Does America Spend More Than Next 10 Nations Combined on Defense?

A Washington Post fact check calls this "true but false."

John Noonan is tired of the meme that the United States spends more on defense than the next ten nations combined and points to a fact check from WaPo’s Glenn Kessler (“President Obama and the defense budget: a factoid that falls short“) to debunk it.

As the headline implies, President Obama himself reiterated this claim: “I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined.” This was in his speech outlining his new defense strategy.

[T]he president appears to be arguing that the United States has a strong military because its budget is larger than those of the next 10 largest countries combined.  The mostly widely cited public source for this claim is the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, whose military expenditure database suggests that the U.S. military budget is bigger than those of the next 19 countries combined.

However, raw numbers can be misleading. The official Chinese figure of less than $100 billion a year is believed to be dramatically understated; SIPRI pegs it at around $100 billion. The Defense Department believes the real number for the Chinese military to be $150 billion.

Kessler is right that published figures, especially from authoritarian states like China, can be grossly misleading. But the SIPRI database shows China at at $119 billion, roughly halfway between the published figures and the US government’s official guestimate. And even going with $150 billion doesn’t change the claim.

Even that doesn’t tell the whole story, because it costs China less money to buy the same goods and services as the United States. Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, who edits a Web page on Chinese military power, says that using a rough calculation of purchasing power parity, the correct figure for Chinese defense spending would be as much as $240 billion.

This is the more interesting argument. There’s no academic consensus on how to do international comparisons of this sort between advanced and developing economies. PPP is really rather silly here, in that it obscures the more powerful argument on the weakness of the meme, which is that the United States spends a large amount on personnel because it has an all-volunteer force that must be relatively well paid, whereas China has a conscript army that can be paid next to nothing.

On the other hand, such arguments treat soldiers as a commodity. It’s fair to say that America gets more value per soldier than does the PRC because our troops are better educated, better trained, better fed, and have much higher morale and esprit de corps. But those aren’t quantifiable.

 The comparison to China also does not include the fact that because it is not a global power, Beijing may actually spend more on its military in the western Pacific than does the United States.

This is a strange argument. On the one hand, yes, China’s smaller military is focused on a smaller mission set and therefore can bring all of its combat power to the western Pacific. But, aside from the fact that these are political and strategic choices, not immutable facts, this would seem to be a pretty good indicator that China isn’t a significant threat to the United States. After all, we’re not in the western Pacific.

Further, combat power is fungible. Two decades ago, my unit was pulled out of Europe and shipped off to Southwest Asia. Forces dedicated to enforcing other interests can be rededicated relatively quickly, presuming of course they’re the right kinds of forces.

There is also a question of whether one counts just the base military budget or also the spending on the wars such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why is this a question? Surely, fighting wars counts as military spending.

Indeed, even SIPRI urges caution in how its data is used, saying that beyond “very broad and clear comparisons” between countries with vastly different budgets, “attempts to draw conclusions about a country’s level of military capability from its level of military expenditure should be regarded with considerable skepticism.”

Here, again, Kessler is right: Merely looking at money spent won’t tell you about relative combat power. For example, the United States spends almost infinitely more on defense than the Afghan Taliban. We haven’t been able to defeat them despite a decade of fighting.

Then again, neither the president nor others of us who cite the disproportionate spending of the United States are arguing otherwise. Indeed, all the president said was that “we can keep our military strong and our nation secure” with what amounts to a ten percent cut in our spending. Given that we’ve managed to do those things plus fight two fruitless and expensive nation-building wars halfway across the world, that’s almost axiomatic.

Lastly, all this overlooks another fairly key point that I’ll illustrate with this chart from Wikipedia but based on the aforementioned SIPRI data:

Of the twenty countries on the planet that spend the most on defense each year, virtually all of them are strong allies of the United States. Yes, China is 2nd and Russia is 5th. But France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Canada, Spain, Turkey, the Netherlands, and Greece are all NATO allies. The Aussies can be counted on to join just about every fight on our side.  Japan, India, and Brazil are quite friendly.

The more useful point than “the United States spends more than the next X number of nations combined,” then, is that we  and our allies absolutely dwarf and potential foe in military power.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    IMO the entire subject is beside the pont. I see several questions:

    1. Are we getting value for our money?
    2. Can we get better value for our money?
    3. How?

    If you think our military is solely to protect the U. S. homeland in case of attack by a foreign government, we are clearly spending far too much. If you think that our military is the foregoing and to deter such an attack, we’re also spending too much.

