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Andrew A. Michta is a senior fellow and director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council of the United States.
US President Joe Biden’s recent speech in the Oval Office marked a key moment in the growing competition between America and its allies, on the one hand, and the axis of dictatorships coalescing around Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, on the other hand.
The speech effectively merged the war in Ukraine and the broader war brewing in the Middle East into two theaters of a single conflict. And if Hezbollah also attacked, it would provide the United States and its allies with a significantly expanded theater of operations, once again straining military resources.
At the same time, Taiwan appears even more likely to become a third conflict zone in the coming years – or perhaps even sooner. And Beijing has been building up its military on a large scale: the People’s Liberation Army Navy already numerically outnumbers the U.S. Navy, while its ground and nuclear forces are growing rapidly.
Meanwhile, regardless of how long the war in Ukraine lasts, Russia is busy expanding its armor production – including recovering equipment damaged on the battlefield – while running a war production system in its country. Moscow showed that it understood the masses; and after a year and a half, the Russian army is now able to fight and mobilize at the same time, with the aim of expanding its ranks to 1.5 million.
Simply put, America’s adversaries are preparing for war. And yet, in Washington, national security debates rarely begin with the fundamental recognition that China and Russia build their militaries not to deter but to attack. This should now be the starting point for any conversation about defense spending by the United States and its allies.
The massive expenditure on arms, ammunition and human lives in Ukraine should be a wake-up call. And the United States must begin to ask whether its all-volunteer force model is up to the task of generating the military capabilities it needs — especially when it comes to trained reserves.
But this is not just an American problem: the model of an all-volunteer professional force has become dominant in the West. And given the new realities we face in Europe and Asia, it is time to rethink. We must recognize that the current number of men and women in uniform is simply not good enough. Western armies, navies and air forces are simply too small to intervene in both the Atlantic and the Pacific – the two interconnected theaters that will determine the outcome of any future global conflict.
The solution here is not to “pivot to Asia” – but to rebuild Western forces with necessary redundancies in reserves. Essentially, in this increasingly unstable world, it is imperative that the United States increase its defense spending and rethink how it spends and generates its forces.
China and Russia, and now increasingly Iran, have disrupted the idea that peaceful competition takes place within a globalized economic framework, and Washington must wake up to this reality.
Deterrence in Europe and Asia requires permanent stationing – not a rotating presence that has been a stopgap measure to avoid difficult choices. If NATO is to survive as a viable alliance, deterrence and collective territorial defense in Europe must be the new priority.
Moreover, in Asia, bilateral security guarantees and regional efforts to stabilize the region must be reinforced by the deployment of the United States and its allies. As we enter a period of prolonged systemic instability, preventing these two regional balances from imploding into all-out war between great powers will be the difference between peace and broader conflict, which could escalate into a global conflagration.
To do this, America must review the way it strengthens its armed forces and its weapons. A good example: Last year, the U.S. Army fell short of recruiting by 25%, and this year, enlistments missed the target once again. The Navy has also failed to meet its recruiting goals, and managing U.S. ship crews is increasingly becoming a challenge.
The United States must therefore move beyond its current reactive statements about “defending the rules-based order” and make the public understand what is really at stake. It must stop talking about “big competition”. powers” and rather wonder what “victory” in this conflict between democracies and dictatorships would really look like; what a geostrategic map favoring its interests and those of other democracies would look like.
The United States must also decide which geopolitical hubs are essential to the domestic security and continued prosperity of its citizens. It must reintegrate national security priorities into economic policy decision-making, relearning what previous generations knew and which we seem to have forgotten over the last 30 years: you cannot depend on your adversary for essential elements necessary to maintain society, and then expect to prevail if that adversary chooses to go to war. Re-shoring critical supply chains and creating redundancies in our supply system through “friendshoring” is no longer a question of re-debating globalization. This is a vital national security priority for both the United States and its allies.
If the United States were forced into war, it would not have time to make up for its deficiencies or build up stockpiles of arms and munitions. The lessons from Ukraine, and now Israel, are that the United States and its allies must reconsider how their militaries are built, so that they can deploy a large force with the required mass – if a national emergency demanded it.
We need a new sense of urgency about the threat we face, and we must act now.