WASHINGTON – With seemingly endless provocations from North Korea and saber rattling from Russia and Iran, the U.S. military, under the Trump administration, has responded by flexing its military might:
- Firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base on April 6
- Dropping the "mother of all bombs" in Afghanistan a few weeks later
- Sending U.S. naval carriers to the Korean peninsula in May
- Successfully shooting down an intercontinental ballistic missile in an intercept test
Still, these "wins" haven't calmed defense experts' concerns about America's military weaknesses.
What Keeps Experts Up at Night
"It does keep me up, but more importantly it keeps up Pentagon leadership at night," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a national security analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning Washington think tank.
What worries top brass the most are rising threats across multiple fronts.
"What we're optimized to handle is the Cold War environment, where you have a singular threat," Alexandra Sander explained. Sander researches technology and national security for the Center for a New American Security.
Russia is "Eating Our Lunch" in Electronic Warfare
Another reality of war in the 21st century is that it no longer relies on conventional weapons and strategy.
"If we're talking about electronic warfare, Russia is eating our lunch," Eaglen said.
Eaglen, like many other military experts, blames the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the decline.
"Here we are winding down from the wars of the last decade and finding that the rest of the world did not slow down," she explained. "In fact, they're catching up or surpassing us."
"We've been at war for 15 years, so you look at our equipment and material has been worn out by years of war – some of it to the point that it's not even worth bringing back home," explained Jerry Boykin, a retired Army general and a former Bush defense official. "So we come back with shortages because we leave it over there because it's not worth transporting it back."
Mandated Spending Caps Put U.S. at Disadvantage
While the U.S. spends more than any other country on defense, military spending has dropped more than 20 percent since 2010 due to spending caps mandated by law. Meanwhile, an increasingly aggressive China and Russia have increased their military budgets.
"We also have to be a little bit nervous when their budget is growing $10-20 billion every year and ours is coming down $20-30 billion every year," said Michael O'Hanlon, who specializes in defense and foreign policy for the Brookings Institution.
President Donald Trump has proposed a multi-billion dollar increase in the defense budget, but many, including his supporters, say it's not enough.
"Fifty-four billion dollars is not going to fix the problems of a military that has already been shrunk to pre-World War Two levels," Boykin insisted, while calling it a "good start."
"A lot of the root in our degradation of capabilities comes from budget uncertainty," Sander explained.
"So making sure that we can put a budget deal together that gives the military the ability to future plan in the long term will also really support long term capabilities."
Defense hawks argue the cuts have hurt the military in more areas than troop levels and hardware.
China Takes the Technological Lead
For example, China has taken the lead in next-generation space and missile technology. It includes the development of hypersonic missiles that travel more than a mile per second and would be nearly impossible to intercept.
Research and development is another area that shows signs of retreat. In the past, military ideas drove commercial revolution within the American economy, yielding the internet, GPS, and mobile phones among items now available for public consumption.
"Everything from plastic bags to pantyhose are from the U.S. military or derivative from research and development," Eaglen explained. "The federal government is no longer the driver in research and development in our U.S. economy. It is now led by the commercial sector."
"The problem with that is if the Defense Department wants access to it, everybody has access to it," she continued.
The Future: Failed Missions, Higher Casualties, Longer Wars
All of this paints a disaster scenario, as was recently illustrated by a former Pentagon planner. In a series of 16 different war games designed to see whether the U.S. and NATO could defend the Baltic states against Russia, the United States lost every one.
So what does all this mean for the military?
Analysts believe the loss of technological advantages will lead to failed missions, higher casualties, and longer wars.
It's a gap the U.S. must start filling now, before it's too late.