Providing for national defense is among the most important functions of government. A strong military is vital for ensuring that our lives and liberties are secure, but how much is enough when it comes to military spending? Answering this question is more complicated than it might seem, which is reflected in the military spending debate.
The amount of money needed to maintain the greatest military in the world cannot be determined in a vacuum; instead, it requires a clear-eyed understanding of what we want our men and women in uniform to do, and what sort of arms and equipment they need to do it. Military spending is not simple to determine, and it requires a rigorous assessment of what threats the country faces and the best strategy to counter them.
The United States budgeted approximately $700 billion for military spending in 2018. This money can be divided into three main categories: the base defense budget, the overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund, and portions of the Department of Energy’s budget related to maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons. Next year, the United States will spend even more on the military, with a total of $716 billion authorized by Congress.
It is important to note that even this number does not capture all defense-related military spending in the federal budget. Todd Harrison, a budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that the President’s Budget Request for 2019 also contains significant amounts of money for veterans benefits and services, as well as defense-related tax expenditures, that ought to be considered as part of the overall military spending debate. When these elements are included, total military spending exceeds $1 trillion per year. Setting aside the hundreds billions spent at the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Veterans affairs, U.S. military spending more than doubles that of Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.
Every year, the federal budget is formed of two categories: mandatory and discretionary spending. Congress has already committed to so-called mandatory spending, which covers most major entitlement programs and is a little over half of total federal spending (estimated at 53 percent of the budget in 2019). The discretionary budget is the money that Congress debates every year, funding the military, education, and other domestic programs.
At about $1 trillion, military-related spending is by far the largest part of the discretionary budget. It takes up around 21 percent of total federal spending, or a little under half of the money that Congress can directly choose how to spend. In recent years, both the Republican and Democratic parties have enthusiastically accommodated high military spending. The budget process has been characterized by bipartisan deals that allow Republicans to raise military spending in exchange for allowing Democrats to raise the amount assigned to domestic programs. In 2018, Congress approved a budget that increased discretionary spending caps over the next two years by roughly $160 billion for Pentagon spending and $128 billion for domestic programs.
Decades ago, this might not have been a problem, but the fiscal realities are different today: The United States is in over $20 trillion of debt and runs budget deficits in the many hundreds of billions of dollars. Unfortunately, the military spending debate often fails to take this into account. Whether you think that Congress should spend more on domestic programs, pay down the debt, or return money to taxpayers, $1 trillion is a hefty price tag.
Many experts and members of Congress are loath to decrease military spending, arguing that even more money is needed in order to keep the country safe. This is because they have embraced the grand strategy of “primacy,” which demands that the United States military be actively involved in all areas of the world simultaneously. Primacists believe that to keep the country safe, the United States should use its military to spread democracy, oppose peer competitors with armed force, and maintain an extensive system of alliances and military bases in key regions such as Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Unfortunately, this strategy is incredibly expensive and since the United States military is bound to so many different treaties, it must be ready to defend as much as 25 percent of the world’s population. In fact, when all is said and done, the country may spend as much money on its military as the next eleven countries combined. Most importantly, this approach isn’t necessary to keep us safe given the limited number of real threats to our country as well as our strong conventional military, our powerful nuclear deterrent, and advantageous geographic position far away across oceans from other powers
America’s wars of regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq have also been very expensive. Not only have these wars claimed the lives of American soldiers and members of local populations, they have also played a key role in driving military spending. A November 2018 study by the Costs of War Project at Brown University found that total war-related spending and obligations for veterans through 2019 has cost taxpayers just under $6 trillion.
Other experts have proposed alternative approaches to grand strategy. Often grouped together under the term “restraint,” these scholars and policy professionals believe the expensive activism that primacy requires is not necessary, and may prove counter-productive. Military interventions in the Middle East might have initially been designed to fight terrorism, but studies show that this has been counterproductive. Following their logic, negative and unintended consequences have, in fact, produced additional threats.
Overthrowing governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya has not created peaceful democratic governments, but rather has opened the door to instability and chaos. Extensive alliance commitments have played a historic role in containing adversaries. However, they also encourage rich and prosperous allies to “free ride” on American security, threaten major powers, and can encourage bad behavior from governments who know that if they get into trouble, the United States will bail them out.
A grand strategy of restraint would fundamentally rethink how the United States engages with the world. America would continue to be deeply involved with other countries by trading freely and engaging diplomatically with them, as well as engaging in cultural exchange. It would not, however, use its military as the tool of first resort to solve global problems. In the words of President John Quincy Adams, America would go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” but instead work to solve problems at home and serve as an example of the liberal values we cherish.
Analysts have proposed a number of small ways that, taken together, could add up to serious reductions in military spending. The Institute for Spending Reform, for example, has compiled a list of many ways that the country could save money in the Pentagon budget while maintaining or even enhancing its strength. Closing excess bases for example, might yield substantial cost savings if it could overcome political obstacles.
A real decrease in military spending can only come from a more serious recalculation of America’s foreign policy priorities and strategy. As long as the country embraces primacy, it will need to spend a significant portion of the budget on the military. Ultimately, trying to defend a quarter of the world’s population is very expensive.
Adopting of a grand strategy of restraint, on the other hand, would allow for substantial cost reductions. The United States itself is the safest and most secure great power in history. Our neighbors to the north and south are friendly and weak. To our east and west lie vast oceans that prevent meaningful threats to the homeland from foreign powers. With a powerful navy patrolling the seas, a more restrained United States could begin to reduce its standing army and close the vast network of overseas bases.
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen famously remarked that “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” His remark acknowledged the fact that America’s economic prosperity affords this country’s military superpower. To preserve this advantage, sound fiscal practice must complement smart spending choices. Of course, it’s impossible to discuss military spending without considering military strategy. Precisely why strategic and operational alternatives that privilege vital national interests merit further consideration.