The Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month unveiled plans for a $740-billion defense-spending bill for fiscal year 2022. That’s nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars—in long form: $740,000,000,000. That looks like a lot of money. But looks can be deceiving.
Dangerous and Complex
Before getting into how deceiving that number is, those of us who advocate for large defense budgets in order to deter rational foes, defeat those foes who aren’t rational, and address other threats to the national interest have a responsibility to identify those threats and foes. This is, regrettably, a simple exercise in 2021.
Xi Jinping’s China has built the world’s largest navy; massively expanded its nuclear arsenal and nuclear strike capabilities; exploded military spending by 517 percent (since 2000); claimed a vast swath of the South China Sea and erected illegal, militarized islands to back up those claims; unleashed through incompetence or intent a crippling global pandemic; used technology and money to expand its insidious influence over American culture and education; conducted a relentless cybersiege of the Free World; interfered in free elections abroad and constructed an Orwellian surveillance state at home; increased its suppression and mistreatment of Christians; engaged in genocide against Uighur Muslims; launched unprovoked military attacks against India in the Himalayan border region; absorbed Hong Kong in violation of international treaties; and increased its menacing pressure on Taiwan. Indeed, just weeks ago, Xi declared that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China.”
In short, Xi’s China has the intent and the capability—military, technological, industrial, economic—to challenge the United States across every domain. Critics of the seemingly large US defense budget counter that China spends a fraction of what America spends on defense. The reality is that China hides its defense spending in a range of other programs and initiatives, invests very little relative to the US on personnel, steals much of the technology the US spends billions developing, and is largely focusing its mushrooming military budget on one geographic region.
The good news is that Xi’s China—like the Soviet Union during Cold War I—is rational and can be deterred. The bad news is that Xi’s China isn’t the only authoritarian regime with the means and motives to threaten America and its democratic allies.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has waged wars to annex parts of democratic Ukraine and occupy parts of democratic Georgia; conducted cyberwar against NATO member Estonia; armed Taliban forces waging war against US and NATO personnel operating under a UN mandate; hacked and attacked the US power grid; unleashed intelligence agencies and cyber-pirates to wreak havoc inside Free World economies and sway public opinion via manipulation of media; used chemical weapons abroad and smothered dissent at home; violated arms treaties; propped up regimes that gas and starve their own people; conducted massive and destabilizing snap military exercises; and unveiled military doctrines pledging the use of force “to ensure the protection of [Russian] citizens outside the Russian Federation” and threatening preemptive use of nuclear weapons to somehow deescalate a conflict. Given that there are five million Russians in Ukraine and a million in the Baltics—and that Putin’s “escalate to deescalate” doctrine would lead to a global nuclear holocaust—this is a recipe for something much more dangerous and much more complicated than Cold War I. But again, the good news is that Putin respects deterrent military strength.
That may not be the case with Iran’s rulers, who continue their drive to build a nuclear bomb, continue to foment revolution in neighboring countries, continue to interfere with international shipping in the Gulf, continue to attack commercial and military vessels, and continue to directly target and threaten the United States. The terrorists who run Iran have the blood of 603 American troops on their hands, planned an attack on Ft. McNair, and plotted the assassinations of a US general and a Saudi diplomat on US soil.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda—that unholy alliance of self-styled holy men who spawned 9/11—are in ascent in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda has a presence in 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The Afghan government could capitulate to the Taliban at any hour—not a comforting thought given what happened the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
Add to this list North Korea, with its growing nuclear arsenal and unpredictable leadership; a raging “wildfire of terrorism” across Africa; the reemergence of ISIS; an outbreak of failed and failing states in our own hemisphere; and Hezbollah’s 130,000 rockets—and we have what Gen. James Mattis calls “the most complex and demanding” international situation in many decades.
Percentages and Threats
In short, if the US wants to prevent Taiwan, the South China Sea, Ukraine, and the Baltics from going the way of Hong Kong, Crimea, the Donbas, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia; if the US wants the benefits of open seas and open communications systems; if the US wants to maintain some semblance of international order; if the US wants to avoid another 9/11; if the US wants to prevent Cold War II from turning hot, then the US needs to make sustained and significant investments in deterrent military strength. Given the yo-yo effect of sequestration, our investment in defense has not been sustained in recent years. And given the nature of the threats arrayed against us, our investment in defense is not all that significant.