    I think that the purpose of our military is to do those two things and to protect our interests abroad and deterring attacks on those interests. That includes things like ensuring the freedom of traffic on the seas and in the skies.

    All of the foregoing notwithstanding, I think that we’re paying too much and our putative allies are paying far too little. So far we’ve been unsuccessful in ensuring our interests and preventing free riding.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Concur with all that. We have global interests but not everything in the globe is our interest–and everything that’s our interest isn’t worth going to war over, either. Or, for that matter, amenable to the use of force.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    We should have listened to Ike:

    This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

    In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    It really would be good to see a genuine review of what we mean by defense, from zero. Of course there are treaty obligations, etc, so it’s not as if we could simply leap instantly from here to there. But it would be nice to have an idea of what “there” is, and a plan to get there from here.

  5. Rob in CT says:

    I just see it as a misallocation of resources.

    I have no problem with looking at it as a % of GDP (rather than just raw dollars), because it makes sense that a wealthy country such as ours will pay its soldiers well, provide them with benefits, train them and equip them well. That’s fine.

    The problem is the scope of their mission. We’ve bitten off too much, IMO. A careful pullback from where we are to a less interventionist (but by no means isolationist) policy would be a welcome change.

  6. ponce says:

    If war spending is included, then the U.S. military budget is larger than those of the next 12 countries combined, the official said. If only base budget outlay is counted, the U.S. military budget is larger than those of the next eight countries.

    The “base budget” leaves out an awful lot of U.S. military spending.

    Homeland Security, Veterans Admin., State Dept., NASA, Energy Dept., etc. etc. combined get hundreds of billions of dollars worth of military .spending each year.

  7. John D'Geek says:

    This is the nature of asymmetric warfare. Pirates and Terrorists spend far less, dollar wise, but are able to produce a terrible amount of damage when they choose to do so. Drug dealers (remember the War on Drugs? AFIK we’re still at war.) are well armed, and can also deal an asymmetric amount of damage.

    Our response to asymmetric warfare is to enhance Special Operations Forces (SOF) capability, but that’s expensive. One well-known statistic: the Navy Seals spend more on ammo in a year than the entire Marine Corps. And they’re not the only SOF we have.

    This is the price of fighting wars in a humanitarian manner: it’s far cheaper (and easier) to kill indiscriminately than to insist on ethical use of force; It’s cheaper to steal equipment from another than to procure it ethically.

    And, lest we forget, wars are faster now: there is no time to “get up to speed” anymore. We have to be ready. Now.

    I suspect Beijing and Moscow are far more interested in preventing the idiocy of the past than anything else; if they were our only concerns the future would be far easier — and far cheaper.

    But they’re not.

    What I find ironic is that no one is pointing out how much the pacifists in the list are spending on Defense (c.f. Japan*). We’re spending 10x as much as … a nation that is forbidden by law from getting involved in foreign wars (recall that the Japanese units in Iraq were restricted to Engineering tasks — and forbidden from getting involved in the fighting — and were only committed after an international consensus).

    * — I’m not sure how much their “mine clearing” budget is, but I doubt it’d make a huge dent.

  8. tyndon clusters says:

    Does anyone remember Marxists? There actually used to be Marxists who taught in universities as late as the 1980s.

    I know because I was taught by a few at UCLA ( Ashcraft and Wolfenstein fyi). Of course, even then, we thought it was just radical chic and no one took their views seriously.

    In fact, I remember one ridiculous assertion was that the defense budget was a boondoggle and that every decade the war machine would crank itself up and fuck up some country for some bullshit reason, and of course, the ignorant masses would go along with the charade.

    As I get older, I am starting to think that perhaps those old Marxists had it right. Lets see, 60s and 70s – ‘Nam…80s – Grenada/Panama….90s – Gulf War 1….2000s – Iraq and Afghanistan.

    And now in 2012, the Muslim threat is getting old and the public indifferent, so of course the new threat just has to be China. It fits the pattern. China will be the next boogieman which “threatens” us, thereby justifying the Pentagon’s insatiable appetite to waste money.

    We had a golden opportunity after the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR disappeared.

    We could have used the “peace dividend” (does anyone remember laughter?) to become Athens, instead we are on the way to becoming Sparta.

    We should take the old Reagan line and apply it to the Pentagon…”Well, if you’ve got a kid that’s extravagant, you can lecture him all you want to about his extravagance. Or you can cut his allowance and achieve the same end much quicker.”

    The DOD’s “allowance” should be cut in half. This includes Homeland Security and the Dept. of Energy since they conceal the true scope of the MI complex.

    This has been a never ending debate and 50 years ago Ike gave his warning which obviously has gone unheeded.

