In recent years there have been fewer complaints about unwillingness to use American military power but the size, cost, and mission of U.S. armed forces remain some of the most salient issues facing the American people.
During the recent Presidential election marathon Barack Obama’s opponents attempted to portray him as wobbly on military issues. Perhaps partly in response, Obama embraced a robust stance on U.S. national security, calling for an increase in the size of the U.S. military and for expanded U.S. engagement in the war in Afghanistan.
President-elect Obama’s initial national security appointments come with decades of impressive experience and are solidly within the mainstream of the U.S. overseas establishment.
Obama’s choices are laudable in many respects, especially his decision to retain the thoughtful Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, but if they reflect an absence of healthy questioning about the current U.S. military posture that could be unfortunate over the long run.
In the current year, the United States will spend over $700 billion on defense -including funds for the Dept. of Defense, for U.S. nuclear weapons administered by the Dept. of Energy, for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other military-related items.
Critics point out that defense will account for over half of all federal “discretionary spending” and that in real, inflation-adjusted dollars, the United States will spend more on defense this year than in any other conflict-era year since WW II.
On the other hand, defense represents only about 23 percent of a total federal budget of over $3 trillion, which includes many domestic programs, such as Medicare, Medicaid, and interest payments on the national debt, which must be funded due to legislative requirements or past obligations.
The world is a dangerous place and it does not seem intrinsically out of line for the U.S. to allocate circa one-fifth of its federal budget to defense.
Nor does current U.S. defense spending represent an intolerable economic burden. With an economy of approximately $15 trillion, the United States is currently spending about 4.75 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, a figure which has risen substantially since 9/11 but which is still low by historical standards.
In 1986, at the height of the Reagan-era military build-up, this country spent 6.2 percent of its GDP on defense. In 1968, during the Vietnam War, 9.4 percent of U.S. GDP went for defense while in 1945, at the end of WW II, the United States spent more than one-third (37.5 percent) of its total output on the military.
The United States does not, of course, calculate its defense spending needs based on history nor does it do so in a vacuum, divorced from the range of military challenges we face from the rest of the world.
A comparison of U.S. defense spending with that of the rest of the world produces a striking picture.
The United States is projected to spend more on defense in the current year than the next 45 countries combined, including almost six times more than China, our nearest rival in this field, and 10 times more than our Cold War opponent, Russia.
Indeed, the United States is expected to account for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending this year.
Still another way to look at the issue, is to ask what the United States gets for the massive amounts it spends on defense.
The roughly 1,380,000 uniformed U.S. military personnel represent the world’s second largest standing army, behind the 2,255,000 in China. (If reserve forces are added – as they clearly should be in the case of the United States – this country has approximately 2.2 million active duty and reserve military personnel, while China has 3.1 million.)
In combat aircraft, the United States, with approximately 2600 planes in its inventory, enjoys a substantial advantage over the next largest air power, Russia, which possesses about 2100 military aircraft – although many of these would probably have trouble getting off the ground given the poor state of readiness in Moscow’s post-Cold War military.
But it is in naval forces that the U.S. advantage is truly breathtaking. In the decades before the First World War, Great Britain attempted to maintain a “two navy” standard, that is, London sought to deploy a navy equal in tonnage to its two closest rivals.
Today, the U.S. Navy enjoys a “17 navy standard” – American naval tonnage is equal to the combined total of the world’s next 17 navies. The U.S. Navy exceeds the combined total tonnage of China and Russia by more than three-to-one and it has substantially more combat power than both.
And lest we forget, the United States remains the world’s leading nuclear superpower. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the United States has a total of 3575 deployed strategic nuclear weapons and Russia has 3239.
But Russia’s decaying Cold War era nuclear arsenal is in such sorry straits, that some strategic analysts have suggested the United States enjoys the theoretical capability to destroy the Russian nuclear arsenal in a disarming first strike. And other nuclear-armed countries are not even in the same league. China has 145 nuclear weapons, only a handful of which are capable of reaching the United States.
Despite this massive U.S. numerical, technological, and financial edge, both recent presidential candidates argued that the United States needed to spend more on its military in the future.
President Obama will not be allowed to forget this in the future, as demonstrated by a Dec. 25 Washington Post article which cited Undersecretary of the Army Nelson Ford saying the U.S. Army needed to increase its uniformed strength by at least another 30,000.
What is going on here?
Given the virtual absence of credible military threats against this country, why do we spend so much on defense and what is this impressive military arsenal intended to accomplish? One answer of course is inertia.
The Pentagon makes a supertanker look nimble and despite the commendable but only partially successful efforts of former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to introduce change, the U.S. military is still largely structured to fight a conventional conflict against other traditional-style militaries.
Politics is another part of the answer. The U.S. military budget is a massive source of pork-barrel spending and rare is the politician who has any interest in cutting this back.
Support for the U.S. military has also become one of those Third Rail issues in American politics, like Social Security about which the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said, “Touch it and you die.”
Americans should take legitimate pride in the accomplishments of their military but we need to be able to have a debate on the proper role and size of the U.S. armed forces without those advocating change being labeled as traitors by the other side.
Finally, we need to look at what the U.S. military is asked to accomplish. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review sets out an agenda for a virtually endless “global war against violent extremists who use terrorism as their weapon of choice and who seek to destroy our free way of life.”
This confuses the undoubted danger that the United States faces from a disparate range of terrorist groups across the globe with the ideological and military challenges from fascism and communism that the United States and its allies successfully defeated in the 20th century.
The military has an important role to play in the struggle against terrorism but it is not primarily one that requires massive quantities of tanks, heavy bombers, or capital ships.
(Louis D. Sell enjoyed a long and illustrious career in foreign policy, including positions as Executive Director and Founder of the American University of Kosovo; as Director for Kosovo, International Crisis Group, Pristina; U.S. Representative to the Joint Consultative Group and Open Skies Consultative Commission, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Vienna, Austria; Minister Counselor for Political Affairs, U.S. Embassy, in Moscow and Belgrade; and was a Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Sell speaks Russian, Serbo-Croatian and French, and lives in Whitefield.)