Too Much Bang for our Buck: How excessive defense spending hurts American interests

By Andrew Doris


“Balancing the Military Budget” by David Saveliev

President Trump recently scolded American allies for not funding their fair share of the NATO defense compact.  He had a point: while the U.S. spends 3.6% of its GDP on its military, nations like France and Germany only spend 1.8% and 1.2%, respectively.  For decades now, Europe has relied on the American taxpayer to subsidize its defense, so that it can divert its own tax dollars into robust social safety nets.  At a time when his own nation faces steep fiscal challenges, it’s fair for the President to ask these nations to start defending themselves.

But if the President wants to equalize this disparity, he shouldn’t wait for Europe to boost its own defense spending: he should simply reduce ours.  Despite dubious doomsaying from nail-biting neoconservatives, doing so would not leave Americans noticeably less “defended” from any plausible threat to their safety or wellbeing.  It would, however, combat a series of perverse political incentives which ultimately hurt U.S. interests at home and abroad.  As such, spending less on the “defense” of American interests would actually serve those interests better.

America’s $700 billion defense budget can be broken down in several ways. One is by appropriation (Table A-8) wherein 24% goes to wages/benefits, 20% to procurement, 12% to R&D, and 42% to operations and maintenance.  Another is by component agency (Table A-9); notice that the Army, Navy and Air Force budgets are remarkably similar (within 3% of each other), a strategically dubious (but politically convenient) coincidence that’s held true every year since the mid-1960’s.

But the most sensible way to understand defense spending is by relative capability provided.  What are Americans paying for their military to be able to actually do?  And how does that compare to what its potential adversaries are able to do?  Although a comprehensive answer is not possible in a single article, even a cursory analysis of the size, reach, and avowed strategic objectives of the United States military reveals the great misnomer of U.S. “defense” spending: it’s only “defensive” under a fancifully broad definition of the word.

Certainly, $700 billion is unneeded to defend the physical safety of U.S. citizens from foreign attack. That’s pretty well secured already by America’s 4,000 active nuclear weapons (maintained mostly by the Dept. of Energy), which is 13 times as many as experts believe necessary to deter attack from any foreign nation.  That safety is augmented by America’s geographic isolation, economic might, and immense cultural soft power.  Globalization has fostered economic interdependence between nations, making aggression between them historically costly.  Meanwhile, the internet and cheap travel have connected faraway cultures and evolved public attitudes in ways that strengthen popular opposition to expansive war. The cumulative result is an international climate wherein total war between major powers is almost unthinkable, and hasn’t been seen in decades.  All of this combines for a tremendous deterrent effect before the Pentagon spends a dime.

Afore this backdrop, the United States pays to maintain utter military dominance over every nation on earth, be it by land, sea, or air.  It’s 19 aircraft carriers are as many as the rest of the world combined, and 18 more than Russia or China possess. It has dozens more nuclear submarines than anyone else, and patrols these in every ocean of the world, during every minute of every day.  The U.S. Air Force is the largest and most capable fixed-wing Air Force in the world; the second largest is the United States Navy/Marine Corps!  The Army’s M1 Abrams tanks are at least as good as the closest Russian and Chinese competitors (the T-90 and Type 99, respectively) – except that the U.S. has over 6,000 Abrams, while Russia has only 800 T-90As, and China has only 500 Type 99s.  It also has 2-3 times as many attack helicopters as Russia or China, plus “ownership of the night” thanks to the widest distribution of the best night-vision technology.  It has the most robust drone surveillance and unmanned airstrike capabilities by far.

All of this equipment can “talk” on one secure, GPS-enabled digital platform; for example, if a U.S. tank commander locates the enemy, he can mark it on a screen in his tank, so that every helicopter pilot and artillery captain in the area will immediately see it on their screen as well.  The Soldiers using this equipment (like the equipment itself) are the most battle-tested of any major power, due to recent combat experiences in diverse operational environments (mountain and desert, conventional and asymmetric, etc.). They occupy 800 military bases in 70 countries across the world.  In concert, these factors provide the United States military with unparalleled reach, mobility, communication, stealth, flexibility, and logistical support – capabilities that simply dwarf those of any prospective aggressor.

Given all this, it’s tough to argue that American citizens are in need of so much defending.  Americans are not so skittish as to demand exponentially less risk than every other nation on earth is willing to assume; even if all those U.S. figures were cut in half, they could sleep soundly at night knowing they were well and thoroughly protected from any external threat.  As such, the United States could retain an emphatic defensive military advantage with a far cheaper force than the one it currently maintains.  

