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.