Ukraine is a test. Can the United States still think and act like a global power?
The greatest question arising from the war in Ukraine may be this: can the United States remember how to think and act as a truly global power?
Since the end of the Cold War, both the capacity for devising a coherent global strategy and the military capacity to effect it have atrophied. These gave way first to a feckless triumphalism, in which the ideological “end of history” became an ineluctable “arc of history” bending itself in an ever-progressive shape, for America simply to step back and admire. Then, a kind of panicked monomania in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the rise of a China out to settle historical scores supplanted this. Lost in the smugness and the flashes of strategic anxiety was the fact that the Cold War victory was the product of persistent efforts to preserve nuclear parity and favorable balances of power in the Americas, Europe, East Asia and the greater Middle East, along with the energetic promotion of both liberal political principles and international organizations.
In pursuit of those geopolitical ends, the United States for decades maintained a “two-war standard” for sizing its military forces. This measure originated in the run-up to World War II, when, in anticipation of war across both the Pacific and the Atlantic, the Congress approved a 70 percent expansion in Navy procurement. The Vinson-Walsh Act has ever since been known as the “Two-Ocean Navy Act.” Even in the 1990s, as it began to harvest a “peace dividend” that influenced the reduction in American forces by more than one-third—and that paralyzed the weapons modernization that make U.S. forces so effective in combat—the Clinton administration pretended to preserve a two-war posture.
As the resulting gap between strategic ambition and military reality became increasingly apparent (beginning even with the Balkans Wars of the late 1990s), successive administrations tried out a series of complex force-sizing constructs. The ever-clever Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld elaborated a four-tier metric that turned out to be no more than a house of cards, which collapsed in the face of the post-invasion occupation of Iraq. The Bush-era military proved itself to be too small to succeed in multiple Middle East counterinsurgencies. Its greater strategic failings were its inability to respond to Russia’s invasion of Georgia—presaging Vladimir Putin’s relentless assault on the post-Soviet peace of Europe—or to the growing signs of China’s military strength and geopolitical ambition.
Rather than close the gap by rebuilding the U.S. military, subsequent administrations have sought to attenuate America’s strategic ends. To the Clinton-era withdrawal from Europe, the Obama and Trump administrations added retreat from the Middle East. Obama initiated a “Pacific pivot” that shifted its rhetorical focus but that had no appreciable defense consequences—indeed, with the enthusiastic consent of the Republican congressional majority, the 2011 Budget Control Act chopped an additional $400 billion from projected Pentagon budgets. The Trump Administration similarly declared an era of “great power competition” aimed at Beijing that left no major mark on military capacity, capability, or posture: Any infinitesimal increases in defense spending went to repair the wear and tear of the Middle East wars.
Now Russia’s renewed, relentless, and brutal attack on Ukraine has exposed an uncomfortable moment of imperial déshabillé for the United States and its allies. Lost in the debate about Western willingness to support Ukraine’s defense are disturbing questions about the ability to do so on a scale and for the duration that a true victory will demand. The Poles and other Eastern European nations have been at the forefront of arms transfers and other forms of support to Kyiv (including, not least, a willingness to accept refugees), but their resources are constrained. They have been forthcoming in offering the remains of their old Soviet-era weaponry, but these are few in number and offer no qualitative advantage. Britain has led the way in offering some types of modern Western weaponry and training, but London, too, has vastly reduced its military investments and posture since the Cold War. Initially cautious—and expecting to support a Ukrainian insurgency, not large-scale conventional operations—the Biden Administration has sent substantial quantities of man-portable anti-air and anti-armor weapons to the Ukrainian army.
But as the requirement shifts from defending Ukrainian cities and bleeding the Russian army to winning full sovereignty and independence by smashing the occupying enemy more thoroughly, the Biden Administration faces difficult choices about the constraints for U.S. forces. The apparent hesitancy in transferring the tracked Multiple Launch Rocket System and its smaller wheeled version, the High Mobility Rocket System (HIMARS), despite the crying Ukrainian need, is one example of this.
Thus far, the Ukrainians have received or been promised nine HIMARS launchers and the Biden Administration has said it will transfer another four in the next package of military aid, due to be delivered in several weeks’ time. The U.S. Army has also established a two-week, shake-and-bake training program for HIMARS crewmen. Even these few systems have shown how effective they are and how sophisticated Ukrainian tactics and military strategy have become. Rather than using the systems to attack the Russian artillery batteries reducing Donbas towns to rubble, the Ukrainian army has been targeting ammunition dumps, and headquarters and railroad logistics hubs, with spectacular results.
