Bombs Away: Do We Spend Too Much on the Military?

Defending the country isn’t cheap

July 2022

Script

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The beauty of the United States.

The blue waters of Hawaii.

The grandeur of the White House.

The endless vistas of the Southwest.

A tranquil, peaceful landscape.

Until you remember that the Japanese bombed this…

The British burned this down.

And during World War I, Germany almost convinced Mexico to reconquer this.

Yeah, danger is never that far away. In fact, as recently as 2017 there was a Russian spy ship off the coast of Connecticut.i

It’s a dangerous world out there, which is the government’s rationale for spending nearly $770 billion a year on national defense.ii

Which is way too much … according to 1/3 of the country.iii

Or not nearly enough … according to 1/3 of the country

Or exactly the right amount according to…

…Well, you can probably do the math.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

You’ve probably heard the expression: If you enjoy your freedom, thank a veteran…

…but good luck finding one.

Only about 7 percent of Americans have served in the military.iv And the younger you are, the less likely you are to actually know any of them. v

And this gets at a weird dynamic in American life. On one hand, the military is uniquely popular. At a time when faith in almost all our major institutions is collapsing, more than 2/3 of Americans still say they’re confident in our armed forces.vi

On the other hand, that affection is pretty abstract. One poll of servicemembers found that 75 percent of them said that civilians don’t understand the military.vii

And this leads to a lot of confusion about what our armed forces actually do — and how they do it. For example, in 2022, only 12 percent of Americans said the military is stronger than it needs to be — but nearly 1/3 of them said we spend too much on national defense.viii Which feels like a really complicated way of saying [“I don’t know” sound]

So, which is it? Is the U.S. military too big or too small?

Well, here’s the key: How much you think we should be spending on defense … really depends on what you want the military to do. And Americans’ answer to that question has changed a lot over the years.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, we didn’t have much of a peacetime force. The Founding Fathers were so spooked by standing armies — which they worried could be used to threaten citizens’ freedom — that they created a system in which everybody basically went home when there wasn’t a war going on. In fact, even as recently as the years just before World War II there were only about 180,000 members of the U.S. Army … ranking us 19th in the world … behind Portugal.ix That stings.

In the years since, of course, things have changed … a lot. Today, the U.S. military is the world’s largest employer, with more than 2.1 million service members and over 780,000 civilian employees.x There are nearly 5,000 U.S. military installations across 45 different countries.xi We spend more on defense than the next nine countries combined.xii And … not everybody loves this.

But here’s the thing: What that spending looks like in context … may surprise you. It’s true that national defense is the single biggest item in America’s discretionary budget — the money lawmakers can choose whether or not to spend. But when you put it in the context of all our spending … it looks a lot smaller. In fact, we spend more than twice as much on Social Security and Medicare as we do on national defense.xiii

And while the phrase “defense spending” may sound like it’s all going to bullets and bombs, the reality is a little more complicated. Actually, only about 20 percent of the military’s budget goes towards acquiring hardware.xiv By contrast, nearly 2/3 of the Pentagon’s spending goes towards things like paying servicemembers’ salaries and keeping up maintenance on existing equipment. xv

Because you know how it always seems too expensive to tune up your Accord? Yeah, same principle, but now it’s a B-2 Bomber.

Of course, even these costs would come down if we shrunk the size of the military. But if we want to consider that option, we have to be serious about the tradeoffs.

In 2022, the military listed its top priority as being able to counter China.xvi Russia was #2. Then there’s rogue nations like Iran and North Korea. And terrorism.

And that’s before we even get to the fact that our military keeps open the trade routes necessary for a global economy and provides rapid response to humanitarian disasters around the world.

So, if we want less defense spending … we have to choose which of those priorities we want to cut back on.

And by the way, not even our current levels of spending are necessarily up to all those tasks.

The Air Force Chief of Staff has warned that China could overcome American air superiority within a little more than a decade.xvii The number of combat ships in America’s navy is shrinking, while the numbers in the Chinese navy are skyrocketing.xviii And a report from military researchers at the RAND Corporation warns that America faces a serious risk of losing its next war.xix

Now, just because the military’s job is important doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as any other government agency. It’s still the case that the Pentagon wastes a lot of money — government reports estimate that it’s lost billions of dollars just to fraud in recent years.xx

But nevertheless, it’s worth keeping the big picture in mind: Our national defense costs so much because we ask the military to do so much. So, our choices are probably between raising our spending … or lowering our expectations.

Because defending the country isn’t cheap.

Seriously, you wouldn’t believe how much it costs to change the oil in one of these things.

