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National Security & Defense

The Next Ten Largest Militaries? The U.S. Budget Isn’t Even Larger Than the Next Two

U.S. House Armed Services Committee receives testimony from Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley on Pentagon’s fiscal year 2021 budget request in Washington, February 26, 2020. (Amanda Voisard/Reuters)

General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, warned that China and Russia together spend more on defense than the United States does “if they put all their cards on the table” during a Senate Armed Services Committee this morning.

That conclusion doesn’t mean a lot by itself. For one, it’d be important to see an analysis backing that count and describing how the Pentagon assesses the two countries’ budgets — probably by including spending that complements their officially reported defense budgets.

It does speak to a broader, disturbing trend, and raises some uncomfortable questions. Are we able to compete? Should we be cutting the defense budget, as President Joe Biden’s recent budget proposal would do? Some might dispute the relevance of Senator Jim Inhofe’s framing of the question, addressing Moscow’s and Beijing’s combined spending, that prompted Milley’s answer — but with Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border and China’s clear intent to take Taiwan, the pertinence of the discussion is self-evident.

Milley’s comments also give lie to the already-deflated, yet still-too-persistent talking point that the U.S. spends more on its military than “the next ten countries combined.” That argument was already devoid of meaning because, after all, it said nothing about America’s defense needs and capabilities, nor about its adversaries’ abilities to threaten its national interest. Defense-cut advocates just hung that half-baked political argument on a superficial look at nominal defense budgets, without claiming anything specific about U.S. national security.

It makes for a catchy political meme, though. Progressives have recited it as an article of faith for several years, most recently in March, when a group of 50 Democratic lawmakers wrote to Biden about his upcoming budget request: “We could cut the Pentagon budget by more than ten percent and still spend more than the next ten largest militaries combined.” That wasn’t true then, and it’s even more evidently false today.


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