And yet, it continues to fund an overall budget three times as large as that of its nearest competitor, and greater than the next seven largest combined (of which five are allies).  Benjamin Friedman of the CATO Institute summarizes why: “the real reason that U.S. military spending is so high is not the threats it meets but the ambitions it serves.”

The actual purpose of spending $700 billion a year on a military is to advance (err, “defend”) a vague set of so-called “security interests” across the globe, many with only a tenuous, hand-waving connection to American people’s wellbeing.  The President periodically outlines these “interests” in a document called the National Security Strategy, after which the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff uses the President’s guidelines to shape a National Military Strategy (NMS) describing “how we will employ our military forces to protect and advance our national interests.”  When DoD leaders give Congress their annual budget request, they state how much they think they’ll require to execute the strategy laid out in the NMS.

The current NMS cites a “need” for the military to “remain globally engaged to shape the security environment and to preserve our network of alliances”.  It also cites a “need” to “counter revisionist states that are challenging international norms as well as violent extremist organizations (VEO)s.” It lists Russia, Iran, North Korea and China as examples of “revisionist states”, and al Qaeda and ISIL as examples of VEOs.  And while it concedes that “none of these nations are believed to be seeking direct military conflict with the United States or our allies,” it nonetheless opines that they “each pose serious security concerns” which “will result in greater risk to our country and the international order” without “a full range of military options” capable of defeating them.

In other words, the U.S. defense budget is funded as if it “needs” to be able to defend Europe from Russia, South Korea from North Korea, Iraq from ISIS, North Africa from al Qaeda, Israel from Iran, and the Spratly Islands from China all at the same time!  This is what it means to “keep the lights on.”  This is what it means to be the world police.  This is why U.S. policymakers feel compelled to buy dozens more aircraft carriers and thousands more tanks than anyone else: they assume that coercing the behavior of faraway governments in a way that advances their “regional interest” is not only worthwhile, but requires constant readiness to win multiple wars at the same time, in far flung regions of the world, with minimal help from American allies.

Such an expansive vision of what American taxpayers must defend may have originated in America’s WWII memory of a simultaneous, multi-front war against geographically dispersed aggressors.  But today, it’s driven mainly by a poetic vison of the United States’ role as a “Global Force for Good:” an exceptional nation destined (and exclusively able) to protect the world from the menaces of communism, theocracy, and the ever-growing Axis of Evil nations.

This romanticized understanding of “defense” is inextricably entwined with America’s defense budget.  It justifies the spending, and is justified by the spending, each sustaining the other in an almost symbiotic relationship.  And there lies the reason that defense spending damages America’s foreign policy interests: the strategic vision it enables is tragically misguided and counterproductive.

Spending $700 billion a year on a military legitimizes an unsustainable strategy of total, eternal, global military dominance that sets America up for failure.  It entrenches a behemoth military bureaucracy, and enriches a spider-web of special-interest rent seekers, each of which become inoperable tumors on America’s fiscal and strategic flexibility.  It prompts overconfidence and overcommitment from American leaders, exacerbating politicians’ traditional tendency to make promises they can’t quite keep. In turn, it burdens the U.S. with effectively one-directional defense guarantees, and fosters lackadaisical dependency among American allies.  

Worst of all, carrying such a gargantuan stick tempts policymakers to swing it at flies, launching shortsighted military adventures that later prove foolhardy, if not catastrophic.  These interventions may serve the short-term interest of politicians seeking reelection, or of concentrated industries seeking a dependable revenue stream; but they do not serve not the long-term interests of the American people, nor the world at large.  They rob innocent foreigners of their lives, loved ones, and political autonomy, creating more enemies of America than it had before. They invite blowback on American soil, engendering panic and racism; in turn, they inflate an *internal* defense apparatus which spies on Americans, curtails their freedoms, and justifies itself as a “wartime measure.”  It seems unwise to cut military spending during such “times of war”; yet America has been at war for 17 years and counting, and the spending itself is part of the reason why.  It self-perpetuates.