Sources

  1. Russian Spy Ship Spotted 30 Miles off Connecticut Coast Near Naval Base” (Kalhan Rosenblatt) — NBC News
  2. Biden Signs $770 Billion Defense Bill” (Glenn Thrush) — New York Times
  3. Americans’ Confidence in Major U.S. Institutions Dips (Megan Brenan) — Gallup
  4. The Changing Face of America’s Veteran Population (Katherine Schaeffer) — Pew Research Center
  5. The Military-Civilian Gap: Fewer Family Connections — Pew Research Center
  6. Americans’ Confidence in Major U.S. Institutions Dips (Megan Brenan) — Gallup
  7. Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military — Kori Schake & Jim Mattis, pg. 23
  8. Military and National Defense — Gallup 
  9. U.S. Army Was Smaller Than the Army for Portugal Before World War II (W. Gardner Selby) — PolitiFact
  10. Agency Financial Report Fiscal Year 2021 — U.S. Department of Defense
  11. Base Structure Report: Fiscal Year 2018 Baseline — U.S. Department of Defense
  12. The United States Spends More on Defense Than the Next 9 Countries Combined — Peter G. Peterson Foundation
  13. Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Budget Enforcement Act Category: 1962 – 2027 — White House Office of Management and Budget
  14. Agency Financial Report Fiscal Year 2021 — U.S. Department of Defense
  15. Ibid.
  16. Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy — U.S. Department of Defense 
  17. "Will China Surpass the Us in Military Air Superiority?” (John Xie) — Voice of America
  18. "The Shrinking U.S. Navy" — Wall Street Journal
  19. U.S. Military Capabilities and Forces for a Dangerous World (David A. Ochmanek, Peter A. Wilson, Brenna Allen, John Speed Meyers, Carter C. Price) — RAND Corporation 
  20. Department of Defense Fraud Risk Management — U.S. Government Accountability Office

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Footage | NBC // The Boston Globe // Department of Defense // Library & Archives of Canada: John David Kelly // Library of Congress: Edward Percy Moran, Thomas Sully // National Archives: Department of Defense // President and Fellows of Harvar College: John Singleton Copley // The White House Historical Association: Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq // American Library Association: John E. Sheridan // U.S. Military: Chuck Hansen, Charles Johnson Post // U.S. National Archives & Records Administration // U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships // Getty: Joe Raedle, Feature Story News, Image Source, Lillisphotography, Akaplummer, Korisbo, Matthew Micah Wright, Ashwad Reddy, Oflu, Mjf795, Albinutza, Christophe Coat / EyeEm, Pronto8000, Mario Tama / Staff, DOD / Handout, Rob Carr / Staff, Ezra Acayan / Stringer, 4x6, Bluberries, Inhauscreative, Siri Stafford, Burazin, Hulton Archive / Stringer, Stephanie Keith / Stringer, Kena Betancur / Stringer, Handout / Handout, John Parrot / Stocktrek Images, Cravetiger, Oleksii Arseniuk, U.S. Navy / Handout, Pigphoto, Komisar, Michael Ciaglo / Stringer, Omar Marques / Stringer, Jjneff, Energy Films Library, Artbeats, The Stock Studio, Omar Marques / Stringer, Alex Wong / Staff, Chung Sung-Jun / Staff, Stock Footage, Inc., Bernie_Photo, Ivz, Chip Somodevilla / Staff, Michael Ciaglo / Stringer, Zim286 // Flickr: The National Museum of the U.S. Navy // Pexels: Andrea Piacquadio, Artem Podrez  // Pixabay: Antranias, Clker-Free-Images, AILes, Sprspr, Dendoktoor, Torcasiojohn, RaMino, 12019, Engel9, 2204574 // Unsplash: Eric Francis, Tommy Lisbin, James Ting, Robert Linder, Andre Klimke, Thomas Tucker, Matt Ridley, Jakob Owens, Jeremy Bezanger, Viviana Rishe, Alistair Covey, Ben Hershey, Hoi Pham, Emily Campbell, Chris Robert, Tim Mossholder, Wassim Chouak, Damon Leverett, Renan Kamikoga, Mark Kuiper, Alex Gorey, Stephan Egli, X, Set.sj, Anna Spencer, Engin Akyurt, Mathew Schwartz, Mehdi Sepehri, Jéan Béller, Joshua Hibbert, Jared Burris, Ricardo Gomez Angel, Daniel Klein, Chuttersnap, Kelly Sikkema, Tachina Lee, Jack Lucas Smith, Grahame Jenkins // Goff.Brian // Gilbert Stuart // Kanesue // Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro // James B. Bleeker // Khamenei.ir // Tomasz Sienicki // George Chernilevsky // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION.  

Sources

  1. NBC News
    Russian Spy Ship Spotted 30 Miles off Connecticut Coast Near Naval Base” (Kalhan Rosenblatt)
  2. New York Times
    Biden Signs $770 Billion Defense Bill” (Glenn Thrush)
  3. Gallup
    Americans’ Confidence in Major U.S. Institutions Dips (Megan Brenan)
  4. Pew Research Center
    The Changing Face of America’s Veteran Population (Katherine Schaeffer)
  5. Pew Research Center
    The Military-Civilian Gap: Fewer Family Connections 
  6. Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military
    Book by Kori Schake & Jim Mattis, pg. 23
  7. Gallup
    Military and National Defense
  8. PolitiFact
    U.S. Army Was Smaller Than the Army for Portugal Before World War II (W. Gardner Selby)
  9. U.S. Department of Defense
    Agency Financial Report Fiscal Year 2021
  10. U.S. Department of Defense
    Base Structure Report: Fiscal Year 2018 Baseline 
  11. Peter G. Peterson Foundation
    The United States Spends More on Defense Than the Next 9 Countries Combined 
  12. White House Office of Management and Budget
    Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Budget Enforcement Act Category: 1962 – 2027
  13. U.S. Department of Defense
    Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy 
  14. Voice of America
    "Will China Surpass the Us in Military Air Superiority?” (John Xie)
  15. Wall Street Journal
    "The Shrinking U.S. Navy" 
  16. RAND Corporation
    U.S. Military Capabilities and Forces for a Dangerous World (David A. Ochmanek, Peter A. Wilson, Brenna Allen, John Speed Meyers, Carter C. Price)
  17. U.S. Government Accountability Office
    Department of Defense Fraud Risk Management 

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