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When comparing the U.S. to China, keep in mind that the U.S. is paying American prices and China is paying Chinese prices. I cannot find how much China pays its soldiers, but I imagine it is substantially less than what the U.S. pays its soldiers. Likewise the U.S. buys its tanks, planes, ships, etc. from U.S. manufacturers paying American workers.
Some in this thread are pointing to the Military-Industrial Complex. That is absolutely a part of it, but it is not a very US-specific answer. That dynamic could apply in many countries, so why is this happening specifically in the US?
There are a few big factors at play.
First, the US came out of WWII relatively intact. Unlike most of the rest of the developed industrial world, we did not have a major war fought right on top of us. Our industrial centers were not bombed into oblivion, so we were in a good post-war position to be the political, military and economic counter to the rising Soviet empire.
Second, the problem of communism – which, remember, was determined to “defeat” capitalism – required a military sufficiently strong to dissuade communist aggression. Not to defeat it directly, but to make it obviously futile or counter-productive, so that it would not expand into more and more theaters of potential conflict. However, the Cold War policy of containment would not work if it was just the US defending itself. It would be like trying to deal with an ant infestation with only enough pesticide for one room. So we needed a bigger military to not only extend the umbrella, but also to persuade potential allies to back our play.
That leads to the third factor. The US building a massive, global defense system allowed other countries to reduce their own defense budgets. This was good, to the extent that it limited regional volatility, but it also meant that a significant reduction in the US defense capacity could create a power vacuum that our allies were not entirely capable of filling. If the US substantially drew down the defense umbrella, a lot of countries would feel the need to ramp up their own defense spending. This makes it a lot more likely that previously-containable conflicts could blow up into all-out wars.
Think of it like your local police. Without a central police force, everybody would be directly responsible for their own protection. That would mean a lot of guns, a lot of paranoia and probably some warlords. The existence of a police force reduces the likelihood of that potentially volatile situation.
TL;DR: If the US didn’t have a massive military, other countries would have to build up their own militaries, making regional conflicts and even world wars more likely.
Just a thing to keep in mind: China is not known for its reliable numbers.
I think it comes down to two key points (Open to comment & correction).
The first is the two war doctrine – the US military has had a mandate to maintain itself at a level capable of fighting two ground wars at the same time. In 2012 the US finally acknowledged that this was an impossible goal – decent summary here. A change like this will take years to make, and I hope it does.
The second is developing new military technologies – the US has taken on developing new platforms and tech before many other countries do. The cost of making a new technology is extreme. This is a constant in the US – there is a continuing effort to ensure current platforms are upgraded or new ones are created to win a conflict 20 years in the future. An example of this is stealth aircraft. Look at the Wikipedia page for stealth aircraft. Aside from conceptual, the majority of the aircraft on that list are platforms developed in the US – and looking at the demonstrators and cancelled platforms – remember that significant time and money went into those products too.
If anyone could expand on this or give me a rebuttal, I would appreciate it:
It feels like the US is in a constant state of preparation of being 1 step ahead (generation of technology) for various platforms – Zumwalt class destroyers, SR-72. While I find the development and tech in these devices exciting, I feel like it is too much money for an insufficient return.
There are quite a few reasons, and I’ll try to be as politics free as possible:
-We are isolated from the parts of the world that are strategically important to us, like Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. If we want to be able to intervene militarily there, that means a pretty capable navy and air force, neither of which are cheap. This is a bigger factor than I think a lot of people realize.
-As much as we like to say we aren’t the world’s policeman, we kind of are. Most major conflicts in the world will wind up involving us some way or another. We also patrol the seas and are often the first to have assets available during disasters. To be anywhere, you have to be everywhere.
-Shit is just more expensive in the US compared to China. From labor and raw goods to compliance with regulations.
-We use the military as a way to indirectly subsidize aerospace and other industries.
-We also subsidize our allies. Some of those countries can spend less on their own militaries because they just buy from us. That allows them to defend themselves more economically while strengthening the ties between us. The Russians do the same. That R&D ain’t cheap though.
