U.S. Defense Spending Too High?

Robert Farley thinks the United States spends far too much on defense.

Absent supplementals, the United States currently runs a defense budget of just over half a trillion dollars, a number which does not include defense-related spending in other departments. By the kindest calculations, this means that the U.S. spends roughly four to six times as much on defense as our closest competitor. By less kind calculations, we spend about 10 times as much as any other country in the world, accounting for somewhere around 50 percent of aggregate world defense spending. Although the absolute numbers have changed since the early 1990s, the ratios have not. The U.S. has simply dominated world defense spending since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in spite of the fact that most of the other top defense spenders (France, U.K., Japan) are close U.S. allies.

If an analyst had proposed, during the Reagan administration, that the U.S. outspend the Soviet Union by a factor of 5-10, he or she would have been laughed out of government by Republicans and Democrats alike. Today, however, debate over the defense budget almost never results from the question “How much do we need to spend?”, or even “Should we spend more or less?”, but rather “How much more should we spend?” And this is simply insane, given the massive advantage that the United States enjoys over any potential competitor, and the security gains that the United States has accumulated since the end of the Cold War.

Matt Yglesias quips,”It seems to me that if you told the man on the street that you had a plan to spend double on defense what China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran spend combined that said man would assume you were proposing to spend a healthy amount of funds on national defense. Such a standard would, however, imply very large cuts.”

Kevin Drum agrees but gets to the more substantive issue: “If you want to project power over thousands of miles, it costs a lot of money.  Most countries don’t really want to do this.  We, on the other hand, are pretty seriously addicted to it.”

That, rather than defense spending per se, is the real question.   Our defense budget as a percentage of GDP is actually rather small by historical standards.  We can, therefore, sustain what we’re doing indefinitely if we’re only worried about the economics of the thing.

But we could cut defense spending radically, with little to no reduction in America’s security, by reducing our appetite for overseas adventures.   If our goal is merely to be the biggest, baddest military power on the planet — with some margin for error — we could do that with maybe a third of our current budget.  That would be more than enough to deter China, Russia,  North Korea, and any other plausible threat.

If, on the other hand, we’re going to continue transforming our forces into what Robert Kaplan termed “imperial grunts,” ramping up counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we will need to radically increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps and build all manner of capabilities we don’t have.  That, as Dave Schuler noted yesterday, will be expensive.

We could theoretically save money, as Harlan Ullman suggested at a recent Atlantic Council-National War College conference, by turning large parts of our Air Force and Navy into cadre forces.   But that’s likely a wonk’s fantasy, given the political realities.  Building and maintaining expensive ships and planes, after all, brings tons of money into Congressional Districts.  By comparison, language training and flak vests are cheap.

So, if we want to know whether we’re spending too much on the military, we need to ask ourselves what it is we’re trying to buy.  Once we decide that, putting a price tag on it is easy.

Graphic: Hawaii Business

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Here is what we buy. In a war that lasted 6 years we lost (Every loss is tragic) less then 5,000 lives. Viet Nam we lost 58,000. Korea around 40,000. WWII around 400,000. I know we could spend the money we spend on defense more wisely. In that I mean get more for our buck, however I do not want to spend too few bucks to remain free. I do not want to hear that we can get by with less. Ofcourse we can. We can get by with nothing. The question is for how long? Many a football game has been lost because the team holding the points advantage tried to sit on the lead. Everything for defense, not a penny for tribute.

  2. I think there is a lack of context in this post. The issue that many liberals have been pushing is not a call for massive defense cuts, but rather a push back against the idiotic claim that just because Obama is not committing to fund the entire Pentagon wishlist, he is somehow cutting defense — see my post here in response to an insane Robert Kagan op-ed for instance.

    The uptick in recent discuss has to do with the RUMINT that Gates was going to rollout some cuts to several major programs shortly. Jim Arkedis’ pushback to Max Boot provides a good summary and links to the specific issue driving this week’s posts.

