WASHINGTON — Nearly half of all current military troops believe the United States will be drawn into a major war soon, a jarring rise in anxiety among service members worried about global instability in general and Russia and China in particular, according to a new Military Times poll of active-duty troops.
About 46 percent of troops who responded to the anonymous survey of currently serving Military Times readers said they believe the U.S. will be drawn into a new war within the next year. That’s a jarring increase from only about 5 percent who said the same thing in a similar poll conducted in September 2017.
Another 50 percent think the country will not end up in a major conflict during the next year. But that number is falling, down from more than two-thirds of those surveyed last fall who said a war was unlikely.
The fears of war come as President Donald Trump in the last year has repeatedly emphasized improving military readiness in the face of growing threats from foreign adversaries, both loosely affiliated terrorist groups and traditional major power rivals. At the same time, top Pentagon officials have spoken publicly about the need to prepare for a conflict against a “near-peer" adversary.
When asked about specific countries, troops said Russia and China were among their top concerns. The poll showed a big increase in the number of troops who identify those two countries as significant or major threats: About 71 percent of troops said Russia was a significant threat, up 18 points from last year’s survey. And 69 percent of troops said China poses a significant threat, up 24 points from last year.
Some top Pentagon officials have voiced similar views. Last year, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told Marines that he thought there was a “big-ass fight” on the horizon.
"I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming,” Neller told Marines in Norway.
Cyber-terrorism topped the list of threats to U.S. security in the Military Times poll. Nearly 89 percent of those surveyed listed it as a significant threat, with more than half of those calling it a major concern.
And many troops worry the U.S. is not fully prepared for cyber warfare. One-third of service members said they disapprove of the country’s current policies on combating cyber terrorism. Only about 13 percent said they strongly back government and military efforts underway.
Foreign terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group were seen as less of a threat than domestic terrorist groups. About 57 percent of troops see U.S.-based Islamic extremists as a significant threat, compared to 49 percent for other domestic terrorist groups and 48 percent for foreign ones. Last year, more than 59 percent of troops said Al Qaeda and ISIS posed significant threats.
The biggest decrease shown in this year’s poll was North Korea, which was seen as a significant threat by more than 72 percent of troops one year ago, but in this year’s poll only 46 percent described the country that way.
In the last year, U.S. posture toward North Korea has also seen a dramatic shift. Trump moved from mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on social media last fall — calling him “Little Rocket Man” — to publicly proclaiming his respect for the controversial dictator, following a peace summit between the two in June.
Even with U.S. forces still deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan — or perhaps because of it — those countries were seen as a significant threat by less than 13 percent of the armed forces. That’s well behind Iran (41 percent), Syria (24 percent) and Saudi Arabia (18 percent).
Similar to past polls, those conflict zones were also seen as a lesser threat to U.S. national security than white nationalists (35 percent, up slightly from a year ago) and immigration (23 percent, steady from a year ago).
“It has never been this bad”
One of the Military Times poll respondents, an Army recruiter with more than 18 years of service, said Trump’s handling of the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons looked risky at times, but overall the soldier approves of how Trump is going “toe-to-toe” in negotiations.
“It was kind of scary, but he had the guts to go over there and stand up for what a lot of Americans are believing in,” the recruiter, who asked not to be identified by name, told Military Times in a telephone interview.
Some services members believe that President Trump is contributing to the instability and fears. One soldier, a female Army sergeant first class based in Hawaii who asked to remain anonymous, said she’s has seen junior enlisted soldier opt to not re-enlist due to fears that a major war could erupt soon, and that Trump has made the chances of such a war more likely.
“I feel it has never been this bad and with this many adversaries, because of the way he [Trump] chooses to do business,” she told Military Times in a telephone interview.
She is afraid of a “constant conflict” occurring soon, of endless deployments and fighting.
“With the way we’re growing our force, I tell my soldiers the reason we are growing the force is because we need you, and we’re going to fight,” she said.
Troops voiced overwhelming support for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general, and hope that he will curtail some of the president’s riskiest impulses.
“I think that it is a scary thing when I hear some of the stuff on the news and how stuff is being handled. I do think we have an excellent secretary of defense who kind of keeps us on an even keel as much as he can," said an enlisted sailor based in California who asked for anonymity. "But it is scary to think about what could happen, just from somebody saying the wrong thing.”
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jay Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot at Fort Drum, New York, said he doesn’t think China or Russia wants war any more than the United States does, and that will help temper tensions.
“No one is seeking the peer-on-peer war,” he said.
Between Sept. 20 and Oct. 2, Military Times, in collaboration with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University, conducted a voluntary, confidential online survey of U.S. service members. The survey included 19 questions on service members’ opinion(s) related to the current political climate, policy and national security in the United States.
The survey received 829 responses from active-duty troops. The IVMF used standard methodology to estimate the weights for each individual observation of the survey sample. The margin of error for most questions was roughly 2 percent.
The survey audience was 89 percent male and 11 percent female and had an average age of about 31 years old. The respondents identified themselves as 76 percent white, 13 percent Hispanic, 9 percent African American, 5 percent Asian and 6 percent other ethnicities. Respondents were able to select more than one race.
Military Times editor George Altman and staff writers Shawn Snow, Kyle Rempfer, Geoff Ziezulewicz and Steve Losey contributed to this report.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.