The Imperative Of Military Spending — OR — Fun With Defense Numbers

A lot of debate has been stirred up recently regarding the levels of military spending in the US.  Two wars running for the better part of a decade have dramatically inflated our defense expenditures, and the recent global recession has forced many to consider where costs can be cut.  This recent article by Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin discusses the push by Sarah Palin and other conservative leaders to “exempt” defense spending from the Tea Party movement’s calls for drastic cuts in social spending.  Rogin specifically references a speech Palin recently gave, the text of which can be found here.  One interesting part of this article is that it provides some insights into cleavages within the Republican party over the issue of defense spending, with some seeing it as an area that should be subject to cuts and others that think it should be exempt.  I think it also provides a really great opportunity to discuss the theoretical relationship between defense spending and some conceptualization of security.

The struggle here seems to be to make defense spending a category that is exempt from the broader views within the Tea Party that emphasize fiscal conservativism.  Rather, government spending must be decreased, but spending on defense in incredibly important and must remain untouched.  There are a few problems with this viewpoint though as it makes some pretty strong assumptions about the relationship between spending and security.

First, this argument assumes that spending is monotonic–security always increases as spending increases.  The first graph below represents the basic linear relationship between the two variables.  Basically, every additional dollar we spend on defense adds to our security by a constant amount.  Alternatively, it may be the case that some believe every additional dollar comes to have an exponential effect, wherein every additional dollar we spend gives us a greater increase in security than the one before.  The second graph depicts this relationship.

There are, however, alternative possibilities to consider.  It is possible that defense spending produces lower marginal returns for every additional dollar spent beyond a certain point.  The first graph below represents this possibility.  It is also conceivable that the relationship becomes non-existent, wherein increased spending does not affect the level of security at all beyond a certain level.  This might be the case if we assume that, beyond a certain point, all of the goods purchased by defense will never actually be used and/or they do not add to deterrence in any way.  For example, If I have 20 major cities and industrial centers in my state (we’ll assume these are the sole targets of a nuclear strike) then your having 2,000 versus 2,100 nuclear warheads probably makes very little difference in terms of both effect and deterrence.  Additionally, at one not-so-extreme-extreme we might imagine that increasing defense spending eventually leads to negative returns on security, as depicted in the second graph below.

The second graph depicts a case in which such a great share of a state’s resources are going to the military that the situation is simply not sustainable.  This conceptualization, perhaps, takes on a broader view to the extent that extremely high levels of military spending will likely become a burden to national infrastructure and economic capacity, while the other graphs simply make the assumption that spending itself can be constantly increased indefinitely and that the relationship between spending and security exists in a bubble.

Going back to the basic topic, Rogin’s article discusses the idea that sustaining high levels of defense spending is an imperative.  Stephen Walt had an article recently related to the general topic of defense spending, and Defense Secretary Gates has also been in the news quite frequently over the past few months.  In fact, Sarah Palin directly challenges Gates’ insistence that the Pentagon must also trim costs:

“Our Defense Secretary recently stated the “gusher” of defense spending was over and that it was time for the Department of Defense to tighten its belt. There’s a gusher of spending alright, but it’s not on defense. Did you know the US actually only ranks 25th worldwide on defense spending as a percentage of GDP? We spend three times more on entitlements and debt services than we do on defense.”

This  comment in particular further illustrates the problems with using
spending as the primary metric by which defense is judged.  This
by David McCandless provides some interesting graphics depicting the various means by which the level of military spending, and the overall “quality” of the military, can be judged.  It should also be noted that he posts a link to his data, which is highly commendable.  I’ll leave the readers to check out McCandless’ article for themselves, but I’ll elaborate on a few points that I think really demonstrate the problems with the percent-of-GDP metric, as well as discussing other spending metrics.  The graphs below have been created using the same data McCandless used, which itself is from the SIPRI database.  First, here’s the statistic to which Sarah Palin was referring:

This list is, obviously, not exhaustive, but it does provide some basis for comparison.  This data differs slightly from McCandless’ visuals since I’ve only included countries for which measures were available for 2008, while McCandless’ data substitutes 2007 measures where 2008 were not available.  That said, the difference is probably negligible, although Myanmar falls out of the top spot given this decision.  This chart simply depicts the top 20 states in order of defense spending as a percent of their respective GDP.  So it should noted that the scale only goes up to about 12%, not 100%.  By this account, the US ranks 5th (or lower if we used all of the 2007 and 2008 data).  But let’s take these same states and compare their respective GDPs.  For the sake of continuity I will keep the ordering of countries the same as in the previous graph.  Since the basis on which Palin is sounding the alarm is the fact that the US spends comparatively little of its GDP on defense, I am keeping the ordering the same so as to judge how the other states in the first chart stack up when we compare the other measures available:

It should also be noted that in the above graph, the Y axis is in millions of dollars.  That is to say, the top line on the graph is equal to $16 trillion.  Clearly the United States dwarfs the other states on this list when we consider what their GDP actually is.  The next graph depicts defense spending by country.  Remember that I’m still keeping the ordering from the first graph which identified the rankings based on percent of GDP spent on defense.