  3. So, if we want to know whether we’re spending too much on the military, we need to ask ourselves what it is we’re trying to buy.

    That’s right. And if I may self-promote again, I have an essay in this month’s Armed Forces Journal that tries to spur debate in that direction. See A security strategy we can afford.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    Yes, there are a lot of free riders. If the members of the EU spent 2.5% of GDP on their militaries across the board, we probably could reduce the 4-5% of GDP that we spend on defense.

    However, both Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias originally supported both the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Spending less without doing less is a fantasy. So, what projects that they support do they want to eliminate to reduce military spending?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW note that I support reducing defense spending but I also support reducing our defense commitments.

    There are two additional things that should be mentioned. First, the overwhelming preponderance of the total defense budget is spent on operations and personnel, past and present, rather than on research or high tech procurement. The way to reduce defense spending is to change the nature of the force.

    If we want to have companies that build tanks, military aircraft, and high tech weaponry, we need to buy tanks, military aircraft, and high tech weapononry. No spending on such things, no companies. And once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. You can’t convert typewriter-making factories to machine gun factories overnight as was done during WWII.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    Good article, Bernard. BTW I would prioritize the different roles (in descending order)

    Policing the global commons
    Empowering American alliances
    Preventing interstate war
    Sustaining the Bush Doctrine

    I think it would be interesting to consider how individual policies advance or retard the above. For example, I don’t believe our interventions in the Balkans advanced any of those and IMO should not have been done.

    Intervening in Somalia? Sudan? It would make a could discussion.

  7. You can’t convert typewriter-making factories to machine gun factories overnight as was done during WWII.

    No… but a defense plant is not a defense plant either. You can’t convert a facility working on, say, Airborne Laser, into a production facility for Mine Resistant Vehicles. As a practical matter, virtually all major programs are so specialized that each time you begin it, you are building a new industrial base for it — often in different locations in response in a desire to appeal to certain members of Congress or position closer to military bases that might be involved in testing or deploying the new system.

    In truth, we are constantly rebuilding our defense industrial base.

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    In truth, we are constantly rebuilding our defense industrial base.

    The issue is timeframe. The rebuilding of which you’re speaking takes decades, not days. If we stop building tanks, for example, we’ll have no tank-building companies and no ability to produce tanks if they’re needed later.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Again please note that I want to reduce our military expenditures. However, pursuant to my priorities suggested above, I want to do it by reducing the size of the army.

  10. The rebuilding of which you’re speaking takes decades, not days.

    Well, certainly not days, but not decades either. My point is that basically every new program requires a new physical plant to produce it. True, on the personnel side some of the designers, engineers, and especially production managers move from project to project. But I think the issue needs to be disaggregated between the notion that there is a specialized set of defense industries vs. a set of defense professionals.

    I am probably nit-picking… but I do find it frustrating when people seem to be arguing that we need to continue with a program that we probably don’t need in order to be able to produce some different program in the future, when really, only a limited percentage of the industrial base (mostly people) will actually be transferable. There are of course exceptions… shipyards for instance… but even then, consider how Lockheed was able to turn to commercial shipyards on the great lakes to produce the LCS prototype.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    The talent is the important part, Bernard. I am not arguing that we should be buying things that we don’t need. I am arguing that we need a high tech defense industry, that’s what we’re buying, and that a high tech defense industry can’t just be adapted from civilian equivalents in a short timeframe.

    And to repeat what I said again: the bulk of saving on defense spending must come from changes in the size and nature of the force. That’s where the money is. There is a level in procurement and R&D below which we can’t cut. That may be below where we are now but it would be foolish to let it approach zero and that means that most savings must come from force reductions.

  12. Drew says:

    “See A security strategy we can afford.”

    A very interesting piece, nicely framing the argument for those of us who are only casual observers on the topic.

  13. Brett says:

    There are two additional things that should be mentioned. First, the overwhelming preponderance of the total defense budget is spent on operations and personnel, past and present, rather than on research or high tech procurement. The way to reduce defense spending is to change the nature of the force.

