Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett Packard, performed impressively at last week’s Republican primary debate. She was poised, forceful, and provided a level of policy detail most candidates actively eschew. Her defense plans in particular were unusually specific. Fiorina omitted one crucial detail: her plan would cause defense spending to skyrocket. Moreover, Fiorina has drawn her plan from a source that does not account sufficiently for threats the U.S. military may need to deter or combat in the future. That means that the added cost of her plan would deliver little benefit.

At the debate, Fiorina said she would increase the number of Army brigade combat teams to 50, increase the size of the Marine Corps to 36 battalions, upsize the Navy’s battle fleet to something between 300 and  350 ships, while simultaneously upgrading each leg of the nuclear triad (i.e., strategic bombers, ICBMs, and submarines). The conventional force build-up alone might cost as much as $500 billion, reported Daily Beast defense reporter Kate Brannen. Citing Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute and Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brannen emphasizes the high cost of the manpower increases the Army and Marine Corps would need to meet Fiorina’s targets, in addition to the immense expense of the ramp-up in shipbuilding required to achieve the fleet size Fiorina proposed. The $500 billion price tag doesn’t even include the costs of the upgrades to the three strategic nuclear delivery systems.

Fiorina’s “numbers seemed to be pulled straight from a report released by the conservative Heritage Foundation this year,” Brannen noted. The report in question is the conservative think tank’s “2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength.” The Index argues that U.S. military strength is currently insufficient, or “marginal,” because it does not have the ability to fight two wars, simultaneously, in two separate regions. This is known as the two major regional contingency (2-MRC) standard. The force size the report recommends is nearly identical to the one Fiorina cited at the debate:

  • Army: 50 brigade combat teams
  • Navy: 346 ships, 624 strike aircraft
  • Air Force: 1,200 fighter/attack aircraft
  • USMC: 36 battalions

Heritage Senior Fellow Dakota Wood, the editor of the Index, compiled an impressive quantity of data on the U.S. military, but the report suffers from at least one major flaw: it neglects to identify the threats its proposed military buildup is meant to combat. This is not to say threats are ignored. A great deal of the Heritage report discusses various threats around the globe. What it fails to do, however, is connect those threats to the structure and size of the forces it proposes. Strategy is an iterative process requiring adaptation if an adversary takes measures to undermine existing capabilities. Leaving aside threats in proposing a military buildup, as the Heritage Index does, means large sums of money will be spent on forces disconnected from potential threats the military may face.

A perfect example of this problem is the report’s discussion of hybrid warfare and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently cited hybrid warfare, which blends conventional military tactics with those of non-state actors and terrorists groups, as one of the leading challenges the U.S. military will face in the coming years. The Heritage Index, however, makes no mention of it. It does discuss China’s A2/AD capabilities—a mix of long-range missiles, integrated air defenses, mines, and coastal submarines meant to prevent an adversary from projecting power near its coast—but only very briefly. This neglect is odd. China’s A2/AD capabilities are specifically deployed as cost-effective countermeasures to American military strength, and are frequently cited as a challenge the U.S. military may face.

The Heritage report’s failure to connect force size and structure to specific threats reflects a serious methodological problem. The Index, which rates current U.S. military strength as “marginal,” bases its assessment on several sources. From the report:

This Index focused on the primary purpose of military power—to defeat an enemy in combat—and the historical record of major U.S. engagements for evidence of what the U.S. defense establishment has thought was necessary to execute a major war successfully. To this we add the two-MRC benchmark, on-the-record assessments of what the services themselves are saying about their relative validated requirements, and the analysis and opinions of various experts in and out of government who have covered these issues for many years.

There are a number of flaws in this approach, mostly revolving around the use of the 2-MRC standard. The 2-MRC standard for force-planning became popular in the 1990s after the threat of the Soviet Union no longer justified the military’s existing force structure and budget. The idea was that the United States ought to be  able to simultaneously defeat two rogue states, in separate regions, in conventional combat. The 2-MRC idea was useful as ad hoc rationalization of the military’s scale and organizational preferences, but it left the armed services unprepared for the missions it would actually need to undertake in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there’s one thing we can count on, it’s that the future will rarely conform to our expectations. But instead of developing the flexibility and agility to adapt to the unexpected, the military geared up for the sort of war it wanted to fight, only to find itself mired for more than decade in counterinsurgency operations for which it had done little to prepare.

The 2-MRC standard, which the Heritage Index relies on, and which Fiorina seems to accept, does not help the military prepare for unconventional and unpredictable future challenges. It’s a force-planning standard that justifies an enormous, lavishly-funded military capable of dealing with two enemies in conventional combat, yet it neglects the need to respond nimbly to unexpected contingencies, and fails to plan adequately for the emerging threats the armed forces are most likely actually to confront. America’s current and potential adversaries have cultivated their hybrid warfare and A2/AD capabilities specifically to undermine the U.S. military’s powerful but expensive conventional capabilities at a very low cost. Following through on Fiorina’s proposal would certainly increase the size and cost of America’s military, but would do little to enhance its ability to effectively combat new threats.