And as Kyiv has lately announced, its operational focus is on reclaiming southern Ukraine and securing its access to the Black Sea and international markets. To paraphrase George C. Scott’s portrayal of General George Patton, it has held the Russians by the nose—and bloodied it—in the Donbas while preparing to kick its tail with as large a counteroffensive as it can muster toward Kherson and in the south. In making its case for sufficient armaments to tip the balance of combat power, the Ukrainian military has floated the idea that they need up to 100 HIMARS launchers; Michael Vickers, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, has suggested that 60 might do the trick. Alas, the total U.S. inventory of HIMARS launchers is just about 500 systems, with two-thirds of them owned by the Army and the rest by the Marine Corps. The system is a central feature of the Marines’ new and Pacific-oriented force design—a change that made the transfer of the Marines’ discarded 155mm howitzers to Ukraine an easier decision. Earlier this year, the Marines announced the intention to add a second HIMARS battalion to its expeditionary forces on Okinawa. Meanwhile, the Army is stretched to its limits simply to deploy three armored brigade combat teams along the NATO border in Europe; its stocks of prepositioned equipment are thus entirely consumed. To maintain its rotational posture in Korea, the service has had to substitute a lighter “Stryker” brigade, with its artillery battalion of 18 HIMARS launchers.
With Ukraine fighting for its life, the U.S. Army scrambling to maintain NATO’s eastern front lines, and both the Army and the Marine Corps looking for ways to respond to the “pacing threat” in the Pacific (not to mention other U.S. allies and aligned militaries from Australia to Bahrain who have ordered HIMARS launchers), the demand for these rockets far exceeds the available supply. It also exceeds what the current U.S. defense industry can quickly deliver: HIMARS maker Lockheed Martin makes only a few dozen launchers per year.
Of course, to achieve a broader dominance of its Russian opponent, the Ukrainians need more than modern rocket artillery. Among other things, they need increased and upgraded armored vehicles such as American M1 or German-made Leopard II tanks. The U.S. prepositioned stocks in Europe might have provided M1s, but they were issued to the brigades now deployed in NATO. Meanwhile, Germany has been reluctant not only to transfer its own tanks but has also put restrictions on the transfer of older Spanish Leopards to Ukraine. Months ago, the White House put the brakes on the transfer of old Polish Mig-29s to the Ukrainian air force. It said nothing about what would be a far better solution, namely, the transfer of F-16s, the long-standing “NATO standard” fighter (much upgraded), and a far superior plane than the MiG—also available in the thousands across the alliance. Furthermore, the Ukrainians need an integrated air defense network to protect their cities and cover their counteroffensives. Some steps have been taken toward this in Western planning, but the question of more capable interceptors such as the U.S. Patriot system—yet another “low-density, high-demand” item—have yet to be resolved. In sum, Ukraine needs to be raised to NATO-style and equipment levels; even if Kyiv is never invited to join the alliance, it should be militarily integrated as soon as possible.
As the need to respond to Russian aggression becomes ever more apparent and urgent, those most anxious to negotiate a quick end to the Ukraine conflict are not just Putin appeaseniks but China hawks who fret—and not without reason—that the competition between the European and Pacific theaters is a zero-sum recipe for defeat. Foremost among those worried about an imbalance in strategic priorities is Elbridge Colby, in charge of the Pentagon’s strategy and force development office in the Trump Administration and scribe for that administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy. In a recent Wall Street Journal co-authored with my AEI colleague Oriana Skylar Mastro, Colby argued that
the U.S. should remain committed to NATO’s defense but husband its critical resources for the primary fight in Asia, and Taiwan in particular. Denying China the ability to dominate Asia is more important than anything that happens in Europe. To be blunt: Taiwan is more important than Ukraine.
Thus does American security become a kind of strategic Sophie’s choice. But an obsessive “Asia First” strategy—particularly one driven primarily by a shortage of available forces—is not a “metric” of any sort for a global power, particularly not one upon whom any hopes for a durable liberal international order rest. Just as President Franklin Roosevelt made “Europe First” promises to Winston Churchill but in 1942 provided sufficient forces to win the battle of Midway and turn the tide against Japan in the Pacific war, so must President Biden now resist the danger of grand strategic fratricide in Ukraine. While this involves a frightening near-term risk, it is nonetheless also an opportunity to close the long-standing strategy-resources gap. The plain fact is that deterring Beijing is itself a kind of multi-theater requirement across the whole of the Indo-Pacific.
It is hard to imagine anything more corrosive to U.S. deterrent credibility in East Asia than acceding to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Xi Jinping would like nothing better than to see the American imperium stripped naked. Like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping sees the competition with the United States and the West to be systemic and global. He would derive great pleasure from a confession of nakedness on our part.
This, we must never give him.
Giselle Donnelly, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a resident fellow in defense and national security at the American Enterprise Institute.
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