-Defense contractors have good lobbyists and lawmakers like military projects as they drive dollars to their districts and make them look tough.
-We tend to be a bit fearful of the world and a large and advanced military makes us feel safer.
-We like to be, or think we can spend our way into being, the best at things.
So really it is a combination of factors.
This can be explained by the Realist theory of International Relations. The argument behind realism is that there is anarchy at the international level, due to the lack of world government and enforceable international law. Realists would often explain why America needs to spend on its military for the following reasons:
Leviathan: A Leviathan is necessary to maintain a balance of power amongst nations, in order to prevent war. When the balance of power fails, war occurs, people die, progress halts. Hence, realists strongly advocate weaponisation of the world’s leviathan.
Standard of living: The standard of living and the GDP is higher in the United States than China, Russia, and India combined. While those countries don’t have militaries as powerful as the United States (but they are extremely destructive), they do spend a good chunk of their fiscal budget on their militaries as well. Goods and services are cheaper in those countries, hence, it looks like they aren’t paying much on paper. That is untrue. They are spending too much as well, and that money is better spent on infrastructure and scientific research for development, especially as they are not as economically developed as America.
Research and development: R&D to the American military generates employment and contributes to a powerful American economy. Plus, R&D often has civillian as well as military uses. Take nuclear energy for example: the manhattan project was intended for a bomb, but nuclear energy has since become one of the most important sources of energy on the planet.
World security: While people usually criticise America for warmongering and interference in other countries affairs, when you look at the numbers per capita, America is actually the most peaceful and responsible leviathan that has existed in the world’s history. War has declined remarkably since the end of the second world war, and we currently live in the most peaceful period of humanity’s history. Here is a short article on the decline of war by Steven Pinker. For more, I would suggest his book ‘The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined.’
TL;DR: The United States is not really the demonic evil capitalist Empire the world pictures. While it has made mistakes, it has maintained a remarkable balance of power and has contributed to not only economic and scientific research through its defence spending, but has also greatly contributed to the reduction of international conflict.
No. Look up military spending as a percentage of gdp, there are many countries who spend a higher % of their gdp than the US which only spends 4.6% of its budget on military. The answer is simplay that the worlds largest military is funded by the worlds largest economy.
How has nobody mentioned the cold war?
Even though it’s considered over, I think we can all agree that Putin’s recent actions in Crimea show us that it’s not unthinkable that another cold war could start.
For decades, the United States had to maintain such an overwhelming military superiority (or, at the very least, parity with the Soviet Union) to discourage any rival from thinking that a war with it might be winnable.
It’s easy, especially for those who did not live through the cold war, to look at military spending and call it ridiculous, but for all the threat of imminent nuclear war that was generally felt in the public, just try to imagine how it would feel to be a decision maker during that era. You can either spend a few hundred billion dollars on defense and go to sleep at night knowing you really did as much as you could to defend the country, or you can say fuck it, let’s spend the money feeding the homeless and sit awake at night wondering if the USSR’s military is strong enough in comparison that they might decide to invade.
Nuclear weapons are a really interesting factor in modern war. On one hand, their existence means that it’s unlikely a full-scale, total war scenario will ever happen. If a major power, for example Russia, tried to invade and take over Western Europe, if Europe got desperate enough they might use their nukes. Russia might retaliate, and then you’ve got nuclear winter end-of-world scenarios – but Europe might not care, if their choices are surviving a nuclear winter vs. giving up their sovereignty to Moscow, it’s hard to say which they’d pick.
Given that, you might think that spending a huge amount on a conventional military is a waste of money – all we need is a few nukes. If Russia tries to invade us our our allies, we just say – stop or we’ll nuke you. But knowing that they also have nukes and would retaliate in kind, we probably wouldn’t fire them, even if we had a 100% chance of being conquered by Moscow because it’s not worth destroying the planet to avoid occupation.
