Today, the U.S. military is engaged in a campaign that is more demanding and intense than anything it has witnessed in a generation. Ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now entering their fifth and seventh years respectively, have lasted longer than any U.S. military engagements of the past century, with the exception of Vietnam. More than 25,000 American servicemen and women have been wounded and over 4,000 killed. Additional deployments in the Balkans, on the Korean Peninsula, and elsewhere are putting further pressure on the military's finite resources. And, at any time, U.S. forces could be called into action in one of the world's many simmering hot spots -- from Iran or Syria, to North Korea or the Taiwan Strait. Yet, even as the U.S. military is being asked to sustain an unprecedented pace of operations across the globe, many Americans continue to know shockingly little about the forces responsible for protecting them. Nearly 70 percent of Americans report that they have a high level of confidence in the military, yet fewer than 1 in 10 has ever served. Politicians often speak favorably about people in uniform, but less than one quarter of the U.S. Congress has donned a uniform. It is not clear whether the speeches and sound bites we hear from politicians and experts actually reflect the concerns of those who protect our nation.
What is the actual state of America’s military? How healthy are the armed forces? How prepared are they for future conflicts? And what impact are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan really having on them? To find out, Foreign Policy and the Center for a New American Security teamed up to conduct a groundbreaking survey of current and former military officers. Recognizing that the military is far from a monolith, our goal was to find out what America's highest-ranking military people -- the very officers who have run the military during the past half century -- collectively think about the state of the force, the health of the military, the course of the war in Iraq, and the challenges that lie ahead. It is one of the few comprehensive surveys of the U.S. military community to be conducted in the past 50 years.
In all, more than 3,400 officers holding the rank of major or lieutenant commander and above were surveyed from across the services, active duty and retired, general officers and field-grade officers. About 35 percent of the participants hailed from the Army, 33 percent from the Air Force, 23 percent from the Navy, and 8 percent from the Marine Corps. Several hundred are flag officers, elite generals and admirals who have served at the highest levels of command. Approximately one third are colonels or captains -- officers commanding thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines -- and 37 percent hold the rank of lieutenant colonel or commander. Eighty-one percent have more than 20 years of service in the military. Twelve percent graduated from one of America's exclusive military academies. And more than two thirds have combat experience, with roughly 10 percent having served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or both.
These officers see a military apparatus severely strained by the grinding demands of war. Sixty percent say the U.S. military is weaker today than it was five years ago. Asked why, more than half cite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the pace of troop deployments those conflicts require. More than half the officers say the military is weaker than it was either 10 or 15 years ago. But asked whether "the demands of the war in Iraq have broken the U.S. military," 56 percent of the officers say they disagree. That is not to say, however, that they are without concern. Nearly 90 percent say that they believe the demands of the war in Iraq have "stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin."
The health of the Army and Marine Corps, the services that have borne the brunt of the fighting in Iraq, are of greatest concern to the index's officers. Asked to grade the health of each service on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning the officers have no concern about the health of the service and 10 meaning they are extremely concerned, the officers reported an average score of 7.9 for the Army and 7.0 for the Marine Corps. The health of the Air Force fared the best, with a score of 5.7. The average score across the four services was 6.6. More than 80 percent of the officers say that, given the stress of current deployments, it is unreasonable to ask the military to wage another major war today. Nor did the officers express high confidence in the military's preparedness to do so. For instance, the officers said that the United States is not fully prepared to successfully execute such a mission against Iran or North Korea.
A majority of the officers also say that some of the policy decisions made during the course of the Iraq war hindered the prospects for success there. These include shortening the time units spend at home between deployments and accepting more recruits who do not meet the military's standards. Even the military's ability to care for some of its own -- mentally wounded soldiers and veterans -- was judged by most officers to be substandard.
These negative perceptions, however, do not necessarily translate into a disillusioned or disgruntled force. Sixty-four percent of the officers report that they believe morale within the military is high. Still, they are not without concern for the future. Five years into the war in Iraq, for example, a majority of the officers report that either China or Iran, not the United States, is emerging as the strategic victor in that fight. In an era when the U.S. military is stretched dangerously thin, it’s a sign that the greatest challenges may still lie ahead.
Download the complete U.S. Military Index data: