Did you know that America will spend $716 billion on defense this year?
Does that make America's military strong?
Strength is a relative – not absolute – concept. To measure strength, someone must be stronger than someone or something. Countries must be stronger than other countries.
Absolute strength — total muscle power or total weapons — doesn’t tell us much.
Politicians like to say that America is the strongest military in the world. In absolute terms, that’s certainly true. America can extend its power to every corner of the globe. We can fight on land, sea, and air. We are extending that capability to space.
But overall strength doesn't say much. We have to measure America's military strength against a range of scenarios – some testing the outer limits of imagination – with other strong countries.
To build multi-scenario capabilities, the United States has spent decades establishing a global network of permanent and semi-permanent bases. America conducts military exercises, engages with allies and adversaries, and projects power from these locations.
But do these strategic bases make America stronger? Not necessarily.
According to a new report, despite decades of military buildup in the region, American forces would be overwhelmed by the Chinese military in a matter of hours. Decades of building strength would be defeated by hours of a coordinated attack.
Whether this report is entirely accurate is not the point.
The question is whether current American power — defined and projected over previous decades — should be considered strong in the 21st century. This scenario, and hard lessons from twenty years of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, presents a pretty bleak reality check.
After all, the easiest way to dimish relative strength is to focus on just one muscle — especially if that muscle is already the strongest one – and not measure it against the forthcoming threat.