It’s this weird paradox that keeps military spending so high. We need to pretend like we don’t have nukes because most major world leaders are unlikely to use them even in situations where defeat is inevitable without them. The reason the West is so worried about a nuclear Iran is that once they have nuclear weapons, they cannot really be invaded through traditional means. Do you think we would have tried to depose Saddam Hussein if Iraq had ICBMs? Of course not! The risk that he would use them to deter a loss of sovereignty is way, way too great.
Back in 2004, when everybody was whining about how their weren’t any WMDs in Iraq, I just shook my head and told people – yeah, that’s the entire point. There are no WMDs yet. Saddam Hussein was the kind of guy who, if he could get a nuke capable of hitting a major European capital, would probably invade Kuwait again immediately with total impunity. Maybe Iran too – he tried in ’89, don’t forget. Yeah, we need cheap oil from that region so it’s economically motivated, but that’s the point of military – it’s to protect our interests, at home and abroad. We used it to protect those interests.
Anyway, I’m rambling.
TL;DR – the cold war might be officially over, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, it will never stop. Accept high military spending as a fact of life.
The military industrial complex you’ll hear folks complaining about in this thread is a bit of a misnomer. It plays a role, and there is certainly lots of waste, but that really doesn’t begin to explain why we spend so much more money. Here are the main reasons.
- American strategy and the Cold War: George Friedman of Stratfor has put this far better than I could. Paraphrasing, following the end of World War Two, the American strategy by necessity was in fighting for power in a bipolar world, us vs. the soviets. That meant we needed to invest outrageously to keep up with the soviets, and later, to force their economy to implode from the competition. That strategy was effective but cost a lot of money.
2.American strategy today: So why are we spending so much money today, and far more than we spent beating the soviets? Because America’s overriding imperative is to prevent the rise of another power that could challenge us ever again. That means shutting down any country that seeks even regional power, frankly whether they seem to be friendly or not. That’s why Iraq was a perceived threat and Iran still is, but North Korea never quite seemed to rate at the same level. At the end of the day, North Korea was just going to steal regional influence from china and Japan, creating more instability that would cement our power in the region. If Iraq began to invade gulf states, or Iran starts threatening to eclipse the Saudis, we’ve got a potential emergence of a regional power. The problem is, shutting down any possibility of a regional challenger is really expensive. It means we not only need force projection to get troops in (which means having the best navy and the means to protect it) but it also means we need to station assets on a permanent basis so that our allies can stand down. This is also why folks talking about the 21st century as involving the rise of the East are talking nonsense. No country has ever had the lead we have now, and no country has ever had the means to protect that lead the way we do.
- Flexibility: Much has been made of military waste in recent years, and there certainly is a lot of it. But when you look at seemingly pointless duplicative programs or money that seems to be a sinkhole for some classified project it’s worth keeping in mind that many folks view their budgets the same way a mid level office manager does: use it or lose it. In other words, we keep the basic machinery running to prevent talent from being depleted, facilities falling into disrepair, etc. just in case we suddenly need to fight a massive war. We need the flexibility to go from zero to 60 in a matter of weeks if the situation calls for it.
1) Military spending provides a lot of jobs in both the public and private center. Cutting those jobs is always a tough sell legislation wise
2) Much of the spending is in fact done in research, and technology is almost always a worthwhile investment. Thats pretty much the best argument there is for increasing NASAs funding for example
3) As a percentage of GDP, plenty of countries spend more than the US
4) The US is pretty big and requires a lot of spending to maintain a presence so that it may help allies like those of the NATO alliance and South Korea at a moments notice. Not everyone might agree with it but it is a fact. The US after all contributes 22% of the UNs budget (the legal maximum)
A country spends money on what the people actually in power want the money spent on.
I can’t explain it any more simply than that.
Because U.S. arms dealers/defense contractors are the greatest beneficiaries of corporate welfare in the world. I saw so much waste during my service(under Reagan) that civilians cannot possibly imagine without seeing it for themselves. Read WW2 and D-Day General Eisenhower’s farewell speech as President for his warning on this issue.