    Exactly, Dave. If you want to keep your military costs down, you keep the personnel numbers as low as possible, while minimizing total operations. That’s what worries me about Obama’s military planning; if they are serious about adding 90,000 extra troops (which runs into issues of quality, NCOs available for training and such, and so forth), they’re going to have to get used to higher costs.

  14. I, for one, do not look forward to a world where the US is not projecting a stabilizing influence on each continent and in every ocean. Despite our faults, we are the good guys. Anybody looking forward to the EU, the UN, Russia, Iran or China filling that role?

    Think the Falklands writ very large.

  15. Wayne says:

    It amazing when some claim that our military is about to break but think we are spending too much on it. IMO the military is still far more capable than any other military in the world. Yes they are strain but if it needed would dominate any other military in the world. That said, adding more troops is reasonable but it will cost more money. Even without an increase we still need to refit some units which will cost more money. I’m also apprehensive about going overboard in cutting new weapons systems. I don’t want to see what happen the last time around when people scream why we didn’t have what we needed. IF you think up armor Humvees, body armor, and surveillance drones took a long time to get in a crisis then try F-22, self propel artillery and such.

  16. mannning says:

    A comprehensive defense strategy should make some attempt to identify the applicable time frames out to perhaps 25 years, and the potential opponents and their likely force compositions. Since it is so hard to predict, especially about the future, as Yogi Berra quipped, we must factor in a safety margin to account for our having to bring long-lead-time systems into operational use.

    The F-22 is a case in point, and it is now in its 10th year or so. It represents an insurance policy against other nations fielding an air superiority fighter that would dominate our current F-15, F-16 and FA-18 aircraft, and by nations that could conceivably be at some point in the future in direct conflict with us. (Right now, the F-22 is capable of besting four F-15s in air to air combat, or so the Air Force says.)

    The obvious candidates for this role are China and Russia, and the time frames are different. I claim it is within the capability of Russian developers to field a fighter of equal or greater capability than the F-22, say, within 10-15 years. For China, I would guess a longer time of 15-20 years, but I have no hard information to go on.

    The Russians now have several fighters that are roughly equal to our current set, so the F-22 represents a direct and dominating counterthreat to the Russian’s newer fighters. The need for the counterforce fighter is hinged on what we think Russia might do in the next 10-15 years, and what China might do in 15-20 years with their development capabilities, including the possibility of surrogate nations leading the actual battle.

    We have a margin of safety in that the F-22 is operational and in production now (in limited quantities), and will be refined over time even further. It remains to be seen if the current administration preserves the production capability and minimal quantities now on the books, or junks the program except for support to the existing versions. We go to war with what we have, and that might not be enough air superiority fighters to make a difference.

    We have been the victim of “technological surprise” before. In the Korean conflict, we deployed F-51 Mustangs that soon met up with Russian MIG-15s, and the F-80s and F-84s were not a match either, so it was with a hard push that we brought the F-86 into the battle in quantity, though late and after serious losses.

    So, who reads the tea leaves and bets our security way downstream on being able to catch up in short order when the need arises? Obama? Will the F-35 be an adequate answer? There are some critical tradeoffs here, and they occur for every high-cost weapons system.

    I hope we make the right choices.

  17. Rob says:

    “IF you want to have peace, prepare for war”.

    I won’t argue that there shouldn’t be better oversight of defense spending, but if America wants to have a quality force with quality equipment, then Defense needs to keep its share of the GDP.

    For those of you who think we shouldn’t be projecting power and influence outside our territory, I’ll ask the same question Charles Austin does; if we don’t have influence, who should? I don’t advocate occupying every country, but is it better if US military personnel train their military folk, showing an example of how an effective military can be controlled by civilian authority, or should we leave that to a local warlord, or the private security firm protecting the interests of a Chinese oil company?

    People constantly make the false comparison of political soft power and diplomacy, and military power. As Clausewitz noted, military force is an extension of political power.

