The Realist Prism: Venezuela, Ukraine Challenge Assumptions Behind Defense Cuts

The Realist Prism: Venezuela, Ukraine Challenge Assumptions Behind Defense Cuts

The protests in Ukraine and Venezuela and the unveiling this week by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of the Obama administration’s budget request to Congress would appear to be separate and unrelated events. Yet they are linked by the challenge those developments pose to the strategic assumptions that serve as the foundation of the fiscal year 2015 U.S. defense budget.

The United States can no longer afford a strategy that hedges against all possible risks. The fiscal crunch, combined with the need to divert an ever-growing portion of the defense budget to personnel, health and pension costs and away from procurement—particularly of expensive, next-generation systems—means that the national security establishment now has no choice but to accept more risk and uncertainty in the international system. The proposed budget would continue the shift to where the U.S. is able to decisively fight only one regional conventional war while conducting a holding action in another theater rather than the earlier paradigm based on fighting and prevailing in two wars simultaneously. As an unnamed senior Pentagon official commented, “If the force is smaller, there’s less margin for error. Let’s face it—things are pretty uncertain out there.”

The risks associated with a smaller force were supposed to be mitigated by several factors. The first was the long-standing assumption that U.S. allies would take up the slack and “do more.” But China is now on track to outspend Germany, France and Britain combined on defense-related expenditures. British defense cuts, in particular, will produce a U.K. military that is far less able to support, augment or follow up after U.S. efforts around the world.

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