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.