Most likely been said already, but war/military is a huge business, there are most likely many companies lobbying for huge military budget. Off note US also uses their prisoners as “free” slavelabor, and why not since they have most prisoners per capita, hmm wonder why, since their justice seems to be the most logical and just in the world… Point being that prisons are huge part of the war/military business too, for example making most of the helmets used by US army.
The TD;DR. Big rich country, some complicated counting issues, and because there are lots of people who want to spend more money. Oh and lots of the rest of us don’t spend enough.
So the first thing is, absolute spending is a bad measure. 166 billion dollars in china buys a lot more man hours than 166 billion in the US. Second, some countries (China and Russia notably) lie. The DPRK (north korea) spends something like 9 billion dollars a year on defence, but that buys them about as many man hours as something like 280 billion dollars would. That’s a massive oversimplification of course, but China’s military is not 24% as capable as the US because they spend 24% of the money.
Third, what countries count as defence spending varies. If you import fighter jets from somewhere we all more or less agree on that as defence spending. But if you spend 40 billion dollars (or 400 billion) developing a new fighter jet programme is that defence spending? Well… yes. But not everyone calls it defence spending. The reverse is also true, the US spends a lot of money on research through defence agencies that the rest of us would count as civilian spending (notably on this like spectroscopy equipment useful in astrophysics and nuclear weapons related stuff, and on nuclear power, but lots of other stuff too). The US spends a lot of money on healthcare for veterans and other DoD employees, which the rest of us don’t do specifically, because we just have healthcare for everyone.
But the second link has percentage of GDP. That’s a better measure. The US economy is very very big, because the US is the third most populous country in the world, and very rich relative to India and China and Russia and Brazil and Indonesia.
The US also has a policy of being able to fight two wars at a time. That’s the nature of being a major player in two oceans at once. They could get stuck fighting North Korea on one side and Russia in Ukraine on another (to give a modern example). So where other reasonably rich countries have a one war, when we’re up for it policy, and that costs 2-3% of GDP, the US has 2 wars at once, and right bloody now as a policy. That costs more. The US of course has this policy because it has interests everywhere. A major war in South Korea would cost the US a lot of money and cause it a lot of problems, but so would a war in the middle east disrupting oil supplies.
Other countries who face serious threats (e.g. israel) or who are in the midst of long term (re)armament plans, like the middle east, all spend more than the US as a percent of GDP.
Now the US does have a military industrial complex and does spend more than other countries in part because of that military industrial complex. The jingoistic and self centred voices of groups who benefit from the US having a large military are a constant pressure on defence spending, they’re part of why the US has a two wars at a time doctrine. Say that anyone who doesn’t support the troops is a traitor and you can get a lot of traction. But there is also the practical reality that the US doesn’t want to find itself without the ability to make tanks or aircraft carriers or the like. Small countries give that up or share it across many partners but the US is a big country and doesn’t want to risk being caught flat footed.
Oh, and for all the complaining about it, the difference between say, 4.5% and 2.5% of GDP is not actually that much money. You hear lots of complaining about ‘healthcare’ as being relevant here ‘Canada has free healthcare and that’s why we have a pathetically small military’. Most of us are spending 10-12% of GDP on healthcare, the US spends 18% (though much of that money is private). It’s important to keep some perspective here. Western governments spend 40-55% of GDP – that is to say roughly 1/2 of all activity involves the government in one way or another, and the vast majority of defence spending is local spending unless you’re a poor third world country. So it’s just shuffling money around, and a lot of us underpay and then when it comes to problems in the world we either cannot contribute, or need quite a lot of time to ramp up capabilities.
Military Industrial Complex It’s a jobs program and supports entire cities and states in some areas of the country. When Romney was campaigning, he’d tell the little towns how Obama was going to close their military bases and cost their local economy money and jobs. The U.S. Dept. of Defense is the largest single employer in the world.