No, we are not spending “as much on our military as all other countries combined” – and other facts about the defense budget you should know

Apparently, some politicians have a hard time understanding the defense budget and its context.  A little background: on June 22nd the local news reported that “Durham County’s Fraternal Order of Police is demanding an apology from a councilwoman after she posted to Facebook saying “the most dangerous people with guns are cops and soldiers.”  Even for the most liberal city in North Carolina her appalling statement was a bit much.  (Polls show that the U.S. public in general has more confidence in the military than any other institution in American society – and the police aren’t far behind).

Accordingly, shortly thereafter the politician posted what she described as a “clarifying statement” that in part asserted that the “US spends as much on our military as all other countries combined.”  I can’t imagine her source for this claim, but it doesn’t track – at all – with anything I can find.

What do other politicians say?  In his State of the Union address, the President most assuredly did not say the U.S. spent more on the military than “all other countries combined” (after all, there are 170 countries that spend a combined $1.68 trillion on defense).  He did say, however, the U.S. spent “more on our military than the next eight nations combined” (other experts say the right number is the next seven countries).

Why does the U.S. spend so much?  Part of the answer is, of course, the U.S.’s worldwide commitments.  As the Washington Post put it last year, “The U.S. is bound by treaties to defend a quarter of humanity.”  An analyst explains how this impacts the relative defense costs of the U.S. vis-à-vis its top competitors:

[T]he U.S. has different goals than its rivals — goals that are much, much more expensive. The U.S. has commitments to defend allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.  We have to keep aircraft carriers sailing the seas and maintain overseas bases just to meet our existing commitments. That dramatically reduces the amount of money we would actually be able to spend on a major war.  China and Russia, of course, have no such global commitments.

What is more is that there are things in the U.S. defense budget that simply don’t appear in those of other nations.  For example, many countries do not put health care for families and retirees into their military budgets as the U.S. does.  And this is a lot of money: the Congressional Budget Office reported in 2014 that in 2012 DoD offered healthcare to 10 million people (of which only 1.4 million were active duty troops) at the cost of $52 billion.

Additionally, contrary to what a lot of people think, the Pentagon – not the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) – funds retired pay for military personnel.  This is expected to cost the Pentagon about $55 billion in 2017.  Again, other militaries don’t include this expense in their defense budgets.

Active duty troops are costly as well.  The Chief of Naval Operations told Congress in 2013 that “[a]bout 50 percent of every Defense Department dollar goes to personnel predominantly as compensation.”  Why?  Given the U.S. reliance upon an all-volunteer force, it is obliged to pay a competitive salary (keep in mind that 85% of 18- to 29-year-olds say they would “probably” or “definitely” not join the military).  It isn’t an easy job as this writer points out:

The level of sacrifice asked of our military in recent years is historically unprecedented, and America’s warriors are not getting rich enduring it.  In fact, 1.5 million of them need food stamps to supplement their incomes, scores have trouble finding post-service employment, and tens of thousands will live the rest of their lives without ever being made whole again, having left things on the battlefield that defy monetary valuation.  (A little clarification: the 1.5 million figure refers to veterans; but as many as 22,000 active duty troops also use food stamps.)

Nevertheless, in 2014 the Pentagon found itself spending almost $60 billion just on basic pay for those currently serving.  This translates into a new soldier earning about $18,000 a year, and an average pay Army-wide at about $39,000.  (The average civilian salary in Durham, NC, for example, is reported as high as $55,000; while other statistics put the household income at $48,241).  In any event, one of the ways that China can afford to continue to increase its military capabilities and still keep its budget lower than the U.S. is to pay its military personnel about a ninth of what U.S. military does.

Yes, by world standards, the U.S. military is well paid (especially when non-salary benefits are considered).  But what about the brass, are they overpaid as some seem to think?  You be the judge: because of salary caps set by law, the absolute most any general can make in base pay is $15,125.10 a month or $181,501.20 a year.  That would even include four-star generals with decades of service and who bear the responsibility for thousands of lives and billions of dollars in equipment.

A lot of money?  Sure, but here’s a comparison for you: on day one of his or her legal career, a young attorney will make about the same ($180,000) at a top American law firm.  Another comparison: in 2014 some NBA players made $286,585per game…for playing basketball.

Beyond personnel costs, the defense budget also contains some $71.8 billion for research and development (R & D); mostly for weapons systems, but also for some activities that other countries wouldn’t fund from defense outlays.

For example, the Defense Advanced Research Agency’s (DARPA’s) nearly $3 billion budget funds a range of research activities including, for example, “programs to accelerate progress in synthetic biology, outpace the spread of infectious diseases and master new neurotechnologies.”  (Though I don’t know how much of it is DARPA money, per se, in 2015 Duke University received more than $58 million in DOD-sponsored R&D money.)

The Pentagon has another burden that some other countries don’t suffer: politically dictated inefficiencies.  For example, estimates of unnecessary defense infrastructure are as high as 30%, but Congress won’t let the Pentagon shed the costly excess.  Professor Gordon Adams of American University explained in Time magazine that “Congressmen don’t want bases closed in their districts, it’s as simple as that.”

Still, you would think that with all the money the Pentagon gets, it would be loaded with new weapons.  Actually, for the Air Force – which is the smallest it’s ever been in its history – is flying planes with an average age of almost 26 years (and that average is as low as it is much because of the inclusion of newer unmanned aircraft).  Some aircraft, like the venerable B-52, have an average age of 53 years.

How many parents would let their child drive cross-country in a 53 year old car?  Yet every day young Americans are climbing into these elderly airplanes to fly combat missions against the Islamic State.

Many people also seem to think that defense consumes more of the total Federal budget than it actually does.  In truth, defense comprises just 16% of total Federal outlays.  Yes, that’s still a lot of money, but it pales compared to Social Security at 25% and Medicare/Health at another 28%.

Importantly, even though the military is today involved in two conflicts as well as other challenges around the globe, spending is about half that of the post-World War II averages in relative terms.  In their April 2016 report the Center for Strategic & International Studies pointed out that:

Total national defense outlays in FY 2017 are projected to be 15 percent of total federal spending and 3.2 percent of GDP. This compares to a post– World War II average of 31 percent of federal spending and 5.9 percent of GDP. (Underlining added.)

More specifically, since 2010, military spending as a percentage of GDP has steadily declined each year.  It remains to be seen if that will change: a December 2015 poll shows that Americans ranked national security as the top concern, and February 2016 poll shows that more Americans think we are spending too little on defense than at any other time since 2001.  Given recent terror events, that number may rise.

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