Stop me if you’ve heard this argument before: “The U.S. spends more on defense than the next 8-10 countries combined, so we certainly don’t need to spend more.”
President Barack Obama used it in his final State of the Union address, as have some, such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who want to be the next commander in chief. We’re probably going to hear it in the next few days as commentators weigh in on the president’s new budget.
It’s a pervasive talking point. It’s also completely misleading.
However, as with most bad arguments, this simplistic comparison obscures not only the importance of defense spending to U.S. global leadership, but also some basic realities about what the United States, and our adversaries, get out of each defense dollar.
Compared to our top adversaries, the U.S. projects power worldwide. While Moscow and Beijing are primarily focused on regional domination (at least militarily), the U.S. remains the world’s lone superpower. With that status comes economic, diplomatic, and of course, security responsibilities.
There’s certainly some irony in key figures on the left, such as the current chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, criticizing President Trump for “withdrawing the U.S. from the world stage,” while simultaneously calling for decreased investment in our military.
A strong, well-funded military not only enables the U.S. to respond to conflict around the globe, but it also deters bad actors from aggression and reassures allies of our commitment. At the end of the day, there are clear, strategic reasons for the U.S. to spend more on defense than our adversaries.
But even the comparison of overall top-line numbers misses some important realities. More meaningful are spending trends, which paint a far more consistent picture of each nation’s priorities over time—in this case, those trends aren’t encouraging.
Since 1992, China has increased its military investment more than 650% percent. Russia, 58%. Even average global spending on defense has grown 125%.
Meanwhile, U.S. defense spending has grown by just 16%.
Not only have our adversaries consistently been increasing spending in comparison to us, but they also get far more out of that investment. Per the World Bank, in terms of U.S. dollars, China and Russia have 1.7 and 2.5 times the purchasing power of the U.S. in their own domestic markets, respectively.
Imagine trying to purchase a new home, with a budget of $300,000. You get a lot more purchasing power with that amount in rural Ohio than in Washington, D.C.
Our adversaries can squeeze more out of their defense investments for several reasons. Chief among them is that many, particularly China and Russia, are playing with a stacked deck, with the state owning or controlling research enterprises and means of production. When unburdened by such inconveniences as “free markets,” authoritarian regimes can swap that freedom for savings.
For example, China’s 10 largest defense contractors are all state-owned enterprises. Such a system, one built on pervasive corporate espionage and IP theft, eliminates many of the substantial costs inherent to a free-market, rule-of-law-based system.
Another major factor in America’s higher number? The U.S. simply trains and takes care of its all-volunteer force far better than our adversaries do theirs, and that’s expensive. In fiscal year 2016, U.S. active-duty end strength was 1.3 million service members. The personnel budget was $117 billion, or $89,927 per service member.
By comparison, China’s military totaled around 2.3 million active personnel. If Beijing spent what the U.S. did per service member, its personnel spending would have been $209.8 billion.
China’s total defense budget in 2016? About $215 billion, theoretically leaving about $6 billion for all remaining defense expenditures.
Russia’s disparity was even starker: Moscow had 798,000 active troops, and its total defense budget was about $69 billion. To match U.S. spending per service member, Russia would have had to spend nearly $72 billion, or $3 billion more than its total budget.
See the problem here?
Even the way the U.S. fights wars is more expensive. We pay to develop precision munitions that limit casualties. We invest more heavily in force protection. This helps preserve civilian lives and those of our own forces, but it comes at a cost.
Ultimately, what should drive U.S. defense spending is empowering our military to accomplish the nation’s strategic objectives. As my colleagues at the Heritage Foundation highlight in the 2020 “Index of U.S. Military Strength,” America’s military is still in desperate need of rebuilding, even after three years of budget increases under President Trump.
It’s far past time to change that.
As the National Defense Strategy makes clear, “America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.” As our adversaries grow stronger, more advanced, and more capable of challenging us, politicians and policymakers must put aside tired, uninformed comparisons and recommit to investing in our military from a foundation of facts, not talking points.
To do otherwise is to fail in the most basic responsibility to the public and to our service members.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner