Defense Spending 101 (or Defense Spending for Dummies)

Many charlatans routinely propose deep defense spending cuts while claiming that such cuts would not weaken the US military or imperil national security. Sadly, many Americans have bought into these false assurances and support defense cuts of various magnitude.

This is because, among other things, most people don’t understand how important a proper level of funding for defense is, how defense spending works, and what the consequences of deep cuts in it would be. In this article, intended primarily for those completely unfamiliar with defense issues, I will explain those issues in layman’s terms.

1) What is defense spending used for?

It pays for all the assets/things that are needed to defend America – the troops, their benefits, their training, their housing, base infrastructure, the maintenance and operation of current equipment (fuel, spare parts, maintenance work, etc.), and the development and acquisition of new equipment.

Basically, the larger defense budget you have, the more troops, ships, aircraft, missiles, and training hours you can afford.

2) How do we determine whether the defense budget topline (the overall size of the defense budget) is inadequate or not?

To be able to defend a country, you need a proper number of those troops and weapon platforms. Furthermore, troops have to be well-trained, which costs a lot of money (to pay for flight hours, tank miles, ship steaming days, ammo for training, etc.), and existing equipment and base facilities have to be properly maintained.

To be able to defend a country as large as the US, you need all of these troops and things in large quantities. And that is to say nothing of America’s allies.

Thus, when we review a defense budget topline and whether it is adequate or not, we need to look at what America’s defense needs are. In other words, we need to ask:

  • What enemies are we confronting?
  • How are they likely to fight, and what weapons and tactics will they likely employ?
  • What are their current and projected capabilities?
  • What missions do we need to execute, and where, to counter our enemies?
  • What weapons, units, and training will the military need to carry out those missions and counter our enemies’ current and projected capabilities?
  • How many of those weapons, units, troops, and training hours/days do we need to have a sufficiently large, properly equipped and adequately trained military?
  • And last but not least, how much would all of this cost in sum?

The answers to these questions then need to be compared to the current defense budget or any proposed defense budget topline or scale of cuts. In other words, check for yourself whether the existing or proposed budget topline (the total size of the defense budget) would be adequate to meet all of the above requirements: to pay for the missions that need to be carried out and for the weapons, units, and training the military will need to carry out those missions and counter our enemies’ current and projected capabilities.

If the level of funding would be insufficient to meet all the needs stated above, it means the level of funding would be insufficient.

3) So what does that make of sequestration and other proposals of deep defense cuts?

Very simply, if defense spending is cut deeply from the current levels – by way of sequestration or through any other method – the defense budget’s size will be woefully inadequate to pay for America’s genuine defense needs – the troops, equipment, training, maintenance, and base infrastructure needed to protect America.

Sequestration, or any other budget cuts on its scale, would require the military to, inter alia:

  • Cancel the F-35 program completely without replacement, and thus betray foreign program partners (including Israel);
  • Cancel all except the most basic upgrades for F-15s and F-16s while cutting the fighter fleet by 35%;
  • Eliminate the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad completely while cutting the bomber fleet by 2/3 and cancelling the bomber replacement program (also needed for conventional penetration strike);
  • Delay the SSBN replacement program;
  • Cut the USN’s ship fleet to 230 vessels, the smallest size since 1915, and vastly inadequate (independent studies say the Navy needs 346 ships);
  • Forego the deployment of any missile defense system abroad;
  • Cut the Army to its smallest size since 1940;
  • Cancel virtually all Army modernization programs;
  • Cut the Marines down to just 145,000 personnel (which, according to the USMC’s Commandant, would make the USMC “unable to handle even one major contingency”; in other words, if big trouble flares up, don’t bother calling the Marines);
  • Cutting Israeli cooperative missile defense programs;
  • Cut personnel benefits programs to such depth that it would break faith with them (e.g. massive cuts in DOD health programs and retirement benefits), thus discouraging people from joining the military or reenlisting.

For why the cutting and jettisoning of these troops, units, equipment stocks, and programs would be detrimental, see here.

The fact – which the proponents of deep defense cuts continue to avoid, as they live in la-la land – is that with a significantly reduced defense budget, the country wouldn’t be able to fund these crucial capabilities and programs, even though the military needs them. In other words, with a significantly reduced budget, it wouldn’t be able to pay for enough troops, weapons of every category (and in good quality), training hours/days, maintenance, and base infrastructure to defend itself.

4) But can’t we pay for these things at a much lower cost?

Depends on what you mean by a much lower cost. However, with a significantly smaller defense budget – such as the one that sequestration would produce – it wouldn’t be possible even if these things cost a lot less money and the DOD was much more efficient than it is. While there is some waste in the budget of the DOD (and every other government agency), there isn’t enough waste in it to cut it as deeply as sequestration would require. (Note: crucial weapon programs such as the Next Gen Bomber, the SSBN replacement program, or the V-22 are not “waste.”)

Better business practices such as fixed-price contracts, multi-year orders, base closure, and TRICARE reforms (all of which have to be authorized by Congress, BTW) can save money, but not enough to allow for deep defense budget cuts. The reality is that high-quality people, weapons, base infrastructure, and training are not and will never be cheap. In other words, defense on the cheap is not possible.

5) What measures of defense spending are proper?

That depends on what the measure is supposed to be proper for.

For determining how much is enough for defense in total – the million-dollar question to which multiple Presidents, SECDEFs, and Congresses have sought the answer – one needs to review America’s defense need in the manner described in #2: find out what capabilities America’s enemies have and are projected to attain, what missions must be carried out, what tools and troops are needed to counter our enemies’ capabilities and execute those missions, and how much would that cost in total. That’s how Ronald Reagan determined the topline.

For determining how much does the Nation pay for defense – how much of a burden the defense budget is on the economy and the taxpayers – there’s a much simpler and easier measure: defense spending as a share of GDP. The current DOD budget $645 bn, amounts to 4.218% of America’s GDP, which is $15.29 trillion.

For determining how much of a priority defense is for the government and the Nation, and how much in relation to other budgetary expenditures, look at its share of the total budget (not just the discretionary one, which is just a small part of the picture).

Currently, the military budget’s share is 16.85%.

Such a small share is dismaying considering that according to the Constitution, defense is to be the #1 duty of the federal government.


In short, defense on the cheap is not possible. Deep defense cuts are exactly that – deep cuts in America’s defense capabilities. With a significantly reduced defense budget, it will not be possible to pay for the missions that need to be carried out and for the weapons, units, and training the military will need to carry out those missions and counter our enemies’ current and projected capabilities.

I hope this paper has answered all the basic questions Readers have had about defense spending. For a more detailed, in-depth discussion of defense issues, including (but not exclusively) budgetary ones, see these articles.


4 thoughts on “Defense Spending 101 (or Defense Spending for Dummies)”

    1. I’m highly skeptical of that. Government workers usually cost more to employ than mere contractors.

      1. Not necessarily. It might be true in some cases, but generally it is dependant on strict oversight by the Government; if Government just pays checks and does not watch how money is spent, then contractors have very little incentive to be efficient about spending said money. Considering how massive military bureocracy is in general, it probably isn’t easy to check where all money is going. If you take a look at Roman Empire, which was probably first modern state in the West (and there are very few elements in organization of state that are present in modern countries but were not present in the late Empire), it was forced to switch from private contractors to massive state-run bureocracy of the late Empire simply due to the inefficiency of former, which caused large amounts of money to disappear without trace.

      2. US government workers earn well over $100,000 per year – far more than their private sector counterparts – and many of them earn over $150K per year. They also enjoy retirement and HC privileges which contractors do not. Hence, they are more expensive to hire.

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