Civics 101, Part 3: Defense Spending

About 25% of federal taxpayer dollars is spent on national security–when you include everything, like the VA and homeland security.  This is a bit more than is spent on Social Security (I’ll do SS later).  It’s a lot, but we get a lot for it.  Here’s some information on how much we spend on defense, what it’s spent on, and a little bit about why.

Defense Spending  —

  • About $900 billion annually on national defense and international affairs.  About three-quarters ($700B) of this is spent by the Defense Department; 15% ($125B) by the VA, and the rest is for homeland security, the intelligence agencies (said to be about $30B), and other activities.  FYI, foreign aid is less than 3% of the total.  [source: Tables 3.1, 3.2]
  • Most of the Pentagon’s budget goes to personnel and operations and maintainence, not to weapons procurement.  They spend about equally on the Army, Air force, and Navy/Marines.   [source: same.]
  • About 1.5 million people are in the active duty military, down from 2.1m in the early 1980s.  Another 800,000 civilians work for DOD. [source: see table 7-5]  And, of course, many, many civilian jobs depend directly or indirectly on defense spending (since it’s roughly 6% of GDP).
  • Obama has increased defense spending, by about 6% in 2010 I think, and 3% in 2011.

Defense Spending In Perspective

  • We spend more on the military than all other countries in the world combined.  We spend more than twice as much as potential enemies China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela combined.  [source: see chart 9]  And this doesn’t include our allies’ spending or account for our huge qualitative edge (part of what makes it so expensive).
  • We also spend more on defense now than ever before —  More than at any time in the cold war, including the Reagan buildup and at the height of the Vietnam War.   [Source, charts 1, 2]

Purpose of Defense Spending

  • Official goals, says DOD, are to: (1) prevail in today’s wars; (2) deter future wars by preparing to prevail in them; and (3) preserve and improve the forces we have.  [source: see fact sheets]
  • Shorter answer: We are the dominant power and need a huge global reach to protect our interests and those of our allies and to keep the peace on our terms.  Having both quantity and quality costs a lot of money.

Some Issues

  • Can we afford this level of spending indefinitely, now that budget deficits are so large?
  • Do we need to?  At least for the moment, our main enemy lives in caves and bombs airplanes,  But, the future’s uncertain and new enemies may arise quickly.
  • Does defense spending need to be radically rebalanced in some way for the 21st century; e.g., reoriented towards counterinsurgency and away from big hardware and land armies?
  • How could we do any of this without weakening capability that we need or might need suddenly?
  • How could this be done politically, given the opposition to it?

What do you think?


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