Again we see that the United States dwarfs the other states on the list.  This begins to get at the problem of using spending as a percentage of GDP.  Clearly we can see that the US’ GDP is just so large that even spending such a low relative percentage of our GDP still means that we are ahead of everyone else by leaps and bounds.  The Y axis has been left to reflect the actual value of defense expenditures for the sake of clarity and impact–all of those zeroes might send a different message as opposed to some reference to scale.  To depart from this initial ordering of states, let’s now take a look at the rankings in terms of defense spending in dollars, rather than as a percent of GDP:

Again, the Y axis has been left alone to drive home just how much the US spends.  It should also be noted that China’s spending on defense is probably higher.  This Foreign Policy article discussing China’s military rise provides some estimates that reach upwards of $150 billion.  This is still far short of US spending levels.  Yet again we see that the US is clearly the leader in global spending and we can see some of the problems with using spending as a percentage of GDP.  In fact, Jordan, the country that topped the list of spending as a percentage of GDP does not even make it on to the top-spenders list in the graph above.  In fact…

The left column represents the defense expenditures from the top 19 countries in the previous chart compared to the United States.  That is Sweden through China added together.  For an even more dramatic comparison, and to offer some variation in graphical styling:

This graph represents US defense spending as a percentage of total global defense spending.  To be clear, this graph DOES include the values for countries with 2007 spending figures.  This figure is likely to be slightly biased against the United States, as there are still missing values for about 10 countries.  That said, the only ones that looks like they could add anything remotely substantive to the global total would be North Korea, Sudan, and Iraq.  North Korea, at least, is most likely absent due to reasons related to transparency.  But given the enormous amounts of money that we are talking about by aggregating global military spending, I doubt that their inclusion would even alter the above picture by more than single percentage point.  Nevertheless, these graphs should represent just how silly it is to using spending as a percent of GDP as the basis on which we judge the US’ defense spending relative to the rest of the world.

So what does all of this information on spending tell us?  What does it say about the security of the United States?  Sarah?

Gates recently spoke about the future of the U.S. Navy. He said we have to ‘ask whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 to $6
billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines, and $11 billion carriers.’ He went on to ask, ‘Do we really need … more strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one?'”
Palin said. “Well, my answer is pretty simple: Yes, we can and, yes, we do,
we must.”


“We must make sure, however, that we do nothing to undermine the effectiveness of our military. If we lose wars, if we lose the ability to deter adversaries, if we lose the ability to provide security for ourselves and for our allies, we risk losing all that makes America great! That is a price we cannot afford to pay.” [Emphasis Added]


“Our Navy has global responsibilities. It patrols sea lanes and safeguards the freedoms of our allies – and ourselves. The Navy right now only has 286 ships, and that number may decrease. That will limit
our options, extend tours for Navy personnel, lessen our ability to secure our allies and deter our adversaries.” [Emphasis Added]

Palin is explicitly linking high levels of defense spending with positive outcomes for the United States in military engagements.  In fact, she explicitly links spending with military effectiveness.  To a certain extent this may be true, but there is a lot that contributes to the effectiveness of a military aside from spending.  The current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have highlighted the problems with relying on conventional forms of warfare when confronted with an unconventional war.  The question really becomes a question of economy of force.  High levels of military spending mean very little if the tools that are being purchased are not suitable for the job at hand.  We are by far the biggest defense spender out of every other country, and yet this massive amount of money has done very little to aid in a speedy end to either war.

For example, judging from the militant death tolls in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ll assume there are (very roughly) 50,000 militants that have been killed since 2001 (see this USA Today article from 2007 and this Wikipedia article, and this grain of salt for good measure since it’s wikipedia).  Also, let’s assume that we’ve spent roughly 4.8 trillion on defense since 2001.  This figure can be obtained by adding up the annual defense expenditures by the US from 2001.  This means that the United States has spent $96 million per insurgent killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Were we to add the defense expenditures of US allies also fighting in
Afghanistan the figure would undoubtedly increase.  Clearly there are problems with this measure–total US defense expenditures go to securing other areas of US interests around the globe in addition to conducting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Also, death tolls are not exactly the best way to measure progress.  As I commented on recently the war effort takes place within a broader set of political considerations and progress is something that transcends the purely military aspect of a war effort.  This is certainly not anything new as scholars, policymakers, and military strategists have been discussing these concepts for quite a long time.  Simply spending more and more money does not automatically imply success, especially if that spending is devoted to obtaining incredibly expensive weapons systems that will have little impact on the kinds of conflicts that we find ourselves in.

To that end, we might think that this sort of emphasis on defense spending will lead to the relationship depicted in the fourth conceptual graph at the beginning of this post.  Continuing to spend more and more on defense could eventually lead to a drastic decrease in security if all of the emphasis is placed on purchasing incredibly expensive weapons systems that are dedicated to fighting the last great war.  High levels of spending are not necessarily correlated with effectiveness, as the current conflicts have shown us.  The current defense budget could be doubled and we would not necessarily see our forces better able to fight groups like the Taliban.  So continuing to increase the defense budget could lower overall security as it implies that attention is not being paid to the techniques and tools that may be more appropriate to combating these sorts of enemies, which are likely to cost significantly less.

