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Cutting Defense Spending

By Taylor Marvin

As the debate over the US federal budget deficit has grown in the public consciousness I thought I’d look at the arguments for preserving America’s high level of defense spending. Here’s my take:

1. Some level of defense spending in necessary to provide the deterrence that permits representative government and economic prosperity.

At first glance defense spending that buys weaponry never used in combat seems a waste. By this measure the spending that funded American tanks in Europe during the Cold War was squandered. However, even if defense assets are never actually used in war they do provide value — the price of deterrence against aggression a military provides is the tangible cost of peace. Finding that exact cost is difficult; ideally and most efficiently a country would spend the exact amount on defense necessary to deter all opponents and no more. Additionally, while the United States spends a greater fraction of GDP on defense than other liberal democracies their lower spending is likely not indicative of the true costs of deterrence; in the absence of the American security guarantee Europe, Japan, Korea, and other wealthy allied nations would spend more of their own money on national defense. The presence of this American defense subsidy for the liberal world supports the idea of a certain minimum level of defense spending necessary for a stable and secure society.

However, the United States spends far beyond the level needed to simply deter foreign aggression. Some of this excess is justified: if America wishes to fight long foreign wars and lead international humanitarian interventions military spending must support these needs. Despite this, American defense spending is ultimately disproportionate to its purpose. The US Navy is a good example of this excess. America currently has eleven aircraft carriers and the runner up, the UK, two. The only carrier armed nation that could be considered a potential US enemy, Russia, has one. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the America’s deterrence value would not be diminished even with substantial defense spending cuts; that is, China would not be more likely to invade Taiwan if the US only possessed, say, only seven six billion dollar carriers. This logic applies to all aspects of the military. Because America’s military capability is so beyond the minimum necessary to maintain an effective deterrence even if the US government reduced its defense budget America’s overall security and ability to project power would remain largely constant.

2. The opportunity cost of defense spending is not as significant as it appears.

The United States spends 20% of federal spending on defense. Critics of the defense budget argue that the true cost of military spending lies in its opportunity cost, the fact that the money could be spent elsewhere combating America’s social problems. Supporters of defense spending counter that many of America’s persistent problems are not due to lack of funding. This reasoning is convincing. US educational spending per student is actually quite high despite America’s poor education results. Similarly, the United States spends twice the OECD average on healthcare for less than average medical care and health levels. Clearly, much of our inability to improve social problems is not due to lack of spending but rather to inefficiencies and waste, weakening the argument that cuts in defense would benefit other areas of government responsibility. However, this argument is weaker than it appears. The main benefit of defense spending cuts would not be transferring these funds to other areas but removing them from the federal budget altogether. In the last year both voters and politicians have become more and more aware fundamental unsustainability of the American federal budget deficient. While America’s budget woes cannot be remedied solely thorough military spending cuts because of defense’s large share of federal spending any reasonable plan to reduce the debt must include defense spending cuts. Anyone who claims to be fiscally conservative yet categorically rejects a reduction in military spending does not understand this fundamental truth.

3. Defense spending funds research and development and new technologies that lead to economic growth and social advancement.

This argument is largely true. Many of the hallmarks of the modern era like the internet, microchip and communications satellites all sprang from military funded research and military needs and acquisitions drive much of the cutting-edge technological research that the US leads the world in. However, this is misleading. If anything, this reasoning harkens back to the older arguments used to justify the Apollo-era space exploration spending; while enormously expensive, the Apollo program was justified by the the technological advances its produced. It’s true that the space program produced many innovations but going to the moon wasn’t a particularly efficient way to fund them. That is, if the goal of the space program was to stimulate the research necessary for powdered orange juice it makes a lot more sense to just fund Tang development. The same applies to defense spending. If we value the products of military R&D then its much more efficient and cheaper to just fund interesting research. Justifying military spending by pointing to its side benefits is technically correct but ultimately a poor argument.

4. The US needs to maintain its lead in military capability and US military spending is quite low in terms of percentage of GDP.

