Whether Russian forces invade Ukraine or not, the crisis has already provided a stark reminder of the large hole America’s military finds itself in as strategists debate between focusing military resources in Europe or Asia. American policymakers once understood that the key to global stability and, in turn, general peace and prosperity, was having sufficient forces to deter adventurist powers on both ends of the Eurasian continent. At any given moment Asia or Europe might be a priority, but at no moment was either theater a peripheral interest to the United States.
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. defense budgets have consistently failed to re-capitalize the American military sufficiently to meet our security commitments. This is not a partisan phenomenon. The cuts began with the George H. W. Bush administration and continued under Bill Clinton. After 9/11, the defense budget did grow, but that vast increase went to fighting the wars and not to replenishing stocks of aging planes, ships, and America’s strategic arsenal. During Barack Obama’s presidency, domestic spending became the priority: The stimulus package of $800 billion intended to help pull the country out of the Great Recession was largely “paid for” with cuts in defense spending. Matters were made even worse for the Pentagon when a Republican-led Congress agreed to the Budget Control Act of 2011, which forced spending cuts if Congress couldn’t agree on a budget and all but guaranteed automatic slices to the military’s topline.
By January 2012, the Obama administration was forced to publicly admit that the U.S. military had the capacity to handle only one major conventional conflict at a time. We were assured that this was okay, since there was now peace in Europe and military disengagement from the Middle East was well on its way. The former is obviously no longer the case and, if history is any guide (as the Obama team soon discovered with ISIS), the latter has been as much a hope as a reality. Over the past decade, the unprecedented expansion of Chinese military capabilities and Russia’s own modernization of its forces have only deepened the strategic ditch we now find ourselves in.
But wait, what about that big plus-up in defense budgets during the Trump years? Hadn’t Trump’s administration, as he claimed, “almost totally rebuilt” the “depleted military” he had inherited from President Obama? It’s true that there was a $90 billion increase in the Pentagon budget for 2018 and 2019. However, since then—the last two years of Trump’s tenure and the first year of Biden’s—the budget has remained essentially flat and, with inflation, has actually declined. Indeed, the current budget is, with inflation factored in, no larger than the 2012 defense budget that drove the Obama team to redefine our strategic footprint that January. And no less important, the overall size of U.S. forces is not appreciably different—except for the Army, which is smaller.