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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat

Stop Saying the U.S. Military Spends More Than China (It Might Not Matter)

Military Spending
ATLANTIC OCEAN (July 4, 2018) An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the "Red Rippers" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 11 sits on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). Harry S. Truman is deployed as part of an ongoing rotation of U.S. forces supporting maritime security operations in international waters around the globe. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Rebekah A. Watkins/Released) 180704-N-UJ486-0313.

Take that, zombie! Over at Breaking Defense, Bill Greenwalt aims a blast to the cranium of one of the most deathless talking points—myths, fallacies, call them what you will—of U.S. defense policy. Namely, the casual claim that because the United States spends more on defense than the next X countries combined—X usually being defined as ten or upwards—it is so crushingly superior that it need not spend more and could probably get away with spending less on the armed forces.

No. It is not the case that the competitor that spends the most automatically wins. You can gun down this undead idea time and again—yet, like a zombie horde, ten more like it come shambling at you. It is the fallacy that refuses to die.

But there is hope. Greenwalt reviews some recent reportage indicating that the premise itself may be false. America may not even be the world’s biggest spender in real terms, let alone spend more than the next ten countries combined. His verdict: “despite China’s ridiculously low official defense spending figures, the value of its defense budget may have surpassed what the U.S. actually spends on defense.”

Actually being the keyword.

As it turns out, China tries to ameliorate worries about its burgeoning military might by lowballing spending figures. It can acquire military personnel and hardware more cheaply than can the United States, giving it an edge in defense “purchasing power parity,” to borrow economists’ term. Meanwhile, much of the U.S. defense budget, now northwards of $700 billion per year, does not go to buying usable combat power. And what combat power it does buy is pricier than the equivalent for China’s People’s Liberation Army. For instance, The Economist of London reports that the U.S. military pays junior folk sixteen times more than their PLA counterparts.

These factors cancel out the apparent disparity between defense spending at least in part; Greenwalt suggests they cancel it out altogether. He points out that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has adjusted up Chinese defense spending from the official figure of $184 billion to $252 billion.

Drawing on research out of Australia, The Economist estimates it at $518 billion—double SIPRI’s figure.

If the arithmetic understates China’s martial prowess, it overstates America’s. Representative Anthony Brown, the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, observes that the top line for U.S. defense budgets—$715 billion for this coming year if the Biden administration gets its way—misleads. “We spend $1 billion more on Medicare in the defense budget than we do on new tactical vehicles,” Brown reports. “We spend more on the Defense Health Program than we do on new ships. In total, some $200 billion in the defense budget are essentially for nondefense purposes—from salaries to health care to basic research.”

Deducting $200 billion from $715 billion in apparent U.S. defense spending yields $515 billion in real defense spending—a mite less than the Economist tally for Chinese spending on the PLA.

Things are dire from the standpoint of strategy if these commentators have the numbers even approximately correct. Parity in defense spending is not enough. America needs to outspend China, probably by a sizable margin, to fulfill its strategic and political aims in the Western Pacific. Look at your map, as Franklin Roosevelt liked to say. Likely Pacific battlegrounds lie mainly under mainland China’s shadow, from the Senkaku Islands to the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea. They lie thousands upon thousands of miles from bases in the continental United States and Hawaii.

Fighting close to home is cheap. Fighting far from home—on a foe’s home ground—is hard. And pricey.

In other words, U.S. forces are fragmented even within the Pacific theater, to say nothing of how they’re further subdivided between the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Middle East. Strikingly, Washington just ordered the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft-carrier group—a force based in Japan, in the primary theater of strategic competition—to the Arabian Sea to guard the retrieval of U.S. and NATO ground forces from Afghanistan, a theater of secondary importance at best.

Bottom line: it may take the combined weight of U.S. military power to prevail over the PLA in Asia, but U.S. forces are scattered all over the map of the Pacific and the world. Because it cares mainly about what happens in the Western Pacific, Beijing can concentrate its assets near likely scenes of conflict. It can hurl the whole of its military might at the fraction of U.S. forces present in the theater. Who wins when part of one armed force takes on a peer force in its entirety?

You be the judge.

What to do? First, admit that we have a problem. That supposed mismatch in defense budgets may not even exist, let alone provide a guarantee of victory. Second, hunt for ways to ensure that the full amount levied for defense actually pays for usable military power rather than other things. Third, seek out ways to perform necessary functions and procure hardware more cheaply. And fourth, devise methods to drive up the cost to China of attaining its goals.

The United States and its allies can herd the competition with China into areas of allied advantage and Chinese disadvantage—and if they can do so at a manageable expense to themselves and heavy expense to China—then they may be able to reverse grim-looking trendlines.

