WASHINGTON — After President Barack Obama’s 2015 defense spending plan was unveiled, hawkish Republicans were quick to criticize the president for drawing back military funding as Russia intervened in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

“We are deeply concerned that the policy of austerity will be limited to our national security at a time when what we need most is a commander-in-chief willing to lead in a dangerous world and a strong military posture that supports our interests and our allies,” said Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham in a joint statement last month. “If Congress allows the president to continue cutting the defense budget at the pace and depth he proposes, we will have provided neither.”

The president’s controversial plan to rein in defense spending in 2015 by cutting the size of the military – the Army alone would lose about 130,000 troops — has come under fire on both sides of the aisle. At the first Senate hearing on the subject, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee questioned the president’s suggestions to reduce the size of the armed forces and eliminate some existing weapons programs.

“This proposal before us makes reductions in force and structure that will be difficult for many to support,” said Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the committee.

As the debate on defense spending has escalated in recent weeks on Capitol Hill, so has the situation in Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin moved to annex the region Tuesday despite a series of warnings and sanctions from the U.S. and its Western allies that doing so is a violation of international law. On Sunday, Crimean citizens voted to split with Ukraine and rejoin Russia.

At the Senate hearing, McCain confronted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “Your timing is exquisite, you’re coming over here with a budget … at a time when the world is more unsettled than it has been since the end of World War II,” the Arizona Republican said. “The invasion of Crimea … Iran negotiations stalled… Syria has turned into a regional conflict, and the list goes on.”

Lawmakers have also raised concerns about cuts to defense spending as the president negotiates a withdrawal from Afghanistan with a noncommittal leader. Beyond ongoing talks in Kabul and Moscow, the U.S. faces a resurgence of a more decentralized al-Qaida in Syria and Iraq.

Some worry the decreased spending Hagel touted as the first plan to reflect a shift in military spending after 13 years of war would leave the U.S. vulnerable to increasingly uncertain threats.

Obama administration officials are blaming Republicans for the very budget caps they are decrying because of the automatic across-the-board federal spending cuts commonly known as sequestration that took effect last year.

A bipartisan budget deal eased the effects of sequestration for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years, granting the Department of Defense about $497 billion for 2014. Keeping within this spending cap, Obama requested $496 billion for 2015.

Even with the budget deal alleviating the impact of sequestration in 2014 and 2015, Hagel said the 2015 budget proposal was $45 billion less than the amount the Pentagon expected to request last year. The amount is more than $30 billion less than the DOD received in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

“The president and I would never recommend a budget that compromises our national security,” said Hagel when he previewed the budget to reporters at the Pentagon. “Continued sequestration cuts would compromise our national security both for the short and long term. Sequestration requires cuts so deep, so abruptly, that we cannot shrink the size of our military fast enough.”

“A series of difficult choices”

Cuts to defense spending are not popular. A Pew Research Center study released last month reported only 28 percent of the American public support trimming defense spending. Almost half of those surveyed said military spending should be kept the same.

When Hagel described the budget plan for the 2015 year, he said “a series of difficult choices” had to be made to continue to modernize the military’s technology while meeting spending limits imposed by budget deals and sequestration.

Consistent with this legislation, the president requested about $496 billion in defense spending with an additional $26 billion through a separate security initiative.

According to the proposed budget, the Army would shrink in coming years to between 440,000 and 450,000 troops. This would be a decrease from a post-9/11 high of 570,000 during the Iraq War.

Hagel also again asked Congress for base closures. The spending plan proposes an elimination of the Air Force A-10 and U-2 jet programs and a reduction to the National Guard that are likely to meet obstacles in Congress. The budget would slash the Navy cruiser fleet in half and reduce the number of Army helicopters by 25 percent. It also would terminate the Ground Vehicle Program.

The proposal additionally would freeze pay for general and flag officers,cap the pay raise for service members below the rate of inflation and reduce the growth of the housing allowance, causing service members to pay 5 percent out of pocket for housing costs.

Although cuts hit many traditional military programs, the president’s budget allocates more funding than ever before to cybersecurity. The Pentagon is asking for $5.2 billion. The main growth area of the defense budget is in spending on information and intelligence systems, which is up 6.9 percent from 2014.

Sequestration squabbles

When announcing these controversial cuts, Hagel repeatedly attacked sequestration and warned that spending at the proposed levels could leave holes in U.S. national security.

However, the spending plan reflects a Pentagon that is not prepared to come to terms with the realities of sequestration. It requests $26 billion more than December’s budget deal allowed through an additional security initiative for 2015. In the following five years, Hagel is projecting a budget that will exceed existing spending caps by $115 billion.

Christine E. Wormuth, U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense for strategy, plans and force development, said even at this increased spending level, the U.S. will face some increased risk.

“Sequestration levels would be even beyond these risks,” she said.

Republicans say spending cuts should not be applied to defense, but to other more “wasteful” programs.

“Remarkably, we are also learning that the budget request … cuts the Department of Defense while including billions of dollars in new spending for scores of duplicative and wasteful domestic government programs,” McCain and Lindsey said in a joint February statement.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio echoed those complaints in a statement that week.

“But, the fact of the matter is that this administration has been cutting defense since it came into office and doing little to address our real fiscal challenges,” he said. “We need to save Medicare and Social Security to not only ensure future seniors can retire with dignity and a safety net, but also to make sure that we don’t sacrifice our security in order to deal with our debt.”

Stacking up

Although lawmakers and media hone in on the reduction of the Army to “pre-World War II levels,” even with such reductions in play the U.S. will remain the top military spender in the world, and not by a small margin.

According to data compiled by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the U.S. defense budget was only slightly less than the combined total of the next top 14 nations with active militaries.

In 2013, the U.S. $600.4 billion budget was followed by China at $112.2 billion and Russia’s at $68.2 billion.

However, the week the president’s budget was released, China announced it would ramp up its defense spending this year. The country plans to increase its military budget by almost $132 billion in 2014, a more significant increase than it has seen in recent years. Although many say the increase is consistent with China’s economy and political influence, the U.S. continues to closely monitor the build-up.

Hagel said the Pentagon is shifting its operational focus to the Asia-Pacific region. He maintained that even with spending cuts, the U.S. military continues to be the most capable in the world.

“This is a budget that recognizes the reality of the magnitude of our fiscal challenges, the dangerous world we live in, and the American military’s unique and indispensable role in the security of this country and in today’s volatile world,” he said. “But with this reality comes opportunity. The opportunity to reshape our defense enterprise to be better prepared, positioned and equipped to secure America’s interests in the years ahead.”

He called on Congress to make the politically difficult changes called for in the president’s budget in the coming months.

“As we all know, these challenges and choices before us will demand moral and political courage on the part of everyone who has a stake in our national security and our national leadership,” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.