No matter how big $740 billion looks, the reality is that it represents just 11 percent of federal outlays and 3.2 percent of GDP. To put those numbers in perspective: Just a decade ago, Americans were investing 20 percent of federal outlays and 4.7 percent of GDP in defense. The world is far more dangerous, “complex and demanding” today than it was then—and it can get worse.
In 1943, the US allocated 84.9 percent of federal outlays and 37 percent of GDP to defense. In 1953, the US allocated 69 percent of federal outlays and 14 percent of GDP to defense. In 1968, the US allocated 46 percent of federal outlays and 9 percent of GDP to defense. In 1984, the US allocated 26.7 percent of federal outlays and 5.9 percent of GDP to defense.
These years are chosen purposely. In 1984, the US was mounting a vigorous response to a decade of unanswered aggression and expansion by Moscow. (Today, Xi is seizing islands and sealanes far beyond his borders, menacing Taiwan, militarizing the South China Sea, and fielding a military designed to push the US out of the Western Pacific, while Putin threatens Northern and Eastern Europe, occupies sovereign nations, and expands Russian territory by force.)
In 1968, the US was fighting pitched regional battles amidst a wider global conflict known as the Cold War (as it is today in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Africa, and Afghanistan amidst a wider global conflict once known as the war on terror).
In 1953, the US was coming to grips with containing a rising military-economic-ideological peer power. (Back then, it was Moscow; today, it’s Beijing.)
In 1943, the US was at war against a constellation of enemies bent on erasing free government and upending the global order. (Back then, it was fascists; today, it’s business-suit autocrats and jihadists.)
Indeed, the world wars serve as a reminder that investing in defense is far less costly—in treasure and blood—than gambling on “narrow margins” and “offering temptations to a trial of strength,” as Winston Churchill warned in that brief interregnum between World War II and Cold War I.
- In the eight years before entering World War I, the United States devoted an average of 0.7 percent of GDP to defense. During the war, the US spent an average of 16.1 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 116,516 dead to turn back the Central Powers.
- In the decade before entering World War II, the United States spent an average of 1.1 percent of GDP on defense. During the war, the US spent an average of 27 percent of GDP on defense—and sacrificed 405,399 lives defeating the Axis.
- During Cold War I, by contrast, Washington spent an average of 7 percent of GDP on defense. Those investments didn’t end all wars, but they did deter the Soviets and prevent World War III.
Percentages and threats—not raw dollars—are what matter when defending the defense budget. As the threats increase, so must the percentages, which explains why congressional leaders plan to bolster President Joe Biden’s $715-billion request. Given the voracious return of inflation, the Biden defense budget would have, in effect, flatlined defense spending.
Of course, given that we are in what Henry Kissinger calls “foothills of a Cold War,” even the congressional top line of $740 billion isn’t adequate. That figure represents about 3.2 percent of GDP. The average during Cold War I was more than twice that.
This downward pressure on the defense budget is a function of the massive amounts devoured by domestic programs in recent years: $1.8 trillion aimed at navigating the Great Recession, $2.59 trillion in in 2020 in response to the pandemic, another $1.9 trillion in emergency relief and stimulus in 2021, $1 trillion for infrastructure, $5 trillion more planned for newer and bigger social safety-net programs.
“Americans like security,” as Niall Ferguson concludes in his book Colossus. “But they like Social Security more than they like national security.” What we forget is that the former depends on the latter.
Deterrent military spending is not just a matter of GDPs and geopolitics. In fact, scripture often uses the language of deterrence and preparedness.
In Numbers 1, the Lord directs Moses and Aaron to count “all the men in Israel who are 20 years old or more and able to serve in the army.” This ancient selective-service system was a form of military readiness.
II Chronicles 17 describes the military preparations made by King Jehoshaphat, who built forts, maintained armories in strategically located cities “with large supplies,” and fielded an army of more than a million men “armed for battle.” Not surprisingly, “the fear of the Lord fell on all the kingdoms of the lands surrounding Judah, so that they did not go to war against Jehoshaphat.”
To explain the importance of calculating the costs of following Him, Jesus asks in Luke 14, “What king would go to war against another king without first sitting down to consider whether his 10,000 soldiers could go up against the 20,000 coming against him? And if he didn’t think he could win, he would send a representative to discuss terms of peace while his enemy was still a long way off.”
Both kings are wise—one because he recognizes that he’s outnumbered; the other because he makes sure that he’s not. Put another way, both kings grasp the importance of defense and deterrence. We ignore their example at our peril.