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National Security Fairy Tales: US defense spending vs. the rest of the world

defense spendingby Peter Huessy

“The US spends more money on defense than all the countries in the rest of the world together.”

Sound familiar? Years ago, Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream invented the “Oreo” briefing as part of his efforts as founder of Business Executives for National Security (BENS). Each “Oreo” represented $5 billion in defense expenditures. He stacked up the US “Oreos” compared to other countries such as China, Russia, and North Korea, and showed a really big stack of American “Oreos” while the Chinese and Russian “Oreos” were much smaller. Ergo, he concluded, the US can afford to get rid of a lot of its “Oreos” in fact more than half.

This claim is now a common media refrain and favorite fortune cookie analysis of the left. Among those seeking to cut US defense spending dramatically that indeed is their new bumper sticker: “The United States spends more on defense than all the rest of the countries in the world.”

Is the statement true? It actually is not only not true, when you think about it even if it were true, it still remains nonsensical on its face.

Here are the top ten reasons:

10. The bad guys spend a lot more than we think they do. Our adversaries do not openly publish all their defense spending. In fact the Chinese exclude most of their categories of expenses from any public data; so whatever we think the bad guys spend, its still not accurate. They spend a lot more.

9. A dollar spent by the China buys more than a dollar spent by the United States. So spending the same would make the US less capable.

8. Our soldiers require more extensive and costly training. Thus even if we were spending more, that does not necessarily mean we have a bigger military. Since 2000 personnel costs have doubled. That is one reason we spent what we do.

7. Conscript and draft militaries like the bad guys have are relatively cheap. However, elements of our adversaries militaries are still very capable although they cost a lot less than our forces. If the bad guys like Russia and China paid and trained their soldiers what we pay and train our soldiers, their “official” defense budgets would more than double in spending.

6. Our adversaries need only be where geographically they want to be. If we value both the security of the Persian Gulf and the Korean peninsula, for example, we have to be able to protect both areas; (even if our allies like the Republic of Korea and Japan provide a lot of help as well). For the US, that is more expensive.

5. Bad guys do not look just at what we are spending, they look at what we are building and deploying and how we exercise such capability.

4. When bad guys do look at our spending trends they look for commitment; they have seen since 2009 and through 2023, including sequestration, the US plans to cut a cumulative $2.175 trillion from our defense budget even while Russia and China will have added nearly $1.5 trillion to their own defenses.

3. Its a bad idea to spend on defense only an equivalent amount as is being spent by the bad guys.

2. Its a bad idea to think the constitution requires us to “insure only a fair fight” with the bad guys. Apparently it is now considered bad form to spend more than the bad guys.

And finally, the number one reason to ignore the claim?

1. The US is the leader of the free world. We spend what we have to spend to protect our country. If that is more than the bad guys spend, well, so what?

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Peter Huessy is the President of Geostrategic Analysis located in Potomac, Maryland outside of Washington, D.C.