Index of US Military Strength: Threats to US Vital Interests

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Where are US vital interests being threatened around the world?

The United States is a global power with global interests. Scaling its military power to threats requires judgments with regard to the importance and priority of those interests, whether the use of force is the most appropriate and effective means of addressing the threats to them, and how much and what types of force are needed to defeat such threats. This Index focuses on three fundamental, vital national interests:
  • Defense of the homeland;
  • Successful conclusion of a major war having the potential to destabilize a region of critical interest to the U.S.; and
  • Preservation of freedom of movement within the global commons: the sea, air, and outer space domains through which the world conducts business.
The geographical focus of the threats in these areas is further divided into three broad regions: Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. This is not to say that these are America’s only interests. Among many others, the U.S. has an interest in the growth of economic freedom in trade and investment, the observance of internationally recognized human rights, and the alleviation of human suffering beyond our borders. None of these interests, however, can be addressed principally and effectively by the use of military force, nor would threats to these interests result in material damage to the foregoing vital national interests. These additional American interests, however important they may be, therefore will not be used in this assessment of the adequacy of current U.S. military power. We reference two public sources throughout the document as a mechanism to check our work against that of other recognized professional organizations in the field of threat analysis: the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual The Military Balance1and the annualWorldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community (WWTA).2 The latter serves as a reference point produced by the U.S. government against which each threat assessment in this Index was compared. We note any differences between assessments in this Index and the work of the two primary references in summary comments. The juxtaposition of our detailed, reviewed analysis against both The Military Balance and the WWTA revealed two stark limitations in these external sources. First, The Military Balance is an excellent, widely consulted source, but it is only a count of military hardware without context in terms of equipment capability, maintenance and readiness, training, manpower, integration of services, and doctrine. Second, the WWTA omits many threats and is bare in its analysis of those it does address. Moreover, it does not reference underlying strategic dynamics that are key to the evaluation of threats and that may be more predictive of future threats than a simple extrapolation of current events. We suspect this is a consequence of the U.S. intelligence community’s withholding its very sensitive assessments derived from classified sources from public view. While such a policy is quite understandable given the need to avoid compromising sources and methods of collection, it does mean that the WWTA’s views on threats are of limited value to policymakers, the public, and analysts working outside of the government. Surprisingly, The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength may actually serve as a useful correction to the systemic deficiencies we found in these open sources. Measuring or categorizing a threat is problematic since there is no absolute reference that assists in assigning a quantitative score. There are two fundamental aspects of threats that are germane to this Index: the desire or intent of the threatening entity to achieve their objective and their physical ability to do so. Physical ability is the easier of the two to assess while intent is quite hard. A useful surrogate for intent is observed behavior since this is where we see intent become manifest through action. Thus, a provocative, belligerent pattern of behavior that seriously threatens U.S. vital interests would be very worrisome. Similarly, a comprehensive ability to accomplish objectives even in the face of U.S. military power would cause serious concern for U.S. policymakers while weak or very limited abilities would lessen U.S. concerns even if an entity behaved provocatively vis-à-vis U.S. interests. Each categorization used is meant to convey a word picture of how troubling a threat’s behavior and set of capabilities has been during the assessed year. The five ascending categories for observed behavior are:
  • benign,
  • assertive,
  • testing,
  • aggressive, and
  • hostile
The five ascending categories for physical capability are:
  • marginal,
  • aspirational,
  • capable,
  • gathering, and
  • formidable
These characterizations—behavior and capability—form two halves of an overall assessment of threats to U.S. vital interests. As noted, the following assessments are arranged by region (Europe, Middle East, and Asia) to correspond with the flow of the chapter on operating environments and then by U.S. vital interest (threat posed by an actor to the U.S. homeland, potential for regional war, and freedom of global commons) within each region. Each actor is then discussed in terms of how and to what extent its behavior and physical capabilities have posed a challenge to U.S. interests in the assessed year.

