(Bloomberg) -- Joe Biden came to office declaring America is back. Now, facing hot wars in the Middle East and Ukraine and a simmering cold one with China, the US is beginning to look overextended.
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The US defense industry — Biden’s “arsenal of democracy” — is struggling to produce enough artillery shells to ensure Ukraine can keep firing them at Russian forces. The Pentagon is bombing targets in Syria as it rushes air defenses to the region to protect troops in case Israel’s war against Hamas prompts new attacks by enemies. Taiwan, another American ally, has stepped up orders for American weapons as China confronts it over strategic sea lanes.
In capitals across Europe and Asia, officials are growing worried that some partners might ultimately be shortchanged as the surge in simultaneous challenges strains the US ability to respond and its defense industry struggles to produce enough weapons for all these conflicts. Rivals in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran, they fear, won’t miss the openings that creates.
Adding to the alarm is the presidential election just over a year from now that may return Donald Trump to the White House with his talk of pulling out of alliances, making deals with Russia and openly confronting Iran and China. Already, Biden’s $106 billion budget request for aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan is running into headwinds from Republicans in Congress.
Biden has raced to reassure leaders around the world that the US would be able to confront all the threats at once and deliver on its promises of support.
Privately, however, administration officials concede that the crisis in the Middle East has upended what had been a key tenet of their global approach – that the long-tumultuous region was finally heading into a period where it wouldn’t require such a big US commitment, allowing Washington to focus more on the threat from China. That eastward pivot is likely to be slowed, officials said.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had to hastily recast the online version of his 7,000-word essay for Foreign Affairs on “The Sources of American Power” this week to delete a reference to the Middle East as “quieter than it’s been in decades.”
The US had been pulling resources out of the region to send them to confront China and Russia, confident that Israel, having reached historic rapprochements with key Arab countries, would be able to ensure its security without as big a presence from its main ally, according to a person involved in the discussions. That’s now all in question and the US has pushed Israel to delay its ground offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as it shores up defenses in the region. Israel’s failure to detect the Hamas assault and defend itself once it started has also raised questions about its vaunted military capability, according to US officials.
Since the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, the US has been rushing forces back to the Middle East. Biden dispatched two aircraft carrier groups and air-defense systems to the region, and put thousands of troops on heightened alert, in what officials call a signal to Iran and other rivals in the region not to join the fight when Israel launches a widely expected ground invasion of Gaza.
But that message of deterrence doesn’t seem to have gotten through. This week, the US sent warplanes to strike targets in Syria – its first military action in the region since Oct. 7 – after a string of attacks by Iran-backed militias had injured more than a dozen troops at US bases there and in Iraq.
Administration officials underline there are no plans at the moment to have US troops fight on the ground in the Middle East. But Biden, who even as vice president was known for telling aides in the Situation Room that superpowers don’t bluff, is fully aware of the risks that the American forces may be drawn in if efforts to contain the conflict fail.
In Ukraine, the US has been adamant from even before Russia’s February 2022 invasion that it wouldn’t get directly involved in the fighting, instead marshaling allies and providing military and financial support that’s been essential to Kyiv’s ability to push back Moscow’s forces.
Beyond stopping Russia from taking over its neighbor, that effort sent a signal globally, helping dispel any illusions that China may have had that US power was on the decline after highly visible setbacks like the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan in 2021, one US official argued.
But now, with Ukraine’s counteroffensive this year making slow progress against Russia’s defenses and questions in Congress growing about the continued commitment to support Kyiv as the war settles into a standoff, the global message looks less clear. The Kremlin, for its part, is betting that it will be able to outlast the US and its allies.
Already, Moscow seems to be winning the race in artillery shells, which have become a key weapon in the conflict. Ukraine has depleted limited US and allied stocks and efforts to escalate production, especially in Europe, have faced setbacks.
The conflict in Ukraine has “exposed the fragility” of the US’s defense supply chain, the Army Science Board warned last month, saying that the US is “struggling to ramp up the production of munitions.” Recent war games, some of them classified, have shown that that US stocks of key precision and standoff weapons could be exhausted in as little as a few days in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the report said.
Now, Israel is also seeking some of the same kinds of shells Ukraine needs for its war against Hamas. Taiwan, at the same time, has ordered some of the same air-defense weapons that both Israel and Ukraine use.
“Our industrial base was not prepared to have to restock so many different types of weapons for multiple different partners at the same time,” said Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of Defense for policy. “In all three cases, our ability to equip train and support these partners is really the primary means by which we can safeguard our own interests,” she said.
With military spending at the lowest level as a share of the economy in more than two decades, the defense industry isn’t ready for a sudden buildup. There are now only five so-called prime contractors, the top of the defense food chain. In 1993, just after the end of the Cold War, there were 51.
Even if the stars were to align in Washington for a major boost in expenditures on defense, US government finances are already under intense pressure with borrowing costs rising.
“The US risks overreaching at a dangerously complicated and uncertain time in the world during a time when we see historic American dysfunction, incompetence and division in our ability to govern,” said former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
--With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs.
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