State of the US Military: A Defense Primer

October 7, 2015

“State of the US Military: A Defense Primer” brings together critical data on the size, capabilities, and readiness of the U.S. military. The primer includes more than a dozen charts that illustrate how the Armed Forces have grown smaller while their equipment is aging and its units have become less ready to execute their missions.  The primer is intended to serve as a reference for candidates, lawmakers, and their staff as they consider how best to restore the strength that America needs in order to exercise influence and exert leadership across the globe.

The primer is a joint publication of FPI and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). FPI wishes to express its gratitude to AEI Resident Fellow Mackenzie Eaglen of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies, whose leadership ensured the success of this project.


An analysis of the defense budget does not fully capture the state of the US military. But the numbers do tell us that the US Department of Defense is the world’s largest organization.

Its annual budget was $578 billion last year. It employs just under three million people. It owns or operates 557,000 facilities in the US and around the world with real estate valued at more than $800 billion. To organize, train, and equip the US military, this federal agency also has its own school systems, health care management system, and grocery chains. It runs its own versions of FedEx and Amazon. And it develops and purchases some of the most complex technology ever contemplated.

Examining the Defense Department as a whole can be daunting. Too often, the emphasis is on how much its efforts cost rather than what they buy the American people. To begin to determine the state of the US military, policymakers should examine four areas: (1) readiness, (2) capacity, (3) capability, and (4) the health of the all-volunteer force.

Readiness describes whether the armed forces are fully trained to carry out the missions they might need to perform. Since the US military relies heavily on superior training in combat, the current readiness shortfall worries commanders. On a broader level, the readiness of the US military also affects how seriously adversaries regard American hard power.

Capacity covers the size of the American military—how much the nation can ask service members to do without imposing the undue strain of longer and more frequent deployments. When the four service chiefs discuss the size of US fleets of ships and aircraft or even brigades of soldiers, they are referring to the capacity—or supply—available to meet all current and expected future demands.

Capability is about not size, but what the military can do. A modern soldier or ship has far more proficiency than its predecessors, for instance. Capabilities are often connected to technological advantage—a traditional advantage of American military power that is waning. After a procurement holiday in the 1990s and a hollow buildup during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, American military capabilities have declined independently and relatively to adversaries like China, Russia, and Iran.

The all-volunteer force is a group of highly qualified, educated, and trained professionals. The volunteer aspect of the fighting force attracts military personnel of the highest quality—a group of citizens who count combat as their profession. However, 15 years of constant operations, combined with ill-advised budget cuts, have created cracks in the force. Further, the military faces new challenges in finding and keeping the right talent in roles like cyber personnel and drone pilots.

- Download a complete copy of this joint report from FPI and the American Enterprise Institute

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Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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