How big is the US defense budget?

For years, opponents of a strong defense and of robust funding for defense have been exaggerating the size of the US defense budget and of the total US military budget and demanding cuts. In a recent DailyCaller article, official Ron Paul blogger Jack Hunter even called it “massive” and claimed it was a Big Government policy, and asked if Iran will “nuke limited government”.

Actually, a large defense budget or a large military budget, if the US had one, would not be a Big Government policy and would be perfectly in line with the principle of limited government. That is because:

1) We conservatives believe in LIMITED GOVERNMENT, not in NO GOVERNMENT AT ALL, unlike libertarians and other anarchists. That means that we believe that the federal government as a whole should be limited in size, and that it does have a few legitimate functions, and no other legal functions other than these few. And one of these legitimate functions is defense.

2) The US Constitution not only authorizes, but even COMMANDS the federal government to provide for the common defense. Art. IV, Sec. 4 of the Constitution says that the federal government MUST protect all states against invasion and, on the application of their state governments, against domestic violence. Thus, the federal government’s function to provide for the common defense is OBLIGATORY, not facultative. It MUST provide for the common defense. By contrast of the federal government’s functions are voluntary: it may exercise them, but doesn’t have to. For example, the federal government may enact bankruptcy laws, but the Congress didn’t bother to enact them until the late 19th century. Indeed, the Preamble to the Constitution says that one of the reasons why the Constitution was ordained and why the federal government was created in the first place was to “provide for the common defense”.

Thus, the federal government is obliged to do everything that needs to be done to provide for the common defense, including to appropriate any sum of money. (This is a duty of the Congress, because the Constitution says “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”)

Thus, if the federal government spends $500 bn or even $520 bn per year on defense, that is a constitutional policy consistent with the principle of limited government. (Note: the federal government should not spend more on defense then what is required.)

Now, how big is the US defense budget?

Opponents of defense spending vastly exaggerate it. They claim it’s over $700 bn. Some of them even claim it’s $725 bn. They claim that the US is spending more on defense than it has ever done since the end of WW2. So, what is the truth?

The truth is that the real size of the US defense budget is as follows:

1) In raw dollar numbers

According to the DOD’s official website and to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the FY2011 United States defense budget (not including spending on Iraq and Afghanistan) is $528.9 bn, while the GWOT supplemental (now called OCO Funding) for FY2011 is $159 bn. The source is:

That is a total sum of $688 bn, far short of $700 bn, let alone $725 bn. During the post-WW2 era, America has never had a $700 bn military budget. Not during this fiscal year. Not ever.

2) As a percentage of the total federal budget

According to former Secretary Robert Gates (who confirmed the $528.9 bn figure by saying that the defense budget is $530 bn), the core defense budget amounts to less than 15% of the entire federal budget, and even the total military spending, including spending on Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan, amounts to less than 19% of the total federal budget. Indeed, the total federal budget for FY2011 is ca. $3.7 trillion, i.e. ca. $3700 bn. $688 bn constitutes just 18.59% of $3700 billion.

Those are laughably small figures for what is the #1 duty of the federal government. According to Ronald Reagan, in FY1984 defense spending amounted to ca. 25% of the total federal budget, and his FY1985 defense budget request amounted to 26% of the total federal budget he requested. During the Kennedy-Johnson era, defense spending consumed 46-49% of the TOTAL federal budget, i.e. almost half of the entire federal budget.

3) As a percentage of the discretionary budget

According to, defense spending constituted over 60% of discretionary spending during the 1960s (over 70% during the Kennedy years) and over 50% during the 1970s, even under Carter. During the Reagan era, it climbed back to over 60%, but fell to ca. 50% during the 1990s. Today, it constitutes ca. 47% of the discretionary budget – less than it did during the entire Cold War.

4) As a percentage of GDP

The core defense budget constitutes 3.61% of GDP. The only Cold War fiscal year when the defense budget was smaller as a proportion of GDP was FY1948, when it constituted 3.5% of GDP. Robert Gates says that the current core defense budget indeed constitutes only 3.5% of GDP.

