US defense spending: How much is too much?

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One of the constant refrains among American conservatives is that the US military is the best in the world. Its armed forces are second to none; no other country can come close to competing with it.

Paradoxically, these same people, often in the same breath, are quick to also claim that the US military is drastically underfunded and, furthermore, being systematically starved to death. Spending “only” $606 billion on the armed forces – Obama’s last defense budget – is way too little. The Trump administration wants to raise this figure to $686 billion in 2019, ultimately planning on reaching $742 billion by the 2023 fiscal year.

OK, fair enough, let’s say that the US military is wasting away, despite somehow still being the strongest army in the world. And let’s say we add another $150 billion to the defense budget. But to do…what? We’ll come back to that later.

Just the facts, Ma’am

To begin, let’s unpack the US defense budget. The first obvious fact is that the United States still spends as much on its military as the next eight largest defense spenders combined, and it outspends number two China by a factor of better than three-to-one (these figures according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute).

Moreover, since the 1993 Gulf War, the US military has received so-called “overseas contingency operations” (OCO) funding – special monies added to the “baseline” defense budget to cover extraordinary military actions, mostly US counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East and North Africa.

In FY2018, OCO funding was $83 billion, plus $4.7 billion in “emergency” funding. By themselves, these funds represent the third-highest defense budget in the world. And Trump wants to continue to have an annual budget of at least US$20 billion for OCO.

The word “contingency” is defined as “an unforeseen event,” a “circumstance that is possible but cannot be predicted with certainty.” But after 15 years, most US OCOs are hardly unforeseen, unpredictable, or unusual. And yet the US military goes on, year after year, requesting – and getting – this nice pile of money that it can claim is not part of its “normal” base budget.

Hardly starving

It is hard to see the US military “starving” on $600 billion a year. In the first place, the US military is hardly being “hollowed out,” another favorite mantra of the conservatives. The hollow military argument goes like this: Irresponsible defense spending cuts have emaciated the military, both in terms of personnel and equipment, and have delayed procurement, maintenance, and training. Consequently, the US military is too weak to defend the country or its national interests.

In fact, this argument itself rings hollow. Steven Kosiak, who served as the associate director for defense and international affairs in Barack Obama’s Office of Management and Budget, has shown, in a paper written for the Center for a New American Security, that per-service-member spending on military operations and support (O&S) has more than doubled between 1980 and 2016, even after taking inflation into account.

Just as important, spending on things like military research and development (R&D) – the seed corn of future military capabilities – has over the past 30 years been largely shielded from cuts by presidents from both parties.

Living in the past

Ultimately, it’s not how much the US spends on its defense, it’s how the money gets spent. Here, conservatives seem to be painfully in love with the past. They have called for, among other things, building more tanks, more submarines, more fighter jets, and the like.

But again…to do what? Trump’s “America First” strategy de-emphasizes Nato and other global commitments. But if America dumps its alliances and pulls out of Europe and Asia, why does it need such a huge military in the first place?

In fact, the US faces no land-based threats along its northern and southern borders, while the oceans provide huge buffers. Washington could easily cut its navy and air force by half, and its army and marines by two-thirds, and easily defend the homeland. After all, how many aircraft carriers do you need to sail up and down the Pacific coast?

Better than you think

In fact, things are better than naysayers argue. The US military is the strongest armed force in the world, and it will likely remain so for a long time. It is continuing to get new aircraft carriers (to preserve a force of 10 carrier strike groups), new attack and ballistic-missile submarines, and it is working on next-generation bombers and even a sixth-generation fighter (when most countries do not even possess a fifth-generation fighter).

And yes, the US greatly outspends its rivals, but it also maintains a global footprint – as it should – which requires a much bigger force capable of projecting power everywhere in the world, and its manpower costs and technology demands also rate a much higher level of spending.

Have some faith, too, in the US Defense Department’s long-term strategic planners. The FY2019 defense budget puts the lion’s share of its R&D funds into non-MDAP (major defense acquisition programs) – things like advanced surveillance and reconnaissance, hypersonics, drones, artificial intelligence and robotics. This is where the money should be going.

While hidebound and conservative in some respects, the US military is still a pretty future-oriented force, and when it says it does not need things like more tanks, people should at least consider their arguments. This is particularly true when one understands that national security is always a matter of making trade-offs and accepting certain risks. That said, $600 billion, more or less, is probably enough to do the job.

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