Since 2012, the US Defense Department has touted its strategic shift to the Pacific — first called a “pivot,” and now described as a “rebalance” — as the way ahead as the military dials down in Afghanistan. The shift refocuses attention and resources on a region that is geographically far larger and economically far more influential, and where an emerging superpower is reshaping a dynamic security situation.
In Europe, meanwhile, DoD has been rapidly drawing down US forces, closing bases and cutting troop strength, from 350,000 in the 1980s to fewer than 67,000 today. The mindset from the top has been that in the era of the European Union, the presence of US troops on the continent is less about Europe itself than about a staging ground for other areas of potential conflict, such as Africa or the Middle East.
But in a stark reminder of just how fragile peace can be, Russia’s recent aggression toward Ukraine rapidly accelerated from saber-rattling to offensive incursions. Russian troops annexed Crimea and seized towns in eastern Ukraine, sending US leaders scrambling to rethink their strategy in a region that had dropped to near the bottom of the Pentagon’s global priority list.
“More planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on land” was the message from NATO. And suddenly, there is hurried debate within the alliance over both the appropriate situational response in the short term and the strategic response in the longer term.
The span of just a few weeks appears to have birthed a new “post-post-Cold War” era in Europe.
The hard lesson is that the “next big threat” can come from anywhere, at any time — not just in the form of anti-Western terrorist cells, but from old-fashioned belligerent nation-states.
More broadly, the scramble in Europe exposes how the foolishly restrictive US budget policy threatens the military’s ability to adequately respond to such threats, let alone deter them, in the pursuit of safeguarding the nation’s global interests.
Even as the threat in Europe deepens, the military continues to bear the burden of sequestration — the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts put in place by a Congress that essentially has abdicated its primary responsibility to prudently manage the nation’s finances.
Sequestration’s bite, being felt in myriad ways, is forcing Pentagon leaders into a dangerous zero-sum game. Money shifted to one priority, such as the new crisis in Europe, must inevitably come at the expense of another priority, further restricting Pentagon leaders in their ability to make vital decisions on how to best allocate dwindling funds.
In a report released April 15, Pentagon officials warned of the dangers of continued sequestration cuts, quoting Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: “Under sequester-level budgets, we would be gambling that our military will not be required to respond to multiple major contingencies at the same time.”
Lawmakers must heed the message. While areas like the Pacific, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa are increasingly of concern, US defense leaders need the full resources and budgeting decision authority to field forces fully flexible and capable enough to immediately respond to any threat — even in places thought to be securely at peace.
Congress has long avoided true defense budget discipline, which would demand an end to parochial decisions on weapons, programs and infrastructure that the military does not want or need, but that provide jobs for lawmakers’ constituents and bring cash from their donors.
Such discipline would make sequestration unnecessary, and ensure the military can meet multiple global threats and missions in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world.