“Superpower.” The word conjures the image of a colossus standing astride the world, supremely confident of itself and its capabilities that seem nearly limitless in their reach and power: unrivaled economically, unmatched militarily, politically a force always to be considered by other countries as they make decisions on trade, affiliation, and activities. A superpower is admired, feared, resented, envied, and respected in the way one respects the power of a storm. When a superpower speaks or moves, everyone else listens and watches.
A superpower’s heft is underwritten by its wealth and military power; its ability to defend itself and its interests creates a space for its economy to flourish that provides the wherewithal to maintain and modernize the military force. Increasingly for the United States, however, both are under pressure, which begs the question: Is America still a superpower?
A Qualified ‘Yes’
With respect to its military, the answer is a heavily qualified “yes.” The U.S. remains a military superpower, but several important caveats reveal that its status is neither secure nor assured even for the near future. To understand the context for “yes, but” a quick stroll down memory lane is in order.
The United States assumed superpower status in the wake of World War II. In stark contrast to Europe, Russia, and Japan, the U.S. emerged as an economic and military behemoth, its industrial, intellectual, and societal might not only undamaged by the war but enhanced and energized. Much of the manufacturing base that had been developed to sustain a global war was rapidly reconfigured to supply the material needed for the world to rebuild. However, the Soviet and Chinese Communist threats incentivized the United States to retain and improve its military posture, to include the dramatic evolution of nuclear weapons that both supplemented and served as a strategic backstop for enormous conventional military power. The wartime basing posture and alliance relationships provided the foundation for America to counter the expansion of Communism in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and even in northern Africa and parts of the Americas. The country’s commitment to its military pillar of national power established the U.S. as the leader of free nations and guarantor of a global order that valued free markets, the rule of law, the worth of the individual, religious freedom, and forms of government established by and (presumably) responsive to popular will. Critically, it also reflected a public attitude that such military investments were not only necessary but good and that serving one’s country in uniform was noble and something of which to be proud.
This sentiment prevailed in the U.S. throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, was shaken somewhat by the social upheaval of the late 1960s and public dismay over the war in Vietnam, but saw a resurgence as tensions with the Soviet Union mounted in the 1970s and 1980s. Battle lines – ideologically, physically, and economically – were in stark relief across Europe, in the Middle East, in North Africa, and in the fleet actions, air power contests, and strategic missile inventories routinely covered in the evening news. Military power was important, and the investment was worth it.
Ironically, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the stunning battlefield victory of Desert Storm, the crushing U.S. defeat of the Soviet-equipped and trained Iraqi military, set the stage for domestic and strategic complacency in military affairs. Anxious to reap a “peace dividend” from the collapse of the USSR, the U.S. dramatically slashed its military forces, nearly halving its active-duty component. 1991’s breathtaking 100-hour ground war in Iraq appeared to prove that the U.S. military was unstoppable. What need was there to sustain massive investment in it? The absence of a singular enemy of global capability also meant that the defense establishment had nothing against which to measure its capabilities. As the 1990s waned, “big thinkers” mused about what the military might want to do against an imagined opponent, harnessing promising technologies to sense anything and strike anywhere almost instantaneously. Billions of dollars were spent on what might be possible rather than on solving real-world problems referenced against an actual opponent.
Then came the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. After a decade wandering around a landscape of theoretical problems, the military had a new mission: defeating terrorism wherever it might lurk. The military built to defeat heavy Soviet forces unleashed itself on enemies that possessed no airpower, no conventional land power, and certainly no naval power. U.S. forces went where national security leadership wanted them to be. They attacked with little concern for counterattack, save the occasional nasty roadside bomb or small unit ambush. Operations were sustained with minimal interruption to supply lines and then only in the “last tactical mile.” Defense spending increases were driven by consumables (fuel, ammunition, repair parts, etc.) and the need to replace blown up trucks rather than modernizing the forces to ensure their relevance for a future fight.
For nearly two decades, the U.S. military consumed capabilities purchased during the Reagan era, drawing on ammunition, parts, and replacement equipment stockpiled for an enemy that no longer existed and for a type of war wholly different from the one it was waging. Defense accounts were funded to sustain current operations that aged the force and mortgaged its future, a situation made even worse by the decade-long budget cuts imposed through the ill-conceived Budget Control Act of 2011 and the annual continuing resolutions that sap spending power; the military receives funding eventually, but only months after the fiscal year starts.
Aging and Downsizing
At the end of it, with the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and from Afghanistan in 2021, the American public might reasonably ask what it got for all the tax dollars spent over two decades. Is its military – presumably ready to defend critical national security interests, deter adversaries from bad behavior, and reassure allies and partners that the United States is a good, reliable, and capable friend to have – up to the task that only it can perform? Is it still the military of a superpower?
By the numbers, the picture is not encouraging. At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Army had 770,000 soldiers; it now has fewer than 470,000 and is projected to fall as low as 445,000 by the end of next year. During the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force maintained 29 squadrons of fighters in Europe and 14 in the Pacific in addition to many more at home; today, it has just 32 squadrons in the whole of its active component, a mere five of which are based in Europe. The Navy had 592 ships in its fleet in 1989; today, it has 299. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. Marine Corps could draw on 27 infantry battalions; it has only 22 battalions today and will shrink to 21 next year.
