Global defense spending rose by 1.7 percent in 2014 after falling for three years. As Defense News reports, the global east accounts for most of this—perhaps not surprisingly given the U.S. sequester and last year’s sadly exemplary story about German troops conducting major exercises using brooms in place of guns.
Most of the spending boost in Asia is being driven by China’s rise, as the formerly great empire feels cramped in its current territory and unfairly under-served by its role in world affairs. And as Beijing pours money into the PLA and jockeys for position in the world order even as it ultimately hopes to overturn that status quo, neighbors and opponents have gotten nervous. India in particular is pushing gobs of money into defense, with imports up 56 percent in the past three years alone. Japan is an even stronger counterweight to China, but, as we have been covering, it’s also one whose increasing militarism comes with political complications, given its officially pacifist constitution and strong taboo against spending more than 1 percent of its GDP on defense.
The U.S. still holds a firm lead in absolute terms. But as we wrote back in September, $600 billion ain’t what it used to be. The bang-for-buck ratio doesn’t favor the U.S., weighed down as it is by a wildly inefficient bureaucracy stemming from a long history of blue-model thinking. It costs a whole lot more, for example, for the U.S. to train and equip a soldier and pay his or her medical expenses, salary, and pension than it takes China to add another member to the PLA. And it’s not just personnel costs; as technology progresses, the cost of each new weapons platform is ballooning even as development times lengthen. That would be bad enough if the weapons gave us a huge advantage when they eventually were finished. But in an age of rampant cyber espionage, even that is not assured.
All of this is not to say that America is in imminent danger of being overtaken as the world’s strongest military power. It isn’t. The power and scope of the U.S. alliance structure is overwhelming, and America’s Jacksonians are waking up right now and pushing the political dial towards a more robust foreign policy. Plus, Russian aggression has some countries in Europe showing early signs of also changing course.
But looking beyond the immediate future, it’s a mistake to assume that outspending our rivals will always mean outgunning them. The relative total dollar outlay is not by any means the only figure to watch.