One hopes one zombie besieging defense commentary has now been slaughtered. Then we can get serious about strategy

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a nonresident fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Tim

    May 30, 2021 at 9:05 am

    Dr. Holmes is spot on.
    Nike is not the only recipient of slave labor.
    For ALL DemocRATS who have forgotten history, except ONLY as far back as January 6th, living under communism means the government decides what you will do for a living and pays what it wants to pay.
    The Red Chinese have little to no R&D costs since they are given or steal all of the data needed from us; look at their new stealth fighter and helicopter, direct rip-offs of the F-22 and Blackhawk. I am surprised Lockheed Martin has not given them the keys to the AEGIS Combat System files or they have not stolen them yet. In the old days they just reverse engineered the junk the Soviets sold them and the Soviets spent a lot of time trying to steal our tech, now the DemocRAT Administrations and Tech Guru’s just give it to them with the ridiculous thought that the more we help them and like them the more they will be like us and the tech guys can get access to their consumer goods market. How is a Red Chinese sailor or soldier supposed to buy a $1k phone if they make 16 TIMES LESS THAN the American sailor of soldier who cannot afford one?

  2. Beelzebub

    May 30, 2021 at 4:12 pm

    James Homes knows shit about clandestine operation funding, hence those that brought us the likes of the infamous B2 bomber and F-117 Knighthawk. Definitely game changers brought about by the Skunkworks of Nevada fame. You think it costs $1,000 for a toilet seat cover on a naval carrier?

  3. Slack

    May 30, 2021 at 10:53 pm

    Doesn’t matter who’s spending more bucks. But it’s a solid fact the mighty US military is THE WORLD’s largest single user of fossil fuel.

  4. Don Taylor

    May 31, 2021 at 11:21 am

    China does what is best for China. Our current government just can’t do what is best for us. WE are not stopping any data flow. Don’t blame China for having better spooks in better places. We are to hung up on feelings to stop it. corruption is the reason for defense costs. It takes more money to buy a senator.
    The US Navy is the Worlds largest user of clean, safe, cheap, and the most environmentally friendly energy source, Nuclear. Slacker is FOS.

  5. RepublicansdestoryingAmerica

    May 31, 2021 at 11:55 am

    @Tim
    Another rw whiny chimp-fag who thinks he knows better than everyone else. Nope it’s not our fault or the techcoms. Its you cooperate worshiping retards who are the reason America’s military is falling behind. Contactors have to have their way or they won’t sell their weapons at all. The fact is that the MIC overcharges the Pentagon for everything and taxpayers foot the bill. M-shitteens are junk, the planes are obsolete and its the fault of rw retards like you are the reason America keeps losing wars.

    So you and the fake doctor know absolute dick about how things actually work.

  6. Slacker

    May 31, 2021 at 6:11 pm

    @ don taylor. You are full of crap. There’s NOTHING clean about fission reactors. Also, fighter jets, tanks, transporters, destroyers, military bases and all their associated systems like computers don’t use nuclear fuel and the US military use them 24/7 all year round for provocations, muscle flexing, intimidation and non-stop war exercises.

  7. Slack

    May 31, 2021 at 6:35 pm

    @ don taylor. YOU’RE full of crap. There’s nothing clean about fission reactors. They produce nuclear waste that’re TOXIC and difficult to store. Also, fighter jets, tanks, destroyers, transporters, military bases (e.g. Ramstein is described as little America) and IC systems consume non-nuclear energy that are a burden to both the world and humanity. Stay close to facts not emotions please.

  8. Mario DeLosa

    June 8, 2021 at 8:12 am

    Let me address a few point here, particularly in regards to the ill-informed person that promptly blamed his personal favorite political nemesis. The fact is that not a single administration or congress since roughly 1980 has done much to resolve the issues that Dr. Holmes has touched upon. While the USA spends the wealth of Croesus on hardware, the amount of monies spent on training has declined significantly. Indeed, in my former Navy occupational specialty entry level training shrunk from 17 week to five. Discipline has declined and the leadership from the CNO on down has done nothing to address the issue. Recruiting offices are turning away stellar candidates in favor of mediocre choices simply because they have to meet diversity quotas rather than occupational quotas. More and more jobs are being turned over to civilians that Sailors used to perform. For example, the Navy used to have its own tugboats. Not anymore, these days the Navy contracts out to civilian tug boats and I personally do not where the savings come from; keep in mind that civilian tug boat skippers earn six figure salaries that do not start with the number one or even two in most cases. Then we the pork barrel systems that our politicians insisted on buying because they provided jobs for the constituents. The EPF is a perfect example. The EPFs are so flimsy they cannot sail in seas above sea state three. I could write an entire dissertation about how the congressional and Pentagon clowns are increasing our vulnerabilities, but I believe I made my points.

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