The fact that the United States spends more money on its military than any other country in the world (more than a third of the world total) is not so informative a factoid as it seems. It does not, for example, mean that it will continue to have a major military edge over China in the near future. A recent Bloomberg View article explains the problem with the blithe assumption that American defense spending ensures future U.S. military superiority:
[T]here are several problems with this perennial talking point. The first is that these dollar numbers aren’t adjusted for the cost of anything that any of these militaries buy. The lowest-paid U.S. soldiers earn about $18,000 a year. In comparison, in 2009, an equivalent Chinese soldier was paid about a ninth as much. In other words, in 2009, you could hire about nine Chinese soldiers for the cost of one U.S. soldier.Even that figure doesn’t account for health care and veterans’ benefits. These are much higher in the U.S. than in China, though precise figures are hard to obtain. This is due to higher U.S. prices for health care, to higher prices in general, and because the U.S. is more generous than China in terms of what it pays its soldiers. Salaries and benefits, combined, account for a significant percentage of military expenditure.
The metrics that used to be relied on to determine the size of an economy, and the size of defense spending, are blunt instruments; they don’t factor in differences in expenses across regions. More and more now, metrics like Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) are being used to give a more accurate sense of how much various wealthy nations can actually afford.Using PPP, the Chinese economy looks much more competitive with the U.S. economy, and Chinese defense spending does not lag so far behind America’s. After raising concerns about the sheer wastefulness of some U.S. defense budget items (like F-35 development), Bloomberg View goes on to explain another reason why the relative size of U.S. defense spending does not reflect a relative advantage:
[The] 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. It’s expensive being a hegemon.So all of the pundits who constantly remind us that the U.S. reigns militarily supreme overstate their case. The U.S. still has the world’s most powerful military, but the margin is not nearly as huge as we hear.
If America is unwilling or unable to commit to a real overhaul of the DoD, or to allocating more resources for promoting stability and protecting the homeland in an increasingly hostile world, the data tell us that we will lose our considerable edge faster than we think.