During the rest of the Cold War, from FY1945 to FY1947 and from FY1949 to FY1992, the defense budget constituted a larger share of America’s GDP, usually a MUCH larger share. From FY1951 to FY1960, it never amounted to less than 10% of GDP (in FY1953 it was 14% of GDP). From FY1961 to FY1963, it never dipped below 9% of GDP. It then shrank slightly to a little over 7% of GDP during the mid-1960s, but climbed back to 9% of GDP in FY1968. It then began to shrink, but still amounted to 5% of GDP during the Ford years, and even during the Carter era, it never constituted less than 4.6% of GDP. When President Reagan took office, he raised it to 6.2% of GDP, and his NSC even advised him to raise it to 7% of GDP! Even during the last years of the Cold War, it constituted over 5% of GDP. During the 1990s, it shrank, and dipped to 3% of GDP in FYs1998-2001 (the lowest level of defense spending since FY1940, i.e. since before WW2), and since then, it has climbed back to only 3.61% of GDP.

Total US military spending amounts to 4.6% of GDP. This is still less than what the US spent on its military during the entire Cold War, except FY1948, FY1949, FY1978 and FY1979. Those were the only years of the Cold War when US military spending was lower than it is now, as a percentage of GDP.

This measure of military spending is the most accurate, most useful one, ex aequo with the next one, because it accurately shows not just how much the US spends on its military, but also how well the US economy tolerates this burden of spending. So, the next time someone asks, “can we afford the military budget we currently have”, calculate it as a percentage of GDP and tell that person the result.

5) Per capita

The FY2011 defense budget is $528.9 bn, and the population of the US, according to the 2010 Census, is 308 million people. Thus, the defense budget per capita is $1717.20. The total FY2011 military budget, $688 bn, amounts to $2233.76 per capita.

This means that every American man, woman, and child pays only $2233.76 per year to maintain the military, equip and feed it, and to wage the GWOT. The annual cost of the core defense budget $1717.20 per every American man, woman, and child.

By contrast, Ronald Reagan’s FY1987 defense budget, which was $582 bn, amounted to $2346.77 per every American man, woman, and child (the population of the US in 1990, according to the 1990 Census, was 248 million people). Reagan’s FY1989 defense budget, which was $571 billion, amounted to $2302.42 per capita. So the per capita costs of the DOD were much higher during the Reagan era than now – over a hundred dollars per capita higher in FY1987.


While the total FY2011 military budget is, in raw dollars, larger than any post-WW2 era military budget, including Reagan’s defense warchests, it’s only in raw dollars (which, by themselves, are irrelevant and useless for purposes of historical comparisons). If one uses the truly relevant, useful measures for historical comparisons, e.g. percentage of GDP and per capita military spending, one cannot but notice that America’s current military spending is much lower than it was during the Cold War, and constitutes a much lighter burden on the US economy, the American populace, and American taxpayers, than Cold War era defense budgets.

Further information is contained in my book, In Defense of US Defense Spending.

2 thoughts on “How big is the US defense budget?”

  1. No matter how big the budget actually is – the defense department needs to think about the actual companies to which it awards these contracts.Billions of dollars are poured into collossal budgets, and much of this goes directly into the pockets of paid mercenaries with blood on their hands such as Tim Spicer, of Aegis.

    Spicer has a bloody reputation and has been involved in scandal after scandal. He was in charge of a regiment in Northern Ireland that shot and killed an unarmed civilian, he was involved in arms supply in contravention of an arms embargo via his company Sandline. In 2005, after his company was awarded a $300 million security contract by the US government, his private soldiers made videos shooting civilians “for fun”.

    The government seriously needs to rethink not only its defense budget but also the individuals and companies it chooses.

    1. Are you talking about private security contractors? It appears you are. The DOD should indeed stop awarding contracts to such companies.

      Why does the DOD award them contracts? Because it’s become overly dependent on contractors for most of its functions. Hence, oftentimes, it has used private security guards in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of soldiers and Marines. The DOD’s dependence on contractors has become a huge problem, has been an issue for several years, and needs to be addressed ASAP. The Congress has already significantly cut spending on contractors, down to FY2010 levels, and intends to cut them further.

      I agree with you that the DOD should not award contracts to any mercs who kill people for fun or commit any other crimes.

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