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Conclusion: Global Threat Level

China’s provocations, North Korea’s missile programs and Af-Pak instability combined to elevate the threat score in Asia over last year.

erica and its interests face challenges around the world from countries and organizations ‌that have (1) interests that conflict with those of the U.S., (2) sometimes hostile intentions toward the U.S., and in some cases, (3) growing military capabilities. The government of the United States faces the constant challenge of employing the right mix of U.S. diplomatic, economic, public information, intelligence, and military capabilities, sometimes alone but more often with allies, to protect and advance U.S. interests. In Europe, Russia remains the primary threat to American interests. The 2016 Index, like the previous year’s Index, assessed the threat emanating from Russia as: a behavior score of “aggressive” and a capability score of “gathering.” Russia has continued to support separatist movements in Ukraine, has engaged in massive pro-Russia propaganda campaigns internal to Ukraine and in other Eastern European countries, and over the past year has performed a series of provocative military exercises and training missions that are viewed as warning signals to neighboring countries. In the Middle East, Iran has long been the state actor most hostile to American interests. The 2016 Index assessed Iran’s behavior as “aggressive” and capability as “aspirational,” the same scores as the 2015 Index. Of note since publication of the 2015 Index, Iran has moved closer to becoming a nuclear power as a consequence of its negotiations with the U.S., has continued to back Houthi rebels in Yemen in what some consider a proxy war between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors, has continued to exert influence in the region through its backing of the Assad regime and Hezbollah, and has deepened its involvement in the instability of Iraq by providing direct support to Shia militias. Also in the Middle East, a broad array of terrorist groups, most notably ISIS and the Iran-sponsored Hezbollah, are the most hostile of any of the global threats to America examined in the Index. They also, however, are evaluated as among the least capable. In 2015, the threat posed by ISIS has increased dramatically through a combination of highly publicized acts of brutality, territorial gains in Iraq and Syria, and aggressive campaigns both for recruiting and for inciting “lone wolf” attacks around the globe. In Asia, China represents a degree of provocation that the 2016 Index classifies as “aggressive,” the same as the 2015 assessment. Since the 2015 assessment, China has developed islands on reefs in international waters that it claims as sovereign territory, positioning military equipment on some of them. By contrast to the principal state-based threat in the Middle East, however, China represents a “gathering” threat with a fuller range of capabilities that could be used in ways that are contrary to American interests, evidenced most notably by its continued military buildup. North Korea’s level of behavior in this edition was raised to “hostile” from the previous edition’s “aggressive,” driven by the Pyongyang regime’s cyber attack on Sony and continued provocative actions on the Korean peninsula. The 2016 Index also assessed North Korea’s capability level as increasing due to developments in its missile technology. The terrorist threats emanating from the Afghanistan–Pakistan region continue to be viewed as “aggressive” in the 2016 Index. Cross-border attacks, continued aggression of groups such as the Taliban and LeT, and the appearance of ISIS as a contributor to Afghanistan’s security woes contributed to this assessment. The capability score for the region’s terrorist threat has increased to “gathering” from “capable,” mostly because the region’s weakening governing structures have helped to make it a hotbed of terrorist activity. Just as there are American interests that are not covered by this Index, there may be additional threats to American interests that are not identified here. The Index focuses on the more apparent sources of risk and those in which the risk is greater. Compiling the assessments of these threat sources, the 2016 Index rates the overall global threat environment as “aggressive” and “capable” in the areas of threat actor behavior and material ability to harm U.S. security interests, respectively, leading to an aggregated threat score of “elevated.” This score is the same as the inaugural 2015 Index; however, it is slightly higher than in 2015, suggesting that if certain factors do not reverse course, the overall threat generated from Asia could rise to the level of “high” in the near future.   Behavior of Threats to U.S. Interests by Region Capability of Threats to U.S. Interests by Region Our combined score for threats to U.S. vital interests can be summarized thus: Threats to U.S. Vital Interests: Overall SOURCE: HERITAGE FOUNDATION]]>