It’s emerged as one of the defining questions on the presidential campaign trail this year. Which candidate will rebuild the military and ensure America’s continued presence as the sole military superpower on the planet? From the other side of the aisle we hear questions as to whether it needs to be rebuilt at all. Aren’t we already number one? Well… yes. But we can’t be quite so sure that we’re destined to stay on top these days. Over at Government Executive this week they take a look at that question and the positions of the two presumptive nominees.

In his April 27 foreign policy speech, Republican front-runner Donald Trump summed up the majority view of the GOP:

[W]e have to rebuild our military and our economy. The Russians and Chinese have rapidly expanded their military capability, but look at what’s happened to us. … Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, by contrast, sees little need to rebuild. She pledges to “ensure the United States maintains the best-trained, best-equipped and strongest military the world has ever known.”

It’s a good analysis for those who don’t follow the subject closely, focusing on four primary criteria for evaluating our military strength: Force structure, modernization, sustainability and combat readiness. Some groups, such as the Heritage Foundation, have described our current footing as “marginal” right now, while others see us in a stronger position. We have the technological edge for the most part, though the Russians and the Chinese are investing huge amounts of resources to catch up. We also spend more on our military than the next eleven countries combined, with seven of those being our allies. But how efficiently can we deploy that technology and how many people could we call upon to fight a protracted conventional war if push came to shove? Those answers are a bit more murky,

As far as manpower goes there’s a difference between how many people we might, in theory at least, call upon to fight and how many are in the service, trained up and ready to go today. On that front there’s some disquieting news. We recently hit a new milestone of sorts with the smallest Army we’ve had since World War II. (Army Times)

The Army’s latest headcount shows that nearly 2,600 soldiers departed active service in March without being replaced, an action that plunges manning to its lowest level since before World War II.

During the past year the size of the active force has been reduced by 16,548 soldiers, the rough equivalent of three brigades.

Endstrength for March was 479,172 soldiers, which is 154 fewer troopers than were on active duty when the Army halted the post-Cold War drawdown in 1999 with 479,424 soldiers, the smallest force since 1940, when the active component numbered 269,023 soldiers.

While not great news, those numbers are a bit deceiving. Going back to the wars of the Greatest Generation, we relied on blood, guts, muscle and boots on the ground for the vast majority of our combat needs. In the era of more technological warfare the use of troops is reduced, along with the number of combat casualties, thankfully. So arguing that we need a D-Day sized Army is a bit disingenuous. But we still need troops if we’re going to fight, so seeing the numbers continue to shrink can’t be taken as a good sign.

At the same time, we have to be realistic about the actual threats we face. How likely are either Russia or China to want to get into a full blown ground war with us? Not very, by most estimations. Our chief fighting role these days falls into the category of fighting disparate pockets of Islamic extremists which requires a very different sort of planning than a wave by wave invasion of the German homeland. But even this mission requires boots on the ground and it may expand further in the future. We’re going in the wrong direction right now and we should be expanding our military capabilities and resources, not winnowing them.

Robert Gates