaled back our armed forces at an alarming rate. This is a dangerous trend, leaving our military depleted and defense modernization lacking. The current budget sequester is jeopardizing American safety as we face more international turmoil and greater threats of attack than at any other time in our nation's history.
Today's Navy is smaller than at any time since before World War I. It struggles to maintain a fleet of 272 deployable battle force ships and is expected under the current sequester baseline to shrink to between 240-260 ships. In contrast, the Chinese PLA Navy is expected to increase by 2020 to between 325-350 ships, nearly all of them modern and multi-mission capable. At today's deployment rates, U.S. Navy ships are not receiving the maintenance required for long-term readiness.
In 2019, our active duty Army will shrink to a planned 420,000 soldiers, the size of the service in mid-1941. Training for nearly two-thirds of the force is being curtailed to squad and platoon-level training. A substantial number of Army modernization programs have been cancelled or restructured due to funding reductions.
By the end of 2019, the Air Force expects to lose almost half of its fighter, bomber and surveillance platforms. Its inventory of KC-135 tankers, the fleet that makes possible the regional and global reach of our Air Force and Navy aircraft, now averages over 50 years in service, and is budgeted to fly into the 2030s. The B-52 bomber fleet, now also over 50 years of age, is budgeted to fly at least into the late 2020s.
Only 184,000 Marines make up today's active-duty Corps. Of that number, approximately 30,000 are deployed. In order for those units to be fully manned, trained and equipped, over half of the Corps' non-deployed units are reporting significant readiness shortfalls. In order to protect short-term readiness, only 9 percent of the Corps' budget can be allocated for modernization. The Corps' budget, in other words, places the service in an unsustainable situation.
Under current sequester-funding levels, our Army will no longer be capable of executing national military strategy and our Navy will no longer be a global fleet. By the end of the decade, the Air Force will field the smallest and oldest inventory in its history, without the ability to generate needed levels of combat power or to operate in contested air space or within an enemy's integrated air defense capability.
Providing for the common defense is the first constitutional priority of the federal government, and it is therefore the first claimant on federal funds. But that priority has been ignored under the Obama administration. The next administration must restore defense spending levels necessary for the U.S. Military to do what it is already committed to do, and restore readiness as soon as possible.
Most of the threats facing the U.S. and its armed forces today did not exist 20 years ago, certainly not in the form in which they are manifested today. In the 1990s, there was no global terrorist threat, no Islamic State, no nuclear North Korea, no resurgent and aggressive China and no unfriendly Russia threatening Eastern Europe.
Bill Clinton, certainly no defense hawk, was president, yet the force that the Clinton administration believed necessary then, in relatively peaceful times, was substantially larger than the force of today. It had much more modern equipment and much greater technological superiority over potential aggressors than the force of today.
The next president must do what Ronald Reagan did: restore American strength and, in the process, determine the size, shape and posture of America's armed forces for the next generation.
The restoration of America's armed forces should be viewed not as a burden but as an opportunity to resurrect America's global credibility. In a fundamental way, defense policy is foreign policy, not only because the armed forces are an important tool of power, but also because whether and how America sustains its military communicates to the world the state of American leadership and commitment.
Because our purposes as a nation are forever bound to our power, if we don't rebuild America's armed forces, our foreign policy will fail. Contrarily, no action the next administration could take would do more to restore America's global standing and recover its fortunes than a successful effort to rebuild and refashion America's armed forces.
Jim Talent is a former United States senator from Missouri. He is a senior fellow at AEI and director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI. He also consults at the public relations firm, Banner Public Affairs. This piece is excerpted from the John Hay Initiative's new book Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.