On February 24, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel walked into the Pentagon briefing room to deliver a speech unveiling the defense budget of the United States for the coming fiscal year. Two days later, gunmen without insignia on their uniforms began occupying key positions in Crimea. It was the start of a Russian takeover of the Ukrainian province, a move that has touched off the biggest crisis in Europe since the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
The disjunction between those two events is startling—and worrying. The defense budget Hagel has produced is based on the assumption that (as President Obama often says) the "tide of war is receding." Therefore, in this new era, the United States can afford to slash military manpower levels to focus on longer-term research-and-development projects while relying on a small number of Special Operations Forces and unmanned drone aircraft to protect American interests. Similar assumptions have been made before. They underlay the defense budget cuts of the 1920s, the late 1940s, and the 1990s. In each case, those assumptions were tragically flawed and left the United States unready to face conflicts once they erupted.
But never before has the refutation of the budget-cutting logic occurred within 48 hours of the budget's unveiling.