Military police walk near Abrams tanks on a flat car in a rail yard, Monday, July 1, 2019, in Washington, ahead of a Fourth of July celebration that President Donald Trump says will include military hardware.

Military police walk near Abrams tanks on a flat car in a rail yard, Monday, July 1, 2019, in Washington, ahead of a Fourth of July celebration that President Donald Trump says will include military hardware. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Antiques Road Show: The Real State of the US Military

The wars of the future may depend not so much on the kinds of things you can put on parade, but on new technologies that reimagine warfare.

That a military display on Independence Day proved to be controversial should not be surprising, even if one discounts the partisan tone of much of the criticism. Americans tend not to favor displays of military power, except in the aftermath of successful wars: The Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the 1991 Gulf War were all followed by parades. Military displays nonetheless have the benefit of showing the American people what their investment in national defense has yielded. Contrary to President Donald Trump’s assertion that “our nation is stronger today than it ever was before,” the “Salute to America” looked more like a military antiques road show than a display of a 21st-century military power.

The age of the current force was most apparent in the Army hardware on display on the National Mall. The M-1A2 Abrams tanks and M-2 Bradley infantry combat vehicles parked near the Lincoln Memorial represent a generation of armored vehicles that were designed in the 1970s and procured in large numbers during the 1980s. More than three decades later, they remain, albeit with modification, the mainstay of the U.S. Army and have been used in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The aircraft that flew over the capital echoed the theme of an advanced but aging force. The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber was another product of the Reagan defense buildup. Although it is an impressive aircraft able to evade enemy radar, the U.S. Air Force has fewer than 20 of them—far short of the 132 the Air Force originally envisioned purchasing when the bomber first took flight in 1988, and its successor, the B-21 Raider, has yet to make its first flight. The two F-22 Raptors that flanked it are newer aircraft but, like the B-2, exist in only small numbers (187 rather than the 750 originally envisioned)—part of a production run that was truncated more than a decade ago when it appeared that the United States wouldn’t face sophisticated adversaries in the foreseeable future. Now, in an era when China and Russia are manufacturing capable combat aircraft and air defenses, America’s non-stealthy aircraft are becoming more vulnerable. Decades after it was introduced, stealth is still working its way into the U.S. military—in the form of the F-35 plane that the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are procuring. In the meantime, most U.S. combat aircraft are not stealthy and are less and less useful in high-threat environments. Indeed, as a result of a lack of aircraft-modernization programs over the past 30 years, the Air Force’s fighter force is half the size it was when the Berlin Wall fell, and has reached an unprecedented average age of 26 years.

Absent from the skies over the nation’s capital were unmanned air vehicles such as the MQ-9 Reaper. Less sexy, and much less expensive, than manned combat aircraft, the Reaper has become a pillar of U.S. military operations in recent years. Unmanned systems like it offer a glimpse into the future of warfare and an example of how the military will need to integrate new technologies. Absent also were the Special Operations warriors and their specialized capabilities that have been crucial to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. Nor were the various families of Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected armored vehicles deployed in large numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to insurgents’ growing reliance on improvised explosive devices.

Invisible in another way was the growing importance of the electromagnetic spectrum to the American way of war, including communication, cyber, and electronic warfare. The precision-guided munitions that have allowed us to strike individual terrorists while avoiding innocents are themselves unremarkable in appearance, and the signals from the Global Positioning System satellite constellation that give them their accuracy are invisible.

Moreover, military displays like the one on July 4 obscure the fact that the U.S. armed forces are still largely organized the way they were a generation ago and employ tactics that have seen only marginal change from those employed in past wars.

The Independence Day festivities did not include a naval review on the Potomac like the one the Russians conduct every July. If they had, the American people would have seen some new ships, perhaps one of the three stealthy Zumwalt-class destroyers that the Navy is buying, or some of the small littoral combat ships meant to serve a variety of roles. They also might have seen Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines—capable vessels that are nonetheless being purchased in numbers too small to keep our inventory from declining at a time when both China and Russia are increasingly active under the seas. 

The United States tends not to parade its nuclear forces in public. Had Trump done so, the public would have seen not row upon row of new missiles, such as those that have appeared in recent Russian and Chinese parades, but rather a force of land- and sea-based missiles and bombers that date back to the late Cold War or its immediate aftermath.

The Independence Day military display, and its imaginary sequel, show that the Defense Department took a quarter-century respite from thinking seriously about the need to fight wars against capable adversaries. In the 1990s, it reveled in notions of the “unipolar moment” and the “end of history.” Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it was consumed with the need to defeat irregular adversaries who lacked the ability to contest U.S. supremacy in any domain of warfare. The need to win the wars the U.S. was already fighting took precedence over the responsibility to prepare for the very different wars America might have to fight in the future. As a result, the growth in military spending after the 9/11 attacks went to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than modernize the U.S. armed forces.

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The Trump administration’s defense budgets have increased the readiness of U.S. forces, but have yet to deliver new military concepts and capabilities. Nor is it clear how much longer the Pentagon can count on such generous budgets. The recent passage of the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act along party lines marks a break with the bipartisanship that has governed the funding of national defense and does not bode well.

The wars of the future may depend not so much on the kinds of things you can put on parade, but on new technologies that reimagine warfare. Adversaries have invested in blunting America’s ability to project military power abroad, including by striking critical bases of operations, disabling information networks, and interfering with communication, navigation, and imagery satellites that support military operations. If America doesn’t invest in these areas, it’s unlikely that the next military display will be a victory parade.