Along with the reduction in size, the military is now much older across its suite of combat platforms. Nearly all were designed and procured in the 1980s and fielded in the 1990s. The average age of an Air Force fighter is 32 years. Over half of the Navy’s ships are more than 20 years old. The Army’s M1A1 Abrams main battle tank averages 30 years old. The Corps’ amphibious assault vehicle was fielded in the 1970s, though the service is well on its way to replacing it with a wheeled armored vehicle. Even the land-based leg of our strategic nuclear triad is geriatric. The Minuteman III ICBM was introduced in 1970. It was meant to serve for just 10 years, yet the missiles remain in their silos and are not scheduled to be retired until 2029, a half-century longer than planned. Moreover, the U.S. has not conducted a yield-producing test of its nuclear weapons since 1992 – 30 years ago. But we assure ourselves that everything will work as intended.
Across the defense industrial base, key items are no longer made or production lines limp along with just enough work to keep them from shutting down. The F-22 Raptor line has been closed for 20 years; the F-16 line remains open but effectively only for foreign sales; manufacture of the F-15 Strike Eagle continues only because the Air Force decided to purchase a small batch of F-15EX aircraft; and the F-18 Super Hornet line is projected to close by 2025. The Department of Defense hasn’t bought a Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile in 17 years; the manufacturer has said it can provide replacement weapons in three years once an order has been placed. The U.S. has only one manufacturer of main battle tanks (with just one facility) and just one final assembly plant for the F-35 Lightning II.
A military that generates no orders for major equipment or munitions means a commensurate reduction and stagnation of the industrial base that provides the platforms and materials needed for war. Resurrecting the capability takes years, not just in the physical expansion of manufacturing capabilities but, perhaps more critically, in the hiring and training of the highly skilled workers needed to produce the advanced equipment used in modern warfare.
Facing New Threats
The shrinkage and aging of America’s military and the consolidation of its defense industrial base to single points of vulnerability would not be problems if the world remained as relatively threat-free as it was in the 1990s. Alas, it has not. Russia has expanded its inventory of nuclear weapons, and though its naval surface fleet is a shadow of its former self, its submarines remain very capable. Russian President Vladimir Putin felt his army was powerful enough to invade Ukraine. Yes, the Russian army has been battered over the past six months, but it will be rebuilt with the windfall of revenue coming from energy sales and the economic support of countries like China, Iran, and India.
China has certainly shifted its focus from internal security to outward-looking power projection. This is to be expected for a nation intent on dominating global markets and leveraging the political influence that it believes should come with its outsized economic status and billion-person market. It has invested in a military commensurate with such ambition. It is tripling its inventory of long-range nuclear missiles, is fielding fifth-generation fighter aircraft, has expanded its navy to 360 ships, and is adding the equivalent of the British Royal Navy to its ship count each year.
Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea has become a nuclear power and possesses missiles capable of reaching the United States, and Iran is on the verge of possessing its own inventory of such weapons. It has the means to deliver a nuclear warhead at a range that covers half of Europe; it just needs the warhead and is working feverishly to get it.
The world is a more devilishly difficult, volatile, and challenging place than existed during the Cold War when the U.S. could focus its efforts on one capital instead of four or more. The globe has not shrunk in step with the U.S. military, and more players with better capabilities that are optimized for regional employment have replaced the unitary Soviet threat.
Compared to nearly every other country, the U.S. remains a military superpower. But America is not primarily concerned with threats emanating from Brazil or South Africa or Cambodia. It must be concerned with how it compares to others in its league or those that can seriously threaten its most important interests. Being seen as a military superpower has everything to do with whether the country’s military is relevant to its interests and that its capacity, modernity, and readiness for combat are such that others perceive it to be the military of a superpower.
Importantly, both our military’s viability and external perceptions of national will – which feed perceptions of deterrence and reassurance – are affected by society’s support for and interest in national defense and military affairs. Sadly, trends in the U.S. are not encouraging here either. More than three-quarters of America’s 17 to 24-year-old youth, who normally constitute the pool of potential recruits, are ineligible because of health problems, obesity, substance abuse, or criminal records. Overall, only 9 percent of American youth express interest in serving. Whatever the overlap between the 9 percent having any interest and the percentage of youth who are eligible, it is likely to be small. In short, few Americans have both the interest and the ability to serve.
Superpower status is much more than a simple counting of tanks, ships, aircraft, people, and dollars. Raw power is one thing; having the will, purpose, and ability to use it effectively is something quite different and arguably more important. Military power is a relative thing. Unused, undeployed, kept at home even if in good material shape, and untested, the U.S. military can be seen as a force-in-being. It has the potential for action and can be assumed to be able to meet national security requirements, but until tested, the perception is one of belief rather than proof. Once the force is deployed to a specific region to meet a specific enemy in combat, the reality of its reach, sustainability, competence, effectiveness, and relevance becomes clear and concrete.
In direct comparison with any other country, save perhaps China, America’s military is a colossus. Only the U.S. military can conduct operations thousands of miles from home. It fields the best technologies and has decades of experience executing highly complex operations, something no other military in the world can boast. So, yes, militarily speaking, the United States is a superpower. But when regional and situational contexts are included – the U.S. military deploying to a distant theater to engage a major enemy power in large-scale conventional war – America’s superpower status becomes questionable.
War places extraordinary demands on initial capacity, the ability to replace losses, tactical competence, technological relevance, and ready access to a pool of people willing to serve the country in a time of war. At present, all these factors are troubled: The U.S. military is too small, too old, and lacks necessary levels of readiness. America’s defense industrial base is constrained and, in many areas, moribund. And, speaking quite broadly, the American public appears to lack interest in military affairs or sees the need to ensure that defense investments are commensurate with the country’s interests and account for a world much different from the one that existed in the immediate wake of the Cold War.
Is America still a military superpower? Yes, but… The question that hangs in the air should concern all Americans.
Dakota L. Wood is the senior research fellow for Defense Programs at the Heritage Foundation. He served America for two decades in the U.S. Marine Corps.