    The new paradigm of warfare is what we just witnessed in the “Arab Spring” uprising.

    The new wars will be fought with iphones, iPads, twitter, Facebook and camera phones.

    To defeat China we need to to covertly support the protests which occur daily in China, not build more attack submarines or carrier battle groups.

    All of our military might has been brought to bear on 30 million Afghanis and we still can’t kick their ass after a decade of trying.

    What hope is there of defeating 2 billion Chinese in any kind of conventional war?

  9. Richard Gardner says:


    The “base budget” leaves out an awful lot of U.S. military spending.

    The same is true of other countries, particularly for paramilitary organizations such as Russia’s EMERCON which, while sometimes described as the Russian FEMA, is closer to the US FEMA PLUS National Guard. A bit of an apples and oranges comparison, particularly the further you get away from NATO.

  10. ponce says:

    The same is true of other countries,

    Yep, but of course, America’s “extra” defense spending dwarfs other countries’ “extra” defense spending.

    The Veteran’s Administration alone has a bigger budget than China’s entire reported military budget.

  11. Two other things must be taken into account:

    1. A substantial portion of the US defense budget is actually to pay for what other countries, especially of Europe, outsource to us (though we don’t charge them for it). We pay 75 percent of NATO’s costs! That is, strip out the innumerable dollars we spend propping up NATO for no good reason, and our defense budget would be at least $100B smaller, I think. More evidence of Europe’s freeloading is here. This is true to a lesser though real extent in Asia, too.

    2. Our personnel costs are over the moon compared to almost every other country’s, and especially to China or Russia. Our troops are the highest paid in the world, all pay, benefits and allowances considered. We pay for an extremely extensive family-support infrastructure as well as a very elaborate medical infrastructure.

    If you took out just these two categories costs out of the defense budget I am confident that you’d find that China’s defense spending and ours are very comparable, if not that China’s is greater.

  12. Barry says:

    @John D’Geek: “One well-known statistic: the Navy Seals spend more on ammo in a year than the entire Marine Corps. And they’re not the only SOF we have.”

    That’s because the Marines have to reuse their ammunition several times 🙂

  13. Barry says:

    @John D’Geek: “We’re spending 10x as much as … a nation that is forbidden by law from getting involved in foreign wars (recall that the Japanese units in Iraq were restricted to Engineering tasks — and forbidden from getting involved in the fighting — and were only committed after an international consensus).

    * — I’m not sure how much their “mine clearing” budget is, but I doubt it’d make a huge dent. ”

    From what I recall, the US strategic plan was that the Japanese Navy was the convoy escort/close anti-submarine force for large-scale wars in the Pacific. It would not be surprising if the Japanese Army play third – or fourth 🙂 – fiddle to the Navy and Air Force.

  14. anjin-san says:

    but are able to produce a terrible amount of damage when they choose to do so

    If they could produce damage “when they choose to do so” don’t you think they would have hit us again, and again, and again since 9.11? The will was there, but not the means. That does not mean we will never suffer another catastrophic attack, but to suggest they can do damage at will is not correct. They are quite a few factors that limit their ability to do so. Successful large scale attacks on wester targets have been relatively few.

  15. mannning says:

    Successful large scale attacks on wester targets have been relatively few

    Past performance is no guarantee of future performance, as the brokers say. In fact, the most devastating attack came as a total surprise. That we have spent a lot of money since then to prevent a repeat of such attacks, and that there hasn’t been such since 9/11, is testamony to a job well done and money well spent.

    To argue that we can back down to a much, much lower total defense budget, including in particular our anti-terrorist activities, is potentially to invite another attack on the homeland as our preventative capabilities wither. As Bush 2 said, “it is better to fight them overseas than in our nation”, to paraphrase him somewhat.

    However, it is logical that we do reduce expenses judicially in areas of defense spending that do not harm our total defensive or offensive posture against the foreseen types of threats. What constitutes judicial reduction today in light of these future threats is the question of the moment. Certainly propping up foreign militaries of fairly well-off nations could be phased down, as could some development programs that could be stretched out if not halted entirely, and perhaps phasing out a number of troops, to arrive at a reduced posture with a savings of perhaps 6 to 8%.

    But then we should be assured that the so-called “peace dividend” savings go to debt and deficit reduction and not to more and more favorite liberal spending programs.

  16. Jenos Idanian says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It really would be good to see a genuine review of what we mean by defense, from zero.

    Screw that, apply that principle to the ENTIRE budget. This whole “baseline budgeting” is a huge factor in why our debt is now the size of our GDP.