For a short time following the tragic events of the September 11th, 2001, the people of the United States found unity behind a singular cause: rooting out those responsible for the heinous attack and ensuring they could never launch another on the U.S. or its allies. Soon, that unity would once again give way to bickering about the execution of what would become the Global War on Terror, and now, nearly two decades later, the American military finds itself in a difficult predicament. With more assets and a larger footprint than any other military on the planet, the U.S. Armed Forces have entered what could be characterized (somewhat dispassionately) as a slump. Navy collisions, aircraft crashes, training requirements not being met, all despite a larger defense budget than the next three nations combined.

That massive defense spending figure is often touted by those on the Left as they appeal for more extensive social programs on the home front, often bringing up that cost comparison between the United States and the nations widely considered to be its peers and competitors… but then, that’s the problem. While the United States does indeed have competitors, when it comes to the global defense initiative, the United States doesn’t actually have any peers, at least not in terms of investment or in obligation.

With both NATO and the United Nations leaning heavily on the military and financial backing of the United States, America finds itself in the precarious position of both lamenting its role as a global police force and leveraging it for what one could argue is necessary diplomatic gain. America’s military serves as a stabilizing presence in regions throughout the world that remain relegated to the back pages of your local newspaper — but that stability matters not just in terms of cultivating local relationships, but on the world’s stage for the purposes of social credibility and maintaining the security of the shipping commerce so much of the global economy is reliant on. America’s military presence is so expansive that when Green Berets were killed in Niger, America’s response was, “we have troops in Africa?” America has maintained a deployed presence in different regions of Africa for years — in large part because the Global War on Terror truly is a global endeavor.

If the trends of this year continue, the United States will drop more ordnance on Afghanistan in 2018 than in any year prior, yet American headlines are no longer inundated with reports of the ongoing fight, and the headlines outlets do run often go ignored. U.S. troops are being deployed to Europe as a deterrent force to prevent Russia from annexing any further territories unabated, the U.S. Navy has ships steaming in figure eights throughout the Pacific, just standing by for the possibility of an offensive ballistic missile launch. Americans are fighting in countries other Americans have never heard of, but much of the expense we opt to ignore when it comes to defense is because of Americans standing by in and around countries others don’t often think about — their very presence serving as the deterrent that prevents those regions of the world from becoming the next tragedy laden trending topic.

With that understanding out of the way, it begins to make more sense when U.S. Defense officials warn that competitors like China and Russia, despite their paltry in comparison defense budgets, are rapidly catching up with U.S. defense technologies and worse, are on track to exceed them. From a perfectly objective standpoint, even that feels a bit like clever marketing — the U.S. has already fallen behind other nations in a number of significant realms. America currently doesn’t have artillery fielded that can cover more than half the range of Russian artillery, nor does the U.S. Navy have any significant response to the threat posed by China and Russia’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles (U.S. officials estimate being able to test our own two years from now), Russian and Chinese space branches are tasked with disrupting America’s reliance on satellites, China is fielding rail guns on their ships and fifth generation fighters that once secured air dominance for the U.S. The list goes on and on… because while America has been at war with insurgent groups in tunnels and caves, its competitors have been watching, learning about U.S. operational strategy, and building their militaries to suit.

“China has announced goals to have technological parity with the United States in the early 2020s and surpass America in the next decade,” Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a panel discussion at the Center for a New American Security earlier this week.

A little perspective goes a long way when it comes to defense spending

Read Next: A little perspective goes a long way when it comes to defense spending

The General went on to point out the three pronged-offensive nations like China are employing to close the technological gap, and quickly, could use to take the lead:

“[We] have to protect what we have, because the Chinese, if they can’t learn about it, they will try to buy it; and if they can’t learn about it or buy it, they will steal it,” he said. “We know they are active in all three domains — learning, buying or stealing — so we have to be careful to defend the technologies that are important to us, while we continue to develop additional capabilities.”

An entire generation of American adults have grown up in a world with ongoing combat operations they feel they can ignore, and stakes in global conflict that never quite seem dire. The possibility of losing a peer-level war simply doesn’t cross the mind of your average American because of America’s history of fighting elsewhere, and often, winning the conflicts its involved in… but it would be hubris to assume warfare will never again reach a point that represents an existential threat to the American way of life… it would be illogical to assume the fight can never reach us again… and it would be foolish to rest on the nation’s laurels as a means of threat deterrent.

Bombs, bullets and band aids may be keeping American troops in fights all around the world, but it’s research, technology and investment that will ensure the future of American troops — and America itself — in the years to come.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force