    As for reducing the size of the Army, I’ll ask where you’d make cuts. It’s parts of a whole, and Iraq and Afghanistan really illustrate that all parts are needed. Just because some trooper is in the US doesn’t mean he’s not providing direct and necessary support to someone in theater. Don’t make the mistake of thinking better machines and software will reduce the need for skilled manpower to utilize it, either.

    I’ve spent 21 years in the Army, through the Reagan buildup, to the pre-Desert Storm reductions in force, buy outs of career officers and NCO’s to leave service with less than 20 years; junior Soldiers allowed to separate early from their enlistments. Almost immediately, I saw those same Soldiers and NCO’s called back to duty for Desert Storm, then watched as even more troops were cut from the ranks after the war was declared over. IT wasn’t long after that the Army started deploying large numbers of personnel to enforce that peace, as well as stop Balkan genocide. Whether you personally opposed this deployment or not, the deployments happened at the directive of the President and Congress.
    As part of the “peace dividend” too many COIN assets, like Civil Affairs, Heavy Construction Engineers, and others, were slid into the Reserves. With fewer training dollars, reserve units withered on the vine, losing skilled personnel, and fewer active army officers had the opportunity to train with these assets to be able to face these scenarios.
    Parts of a whole, which ones would you cut?

    The 21st Century has so far proved no more peaceful, nor easier to negotiate, than the 20th was. The events of Sept. 11th aside, enough attacks on US citizens occurred to show that anyone who wanted to attack the US, would do so, either abroad or inside our borders. Much like the piracy in the Arabian Sea, do you let it fester in a spot and hope it won’t expand to touch our interests, the interests of allies?

    Isolationism is a nice idea, it’s too bad humans keep messing it up.

    “Jaw-Jaw is better than War-War” is undoubtedly true, but when those that present a threat do not want to Jaw-Jaw, it’s good to be able to convince them that War-War will cost them more than they are willing to pay.

  18. Rob says:

    Bernard, I really enjoyed reading your article, thanks for the tip.

  19. glasnost says:

    It’s interesting to see the level of berserk denial omnipresent in this thread. Decisions about military spending can not and should not be made in a vaccum from macroconomic and socio-economic circumstances. We’re going to emerge from a recession with a lot of extra debt, while we already spend more on defense spending than on all non-defense discretionary spending combined. Depending on how you define defense, the number gets close to 200%. Meanwhile, our civilian infrastructure – well, the correct word for it is “second-rate”. Slowly but surely, our priorities here our morphing our economy into something resembling the 80’s USSR.

    Blowing sh*t up represents a massive net transfer of wealth from two countries – ours, and the one we’re blowing up – to the rest of the world. We won’t be able to keep this up indefinitely; the best time to start cutting is now. My recommendation is – eliminate half the ranks above 1’st lieutenant, cut all the salaries by 50%, and fire half of the remaining people. What’s the catchy term for militaries so officer-heavy that it becomes a welfare system? That would save a ton of money,.

    PS: You won’t see anything manned that can shoot down an F-22 in 2050. You may never see one at all.

  20. steve s says:

    Calling in the Defense Budget is pretty silly. You could defend the US for $100 billion a year. The other $900 billion a year should be called the Lording Over Everyone Else Budget.

    And before people go off saying “OMG OMG China Would Takes Ovar Teh World!!!!!!!!!!!!1” You should know that china’s entire military budget is $59 billion a year.

  21. Brett says:

    And before people go off saying “OMG OMG China Would Takes Ovar Teh World!!!!!!!!!!!!1” You should know that china’s entire military budget is $59 billion a year.

    The budget they keep on the books.

    Isolationism is a nice idea, it’s too bad humans keep messing it up.

    That’s always the tricky question and issue. Or, as Bernard did well in his article, what do you want your military to do? Are you going to be doing constabulatory missions (i.e. peacekeeping, nation-building, etc), or is it simply a tool to knock out a conventional enemy that gets too powerful?

