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