National Security & Defense

U.S. Defense Spending and False Comparisons

Flight operations aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Arabian Gulf, July 2016. (Photo: US Navy)
Other countries hide their military budgets, skimp on benefits to their work force, and operate regionally, whereas America’s mission is global.

Rachel Zissimos and Thomas Spoehr over at the Heritage Foundation have done a service to American national security. They recently published a paper debunking, one hopes finally and forever, the oft-used argument that the American defense budget is adequate because the United States spends more on its armed forces than the next eight nations combined.

The English language, rich as it is, is inadequate to describe the falseness of that mode of comparison. I am not accusing those who use it — or most of them, anyway — of deliberate deception. The argument has a facial appeal, and most of those who succumb to it do so in good faith. But the comparison is completely, and I mean completely, misleading.

The reasons rehearsed in the paper are so extensive and well documented that I cannot possibly do them justice here. But here is a summary.

First, many other countries, and especially the authoritarian regimes who are America’s chief adversaries and peer competitors, hide much of their military budgets. To put it bluntly, they lie about their spending. The Chinese, for example, do not count their research-and-development expenditures, the considerable amount they pay for foreign military purchases, the huge subsidies for their defense industry (which is composed mostly of enterprises owned by the state), or their spending on the Chinese coast guard despite many of their “maritime law enforcement” ships being in effect naval vessels.

Second, the purchasing power of America’s defense spending is far less than that of other countries. As Zissimos and Spoehr conclude:

The cost of generating and sustaining relevant combat power is more expensive for the United States than for nearly any other country, especially when compared to major competitors like Russia and China. U.S. concerns for the safety, health, and financial security of its workforce; recruiting, training and sustaining a skilled labor force; and the impact of industrial operations on the environment impose costs not borne by most other countries.

One big factor here is that the American military is an all-volunteer force. The United States does not draft its military personnel, which is a good thing, on both a principled and practical level. But it means that the Pentagon must compete against the private sector for very skilled people. Other countries don’t. As the authors of the Heritage paper note, if China, for example, spent what the United States spends per service member, its personnel costs would consume almost the entirety of its current defense budget — or at least the entirety of what it admits to spending.

Third, since the American military must project power globally, it maintains a worldwide logistics infrastructure that dwarfs that of other countries. To take one example, the United States must maintain one tanker or transport aircraft for every three fighters or bombers, whereas Russia and China’s requirements are, respectively, one-half and one-seventh as great.

To be sure, the logistics system is critical to combat power, but it is not itself combat power. It does not deliver ordnance on the target, yet it is an enormous additional burden that the United States must carry, especially when compared with its competitors.

Finally, the missions of the American military are much greater and more complex than that of other countries because the latter mostly use their power regionally, while the interests and responsibilities of the United States are global. So even if a dollar-for-dollar comparison were valid, it would need to be a comparison of what America is spending compared to what its competitors are spending in each region of the world. Judged by that standard, America is being outspent substantially in both East Asia and Eastern Europe.

Again, the comparison with China is instructive. Virtually all of China’s military is concentrated in East Asia and the East and South China Seas. Only a fraction of American power is based there. Zissimos and Spoehr quote a Rand Corporation study about the implications of this for the United States in the event of a confrontation over Taiwan:

In a hypothetical scenario involving Taiwan, the Rand Corporation found “39 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air bases are within 800 km of Taipei (roughly the range of unrefueled fighter aircraft), whereas there is only a single U.S. Air Force base (Kadena AB) within that distance — and only three within 1,500 km.” . . . Although the U.S. could supplement limited basing and host nation support with rotational forces or bases beyond the unrefueled range of U.S. aircraft, it would require a force approximately three times that of the Chinese force.

America maintains a robust, standing military primarily to prevent war, or at least to prevent escalating armed conflict. Deterrence isn’t cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than the alternative. “The only thing more expensive than deterrence is actually fighting a war,” as the Army chief of staff, General Mark Milley, has said.

Those who argue against increased funding for defense are certainly entitled to make their case, but they should do it by comparing apples to apples. Here’s the right standard for determining the size of America’s defense budget: We should spend what we need to defend the homeland and sovereign national interests of the United States at an acceptable level of risk. The Russians and Chinese are defending their interests, as they define them; the longer we fail to do the same, the greater the risk that somewhere the balloon will go up and we won’t be prepared.


Why We Need to Spend More on Defense

Yes, It’s Time to Increase Defense Spending

It’s Time to Turn the Page on the F-35

Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee. He is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.


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