    Both ideas have consequences beyond the costs; the latter, for example, means that you’d probably have to let a lot of people die in low-level conflict than might happen if you intervened. That gets harder and harder with the advent of widespread internet and phone access along with photography, since pictures in particular have enormous emotive power.

  22. Our Paul says:

    James, may be to late in this thread to point out that indexing defense spending as a percentage of GDP may give a false sense of security and lead to statements such as this:

    Our defense budget as a percentage of GDP is actually rather small by historical standards. We can, therefore, sustain what we’re doing indefinitely if we’re only worried about the economics of the thing.

    A more valid approach is the percentage of the total budgetary expenditures that constitutes defense spending. Viewed from this latter vantage point defense spending increased during the Bush presidency at about an 8% per annum clip, and now constitutes between 27 to 30% of Federal expenditures.

    If one excludes mandated Federal spending (Social Security / Medicare / Medicaid) there for ain’t much left for discretionary spending. Anybody know of a graphic that matches the rise in DOD spending, the increase in National debt, and the loss of revenue by the taxation policies over the past 8 years?

  23. James Joyner says:

    A more valid approach is the percentage of the total budgetary expenditures that constitutes defense spending.

    Why is that more valid?

  24. mannning says:

    PS: You won’t see anything manned that can shoot down an F-22 in 2050. You may never see one at all.—glasnost

    And what is the proof behind this provocative statement?

    The F-22 stealth weapons system is a combination of pilot, aircraft, avionics (including radar and fire control), gun, air-ground ordinance, and air-air missiles.

    I claim there could well be a stealthy Russian fighter fielded in 2050 or earlier that would carry a long-range radar that can detect amd track the F-22 at longer range than the F-22 can detect and track it.

    It would use multiple faster, multi-channel self-homing, longer-range, high-g turn capable, air-to-air missiles. The missiles would be launched, updated by the fighter’s radar/fire control to a point where the missile can initiate its own track, and then home in and kill the F-22 regardless of the maneuvers of the F-22.

    In essence, this would be a “superstealth F-22” that uses more powerful engines, higher-power radar and longer-range, vector-thrust, very intelligent missiles that would best the F-22.

    One might ask also what the developments are in Russia for an airborne high-power laser kill system that would ignite an F-22 at range, and targeting flyability by 2050 or so(i.e 41 years from now.). We have such a system now that is under test, using a large aircraft, so the feasibility question has been answered already by us.

    I would really like to see proof that this is not possible for the Russians to accomplish by 2050. Their development cycles for high performance aircraft have been comparable to ours, and I would bet that their counter F-22 design and development effort for both aircraft and weapons systems has been underway for at least 5 to 10 years already.

  25. Our Paul says:

    James, I will be the first to admit that I am not the brightest bulb on the block, but…

    GDP = consumption + gross investment + government spending + (exports − imports), or GDP = C + I + G + (X − M).

    Proceeding from this expression, we examine the issue of percentage:

    Percentages are used to express how large one quantity is, relative to another quantity. The first quantity usually represents a part of, or a change in, the second quantity, which should be greater than zero. For example, an increase of $ 0.15 on a price of $ 2.50 is an increase by a fraction of 0.15 / 2.50 = 0.06. Expressed as a percentage, this is therefore a 6% increase.

    Now then, as Defense Spending (DOD) is part of “Government Spending”, increases in DOD spending as a percentage of GDP is partially minimized by the increase in government spending.

    In The Bronx (the “T” is always capitalized) it was known as the shell game. Distract the participant with a figure that does immediately compute, and make sure that it is small enough not to impress.

    As my Sainted mother (a Bronx resident) used to say: “No matter how you slice it, it is still baloney”. DOD spending (know and “black” security) now consumes between 27 to 30% of your and my tax dollar. That this is “sustainable”, even if it is not contributing to our National Debt, is delusional…

    Bah, humbug. My apologies for having to resort to the much despised Wiki, but it is Sunday…