Another reason that increasing spending does not necessarily benefit the US is one of personnel.  Without instituting a draft the US can continue to raise spending but may lack the necessary personnel to effectively pursue our desired strategies.  This was an issue a few years ago, and the military instituted the “Blue-to-Green” program wherein Air Force personnel were invited to transfer over into the Army as a means of addressing the Army’s lack of personnel.  I think this tactic really provides a great example of how the military needs to be made adaptable.  Personnel issues could be addressed by shifting unneeded personnel from one branch to another.  We could view this as very similar to budgetary issues wherein money could be shifted around from one program to another, rather than simply ratcheting spending up whenever we see an area that’s lacking.  I would refer the interested reader back to the Walt piece that I referenced earlier as he discusses the notion that the US must make choices over security and defense.

The fixation with overall levels of defense expenditures does not take into account the different options available in terms of force structure that may be open at any given level of spending.  Current levels of spending, as the above graphs demonstrate, should be more than adequate given the spending levels of other states.  Following Palin’s own logic, we should have more units of security than anyone else in the world simply because we spend more than anyone else.  The fact that we spend almost half of the total for global defense expenditures also does not take into account the amount spend by allied nations. If we consider these spending levels as well then it would be more than likely that the vast majority of dollars spent on defense around the globe in a given year are compatible with US security interests.

Palin’s remarks also suggest another motive.  A staple component of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been, broadly speaking, global activism.  Rather, the US has been very involved in the construction of the global economic and security orders for the past 60 years or so.  Palin explicitly states that it is necessary to maintain high levels of military spending so as to maintain the ability to provide security for our allies.  I think that this is an interesting point, largely because it frames the discussion of defense spending on grounds other than the national interest of the US.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it essentially makes the provision of security to our allies a component of the US’ national interest.  This is certainly not new–I don’t think anyone believes that NATO was an equal partnership in the face of the Soviet threat during the Cold War.  I think I’m just surprised to see this mentioned so explicitly here and now.

I also wonder if this isn’t something that’s grown out of the Bush-era emphasis on unilateralism.  A fundamental problem with the Iraq and Afghan wars has been the ability of the US to maintain support from allied nations.  Despite the “coalition of the willing” the US has still born the vast majority of the costs in both wars.  Rather than learning that the US cannot continue to go it alone, it seems that the neo-conservative wing of the Republican party has learned a different lesson–we can’t rely on anyone else so we simply need to spend more to do it ourselves.  Again, this tactic does not address the issue of personnel.

Implicitly though, this is justifying high levels of defense spending by pointing to the redistributional benefits associated with it.  The domestic audience is essentially persuaded that there exists a continued increase in security by increased defense spending, when the reality is that some percentage of each dollar spent actually goes toward providing for the defense of allied states.  So the increase in security is either 1) much lower than they expect for each dollar spent, or 2) stops increasing after a certain point where each additional dollar spent provides increased security for other states.  Such a prospect is further puzzling when we consider that part of the foundation of the Tea Party movement seems to be a rejection of high levels of government interference in the economy and the redistributional politics associated with it.  Rather, the paradox lies in the fact that domestic redistribution is considered something to be avoided, but international redistribution of wealth is aggressively supported through this emphasis on increased defense spending that at least in part is directed toward the provision of security for other nations, their interests, and their populations.




Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

One thought on “The Imperative Of Military Spending — OR — Fun With Defense Numbers

  1. We all know that Palin loves to hear her own voice, and enjoys the lofty checks she makes to speak. However, I do agree with her on the point of allowing the defense and security of this nation the ability to spend money where needed. Unfortunately, as you already know, there are millions of dollars unaccounted for within DoD; thus giving themselves more of a headache. Being in the Army myself, I didn’t see where the money we speak about was being spent. However, I did see a lot of troops stationed at Fort Hood with me (around 60,000), and know that each soldier gets a base pay, a housing allowance, a food allowance (substinence allowance), and then if in combat – combat pay, hazardous work pay, etc. I believe these allowances are needed, and should never be compromised. Now, obviously, there are billions of dollars being spent from other consumable materials – from new buildings to fuel for Apache helicopters, and Humvees. If we don’t train, we cannot combat terrorism, or any other threats. If we don’t deter terrorism, or the other threats to our nation, and national interests, they come to American soils and hit us hard – leading to another war, like the two we are in now. Overall, we need the spending to continue to be the superpower that we are. There definitely needs to be a tighter constraint on the spending, with more accountability. Let’s continue to be the most elite and best trained/suited military in the world-with a little less spending where it isn’t needed. Thanks.
    I have really enjoyed this piece, and am happy to finally be able to read some intelligible articles. Great site, and keep up the great work! Thanks again!

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