Bang for the Buck

How much defense spending is enough?  Faced with big budget deficits, a reluctance to pay taxes, and a sluggish economy hard put to square the circle by generating wealth, inquiring American minds want to know.  In 2007 the American defense budget was about $470 billion.  In 2012 the defense budget was running about $550 billion a year. That’s a lot of bucks.  What did Americans get for the money?  They got an Army of 569,000 soldiers on active-duty; an Air Force with 1,990 fighter planes; and a Navy with 286 ships.[1]  That’s a lot of bang.

It’s a common-place that the American defense budget is equal to the combined defense spending of the next seventeen countries on the list.[2]  That bald statement argues for cutting spending without sacrificing security.  However, it needs interpretation.  On the one hand, it assumes that the “interests” of the United States and those of the other countries on the list are symmetrical.  They aren’t.  China’s primary interests are in the Far East; India’s in South Asia; Russia’s in the countries bordering it around the huge arc from Eastern Europe to Eastern Siberia; South Korea’s in Northeast Asia; France’s in Western Europe and the Mediterranean.  Decision-makers in Washington have to worry about the Far East, South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Latin America all at the same time.  In terms of possible operations, the American military has to face a range of threats from nuclear war to conventional war to guerrilla warfare to terrorism.

On the other hand, it assumes that fighting power is closely linked to budgets.  It isn’t.  Russia and China pay, house, feed, and care for their troops at a much lower level than does the United States.  Military equipment also is comparatively cheap in low-wage economies.  More importantly, how big is the Taliban’s defense budget?  Drones at a million and a half dollars a pop kill enemies, but the culture of a primitive area causes new ones to spring up like dragon’s teeth.

Perhaps it isn’t how much money a country spends that tells you something about its attitude toward military power or its sense of pressing danger.  Perhaps it is the share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) a country will devote to military power that is key.[3]  In 2012 the United States devoted 4.7% of GDP to defense, Russia 4.4%, the People’s Republic of China 2.1%, and the European Union countries 1.7%.  China’s neighbors don’t appear to feel deeply threatened–yet.  Japan spends 1.0%, Taiwan 2.3%, Vietnam, 2.5%, South Korea 2.7%.  On the other hand, not all of Russia’s neighbors seem to feel secure.  Georgia spends 5.1% of GDP on defense.

On one SIPRI list Iran devotes a nominal 1.8% to defense.  Other estimates put it at 2.7% and back in 2006 the commander of the US Central Command called the Iranian military the most powerful in the region.  Moreover, the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons and willingness to use proxies in Iraq and Syria make them far more menacing to their neighbors than the statistics alone suggest.  As a result, Saudi Arabia spends 8.9% of GDP on defense, Oman 8.4%, and the United Arab Emirates 6.9%.  Perhaps those high figures reflect doubts about an American security umbrella.  They may also hint at an informal alliance with Israel to prevent Iran from finishing its drive for nuclear weapons.  War is coming to the Persian Gulf if the Iranians don’t blink.


[1] “Downsizing the Military,” The Week, 5 October 2012, p. 13.

[2][2] See the rankings by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) presented at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_military_expenditures

[3] Ibid.

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