This is a common argument. By slashing cutting-edge programs like the the Air Force’s F-22 fighter aircraft or the Army’s Future Combat System vehicle program, critics of reducing military spending argue, the United States is losing its military lead over its rivals and imperiling its future military dominance. This is certainly true. By choosing to widely adopt the less capable multi-role F-35 fighter over the more expensive F-22 the Pentagon is reducing its effectiveness in a future conventional air war. This applies to other programs as well. However, this argument should be taken with a grain of salt. It is important to remember just how dominant the US military really is. The US Navy can project power anywhere on the face of the earth — this unique capability is only remotely approached by the UK. Furthermore, the US Army can quickly dominate any opponent in a conventional conflict- this power is unique in the modern world. No nation remotely approaches the fighting capability of the United States. The majority of countries that do come close to the US in military training, equipment and ultimate capabilities are all firm democratic allies. This lead is even stronger among potential US adversaries: the defense spending of Syria, North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China are all dwarfed by the United States. China, the closest the Unites States has to a hostile comparable power, spends less than 1/6 of the US’s actual military budget. For the smaller nations much more antagonistic to the US the disparity is even greater; ultimately, even substantial cuts in US military spending would not endanger American dominance.

The second aspect of this argument — that US military spending is actually low as a percentage of GDP is true but misleading. This argument is fairly prevalent: Sarah Palin recently endorsed this view to support her opposition to any degree of American defense cuts. It is true that at under 5% of GDP American defense spending ranks at 25th in the world. However, nearly all countries that rank above US military spending as a percent of their total economy are tiny, impoverished non-industrial nations: Oman, Eritrea, the Maldives… none of these high spenders are exactly military behemoths. Overall, nations that spend over 4% of GDP on defense are either those facing extraordinary security situations (Israel) or poor countries with misguided spending priorities. In fact, this trend continues for those ranked below the US in terms of spending as percent of GDP: the next highest fractional spending rich democracy is Australia, trailing at 43rd. Any way you look at the data the US spends an enormous amount of defense, both in absolute and fractional terms.

5. Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that the the US needs to spend more, not less, on the armed forces to ensure their effectiveness in the modern world.

The American experiences in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that despite the US’s vast military spending and unmatched capabilities America does not have the ability to decisively win the unconventional conflicts that characterize the modern era. However, this is not a convincing argument for a greater defense budget. The most expensive items in the military’s budget are those that have the least relevance to the type of low intensity wars the US has been fighting for the last two decades: the F-22, advanced communications nets, an airborne laser missile defense system… all of these weapons systems are built for a large conventional war with a powerful state. Make no mistake counter-insurgency is enormously expensive but the tools to fight it are less so. Cutting the defense budget would reduce America’s effectiveness in a future war with China which, let’s admit, is not very likely but preserve the US’s ability to fight the low-intensity conflicts that dominates modern headlines. Of course in a perfect world America would build an overwhelming dominance against any potential adversary, not matter how improbable. But can the Unites States continue to spend trillions of dollars out of a finite and shrinking budget to prepare for a major war that is very likely to never come?

Additionally, in the last few decades the world has entered an era where technological advances lead to less, not greater, returns on military investment. In the 1950’s the only way to deny a powerful enemy control of the air or sea was to challenge it on equal terms: limiting an enemy air forces’ operational capability required a billions of dollars investment in a comparable air force. The same applied to sea and, to an extent, land power. However, technological advancements have reduced the investment needed to impede an enemy’s dominance. In Vietnam the North Vietnamese could not hope to challenge the might of the American air force but were able to use much cheaper surface to air missiles to prevent the American from fully exploiting their advantage. Similarly, poorer nations unable to fund a navy can use affordable technologies like anti-ship missiles to destroy a richer nation’s billions of dollars of naval investment. In the modern world while weak nations still cannot replace the dominance of powerful ones advancing technologies allow them to deny the powerful from making use of their theater control. While massive defense spending is still a prerequisite to military power it is becoming less relevant to the ability to exert control and achieve victory. Increasing the military budget is not the path to winning future wars.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. I cannot express the words to adequately convey how strongly I agree with this post. We have no real military enemies and yet we devote such a large share of our resources to defend against these phantoms.

    While it is true that there are hostile nations, they offer no real military threat. The true danger is economic and our insane military spending exacerbates the problem.

    Any true danger to our national security will come as it has this century from small groups of terrorist, either violent or cyber – neither of which can be brought down by an aircraft carrier, or a tank.

    October 6, 2010

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