According to what we’ve learned from the second Republican primary debate, America’s military has crumbled into dust. Jeb Bush said he wanted to “rebuild the military” that, according to Marco Rubio, “we are eviscerating.” Carly Fiorina, who was widely agreed to have “won” the debate, often got specific: she wants “50 Army brigades… about 36 Marine battalions… somewhere between 300, and 350 naval ships… to upgrade every leg of the nuclear triad,” and much, much more.
But it isn’t just the candidates. Neoconservative Military Analyst Max Boot says that “If Congress and the president can’t agree on more funding, our military capabilities will atrophy, and our enemies will be emboldened — heck, they are already.” He references a recent report from the influential conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, which argues for a military strategy that would “require substantial sustained reinvestment.” They argue that we “should consider… setting a floor of spending 4 percent of the country’s GDP on defense.”
When reading conservative discussions about military strength, one develops the sense of having suddenly walked into a strange fever dream. The United States is, without parallel, the world’s most powerful military power. There is no nation on Earth with the ability to defeat us in a full-on confrontation. True, they’re right in saying that military spending has declined in recent years, primarily due to a draw down in the number of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and sequestration cuts. But to say that this is somehow a sign of America growing weak and feeble on the global stage is absurd.
Before we begin, let’s put recent military cuts into perspective. Between 2013 and 2021, military spending will decline by 31 percent. That’s a smaller decline than in the years following the end of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, even though we’re now at a time when we’re ending two wars at the same time. As of 2013, the United States’ military spending constituted more than a third of all global military spending, despite having less than 5 percent of the world’s population. Currently, America is spending more on its military than the next seven nations combined, four of which are close allies of ours.
Critics may point out that current military spending as a percentage of GDP is less than its average in most of the 20th century, but that makes perfect sense when you consider that America is no longer facing down a competing power. With the end of the Cold War, America remains as the unipolar world military leader, without competitor. In fact, despite all you may hear otherwise, the world is by almost all metrics a much safer place than it was throughout the last century. Terrorism is a serious global problem, yes, but the odds of an American being struck by lightning are almost four times greater than the odds of them being killed by terrorism. Despite this, last year we spent a larger percentage of our GDP on our military than both Colombia and Pakistan, nations which are facing serious terrorist threats within their own borders.
But, wait. What about China? Aren’t they actively trying to overtake the United States as the world military power? People like Heritage Foundation Analyst Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. believe that “Countries like Russia, China and Iran are investing in advanced military platforms, sensors and missiles, exploring new designs for nuclear weapons and leveraging their home advantage”, while “our armed forces are shrinking and our equipment aging.” Former U.S. Senator and member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USESRC) James Talent agrees, arguing that China “has watched [U.S. defense cuts] carefully, drawn the obvious conclusion, and stepped up its provocations in the western Pacific.”
In reality, the reports of the extent of China’s rise are exaggerated. The USESRC itself has released a lengthy report detailing the significant weaknesses still pervasive in the Chinese military. Along with being systematically corrupt, the Chinese military is also much weaker than it appears at first glance. Soldiers are poorly trained, and a variety of critical hardware is severely outdated.
However, it is well-known that China has been undergoing extensive modernization of its Navy recently. Though it is often claimed that China seeks to go from having a green-water navy (regional power) to a blue-water navy (global power), most of their ambitions appear to be focused regionally. China hopes to overcome the natural maritime military weakness it has as a result of having its waters blocked off by Japan, and become a regional hegemony with control over the East and South China Seas, along with exerting significant control over trade routes in the Indian Ocean.
Even with such ambitious goals, however, China’s navy won’t be able to compete with ours. The United States effectively operates 20 aircraft carriers, while China currently plans to build only four or five. In reality, China’s regional aspirations are something that should be recognized and managed through careful diplomacy and balancing. Responding to these plans with aggressive expansion of our navy, however, would be both a dramatic waste of money and an escalation in what is currently a non-violent low-intensity situation.
Alright, then, what about Russia? Putin is intervening in Ukraine and Syria, and he’s trying to start rebuild the Soviet Union, right? Wrong. As I’ve previously explained, Putin is intervening in other nation’s affairs with the intention of simply boosting his domestic popularity among voters, and choosing a military rather than a diplomatic response to his aggression would only escalate the scenario further, as a failure on Putin’s part to respond with force to American intervention “would defeat the political purpose of intervening in the first place: showing off Putin’s strength to the Russian people.”
So, if terrorists attacks are a comparatively minor threat to the United States, China doesn’t pose an immediate threat, and Russia shouldn’t be dealt with militarily, what reason do we have to spend even more on our military than we currently are? The answer is that there is no reason. In actuality, our military is currently a bloated behemoth of waste and unnecessary funding. The Pentagon has grown so large that it can not even be properly audited in its current state, leaving it “to spend money on new supplies it doesn’t need and on storing others long out of date” while “repeatedly fall[ing] prey to fraud and theft that can go undiscovered for years.” Sometimes, as in the case of funding for operations in Afghanistan, spending records are just kept secret. When an organization too big to even check their own books refuses to tell the public about what they’re doing with their money, perhaps we should be worried.
But this hasn’t scared off Congress, who sometimes gives the Pentagon more money than it even wants. In January, the then-Army Chief of Staff literally asked Congress to stop buying them tanks, as they are throwing away “hundreds of millions of dollars on tanks that we simply don’t have the structure for anymore.” In 2014, Congress passed a spending bill that gave the Department of Defense $3 billion more than it requested. Large portions of that additional funding will go to the defense industry to develop new weapons systems. Perhaps part of the reason that congressmen are so willing to throw unnecessary money at the military is that the congressmen who have the most power in making those decisions also receive the most in campaign contributions from the defense industry. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous warning to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
There are plenty of examples of money currently being spent that makes us no safer. We maintain a collective 237 military bases in the safe nations of Germany and Italy. The most expensive weapons system that anyone has ever designed, the $1.5 trillion F-35 fighter jet, has been heavily lobbied for by its creators despite being “at least seven years behind schedule and plagued by a risky development strategy, shoddy management, laissez-faire oversight, countless design flaws, and skyrocketing costs.” It is set to replace jets like the A-10, which is by many standards superior to it. The United States continues to maintain an enormous and disturbingly under-prepared nuclear weapons program that is far larger than it needs to be for deterrence purposes. The list goes on and on.
Finally, though it isn’t politically popular to point out, attempting to intervene everywhere at once hasn’t worked out too well as a defense strategy. Americans must have a debate over whether or not funding a global empire is in our best national interest. Doing so, honestly facing the facts, we may realize that it benefits some congressmen and wealthy business interests, but that it isn’t doing a great job of contributing to our safety, or anyone else’s for that matter.
America is a country with only two neighbors, both of which are friendly, and unimpeded access to both the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean. Between NATO and countries labelled as Major non-NATO Allies, we have military allies on all six inhabited continents. We are, by far, the world’s largest and strongest military power in existence. And the fact of the matter is that we don’t need any more military spending to keep any of that true, or to keep us safe. Rearranging funding to meet new needs is something that can and should be done, but America can survive just as safe as it is today with at least $100 billion a year less in military spending, funding which could go towards a variety of other, more productive uses.
Originally published at theodysseyonline.com on October 20, 2015.