Most Americans know that our military is standing guard around the world to defend us and our way of life.
Few of us, however, are familiar with the composition of our military today, what its missions are, how it is structured, and why we have people in various places around the globe. While polls show the military is one of the most respected institutions in our country, some are concerned that the differences between the military and the rest of us are widening and could undermine public support for them and their missions.
Over the next few weeks, I want to address some of these basic questions about the composition of today’s military, why it is structured the way it is, and how its vital work affects the rest of us in our daily lives.
How is our military structured?
The American armed forces include four military services: the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. The Marine Corps, while an independent military service, is housed in the Department of the Navy. In addition, the Department of Defense includes a number of other organizations such as military intelligence agencies providing support to the military missions. The Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is considered a uniformed service that can be called upon in wartime, although normally it is involved in law enforcement duties.
There is discussion about creating a new organization, perhaps even a military service, to focus on space. As airplanes and then missiles developed in the first half of the 20th century, the Army Air Corps became the Air Force. Outer space is rapidly turning into a war-fighting domain of its own.
Military operations are actually executed by combatant commands. Some of them based are on geography — Europe, Africa, and Indo-Pacific, for example. Others are based on function, such as the new cyber command.
Who is serving our country?
There are 1.3 million active-duty service members serving our country. They are less than one-half of 1 percent of our population.
The breakdown by Service is:
467,266 in the Army
325,623 in the Air Force
332,012 in the Navy
185,830 in the Marine Corps
These numbers do not include the men and women in our Reserves and National Guard, who are often called upon to serve alongside the active component.
The draft ended in 1973, and since then our military has been 100% voluntary. That means we have to recruit, have competitive pay and benefits, and offer retirement plans to continue to attract and keep the men and women we need. That is part of the reason our military is more expensive than many of our competitors. Our people are our most valuable asset, so it is important that we continue to take care of them.
About 45% of the active-duty force is 25 years old or younger, 16% of the active enlisted force are women, 18% of commissioned officers are women, and roughly 17% make the military a career by staying in for 20 years or more.
How much do we spend on our military?
Only 15% of federal spending goes to pay for our military. By comparison, it was about 50% in the early 1960s. Another way of looking at it is that we spend about 3.4% of the Gross Domestic Product on defense and international affairs compared to the 15% of GDP we spend on federal payments to individuals.
Defense spending was cut about 20% in real terms starting in 2010, but there was no similar reduction in the threats we faced. Those cuts plus a high pace of operations led to significant problems. We have begun to repair the damage but have more to do.
The American people are exceptionally fortunate to have some of the best men and women our nation produces serve in the military.
We risk taking them and all they do for us for granted. In future columns, we will explore a bit of history, what we ask our military to do, and how it all matters to each of us.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is the ranking member (top Republican) of the House Armed Services Committee.