It’s high time to end that deadly, costly cycle.  The United States is far enough ahead of Russia and China militarily (let alone Iran or North Korea) – and all-out war with either nation is far enough away on the horizon of conceivable developments – that it can continue to challenge them and deter their aggression internationally without funding a military capable of crushing both simultaneously for the duration of peacetime.  To claim otherwise is to “overstate the difficulty of deterrence,” and miscast our rivals’ “generally pragmatic leaders as zealots willing to risk economic dislocation and nuclear war for nationalistic adventures.”  It is to portray the world as more fraught with military aggression than it remains today.

Inversely, the U.S. military has proven so ineffective at countering non-state threats that America’s interests demand it abandon the effort. The occupation of Iraq was an abject failure that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, only to leave Iraq and America worse off than before.  The war on terror is an ongoing disaster that’s also killed thousands of innocents, only to increase the number of global terrorists and terror attacks which threaten the West.  Every significant military intervention in the average American soldiers’ lifetime has made things worse.  There’s no reason to expect future “defensive” expeditions will do better, and Americans would save both money and lives to not find out.

With all this in mind, to even call the current budget “defense” is disingenuous doublethink.  If what it really pays for is a military capable of initiating hostilities against Boko Haram, Bashar al’Assad and Kim Jong Un all at once in pursuit of vague U.S. preferences, one might as well call it the Department of Attack.  And considering how ill-fated American attacks have been in recent decades, that’s not a department worth $700 billion.  Americans do not get much bang for that buck – or perhaps, they get too much bang.


The ultimate question is not whether the United States should pursue its interests, but which security strategy serves its interests best.  Broadly speaking, there are two options. Friedman explains:

The primacy strategy of global military dominance fails to guide choices among military responses to danger. Because primacy sees threats and prescribes forces almost everywhere, it offers little basis for budgetary limits or prioritization. In that sense, it is less a strategy than a justification for expansive military ambitions.

A strategy of restraint, by contrast, would husband U.S. power and focus planning on actual threats. By keeping U.S. forces out of avoidable troubles, restraint would reduce the number of wars the Pentagon must plan to fight, allowing big reductions in military spending. A less busy military could be a smaller and cheaper one.

A more sensible President would see the wisdom of the latter strategy quite apart from the savings it produces. He or she would appreciate the immense difficulty of predicting long-term political outcomes abroad, and instinctively decline the even greater and riskier challenge of successfully intervening to improve them.  This President would therefore reevaluate America’s ambitions as a global guarantor of peace and redirect military attention toward the narrower focus of deterring and repelling attacks on U.S. soil. Finally, this hypothetical President would beware the temptation offered to future Presidents by an idle military juggernaut, and so work with Congress to make unilateral aggression less seductive.  In sum, he or she would ask less of the military than has been asked of it for decades, and then to adjust the defense budget in a manner consistent with this reduced responsibility.

But until such time as this human paragon of humility and foresight assumes office (and don’t hold your breath waiting), Congress can direct this strategy in reverse.  As Friedman notes:

“budgetary restraint can drive…strategic restraint. Heightened resource constraints encourage service leaders to squeeze overhead costs more than instructions to find fat. Spending constraints also require more prioritization among goals, which is the essence of strategic planning.

The ideal defense budget would pay only what is needed to accomplish cost-effective defense objectives.  Rather than waiting for DoD leaders to request less responsibility, reducing defense spending outright would force them to accelerate the military’s transition from an overextended Global Force for Mayhem into a truly defensive organization that better serves the interests of the American people.

Andrew is a 2015 graduate of Johns Hopkins University, a former Legal Intern at The Federalist Society, and a future President of the United States. For now, he rants about politics, philosophy, and the Green Bay Packers at






6 responses to “Too Much Bang for our Buck: How excessive defense spending hurts American interests”

  1. […] case against military adventurism.  The external impact of an overactive US military is tragic and strategically damaging; in light of this, debating its internal impact seems almost heartless, and beside the point.  The […]

  2. […] to maintain national defense, which no longer means defense of the national territory but “defense of American interests.” This is the semi-official name of the sacred concept — trotted out by the government […]

  3. […] care of nationwide protection, which not means protection of the nationwide territory however “protection of American pursuits.” That is the semi-official identify of the sacred idea — trotted out by the federal government […]

  4. […] for more restrained foreign policy. The external impact of an overactive US military is tragic and strategically damaging. In light of this, debating its internal impact seems almost heartless, and beside the point. The […]

  5. […] article originally appeared at Realist Review in the summer of 2018. The Democratic congressional takeover marks the first realistic chance to do […]

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