How Much Should the US Spend on Defense?

In this time of fiscal constraints and global insecurity, how much should the United States spend on national defense? US defense spending hit $710 Billion in 2008 when foreign wars are included [1], amounting to roughly half of all worldwide defense spending [2]. The table below compares US defense spending with US GDP, with our adversaries’ defense budgets, and with the rest of the world.

Category Amount (2008 USD) Comparison
US Defense Spending $710B 4.98% of 2008 US GDP [3]
World Defense Spending $1470B US share is 48.3% of world defense spending [2]
US Adversaries’ Defense Spending – China, Russia, Iran, Myanmar, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea $217B US Defense spending is 3.3 times that of our adversaries [4]
World Minus NATO $442B US Spends 1.6 times the World minus NATO [5]
World Minus Major US Allies – UK, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Israel $473.3B US Spends 1.5 times the World minus major allies [6]

Defense hawks have advocated that the US spend at minimum 4% of GDP on defense annually. This would equate to a defense budget of roughly $570 Billion in 2010, roughly in line with President Obama’s FY10 budget. But aligning defense spending with GDP is somewhat arbitrary, as US defense spending as a percentage of GDP has varied significantly over time.

A more rigorous approach would involve comparing US defense spending to world defense spending, and to its adversaries’ defense spending. The US could match the defense spending of the entire non-NATO world for roughly $450 Billion. With NATO members as long standing allies, the US could match the defense spending of all its theoretical adversaries combined for 37% less than it spends today. The combined defense spending of credible adversaries (China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and some Arab nations) would still amount to less than half of America’s defense budget!

As the US begins to contemplate fiscal discipline (as lenders slowly run out), cutting the military budget will be unavoidable. Gradually cutting $200B annually from the US defense budget would make a huge impact on the deficit. Thankfully, it appears that cuts of this size can be made without jeopardizing the defense of America itself.

[1] From the US DOD Green Book, FY2009 defense spending appropriations total $709.58 Billion – see pdf page 14 (page 6 as marked on the document) for the FY2009 constant dollars figure.

[2] There are a number of estimates of total worldwide military expenditure. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and SIPRI both estimate that total worldwide defense spending equaled roughly $1.47 Trillion in 2008. US spending of $710B equals 48.3% of this total. The Center for Arms Control’s numbers match the US DOD numbers and NATO numbers, lending credibility to these estimates.

[3] The US BEA provides its estimate of 2008 US GDP on page 8 here – $14.264 Trillion.

[4] This estimate includes all potential US adversaries that spent more than $1B on defense in 2008, per the Center for Arms Control. The 2007 estimate for North Korea was used.

[5] NATO countries excluding the US spent $318 Billion on defense in 2007 (see page 4 of the pdf). This number was not inflation adjusted, making it a very conservative estimate for 2008.

[6] All US allies with defense budgets greater than $10B are included here, per the 2008 Center for Arms Control estimates. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Brazil, and Spain are not counted as major allies here, making this a conservative list of major allies. All countries included on this list are secular democracies with almost no likelihood of engaging in future conflict with the US. Collectively, the UK, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and Israel spent $287 Billion on defense in 2008.

6 thoughts on “How Much Should the US Spend on Defense?

  1. Politicians have many defense related projects in their area, defense companies spread out their facilities making it difficult to cut, this is why the military base reduction and realignment act become about, unfortunately that has a bias since it has to take economic impact, while that’s fair it could become unfair, consider a diverse economy such as in California or the northeast or any state or which has a lot of different industries such as technology, natural resources, healthcare, etc you can include states like texas, a brac closure would effect them less but still have a disadvantage , over time the only facilities left to close are the ones where economic impact is a big deal , take virginia, virginia is heavily dependent on military spending, facilities and closures are less likely to happen while the rest of the country gets screwed, also instead of closing a lot of facilities brac did, what makes you think you couldn’t close facilities that are remaining and preserve the ones that were closed?

    Defense spending has not improved the country’s defense at all, sure it is necessary to use modern technology in Afghanistan such as drones, but that country doesn’t have modern technology to use back and technology becomes cheaper and more standard. Instead its politics, and the GOP is a victim because they refuse to give into a lot of cuts, instead taking the 4% figure, okay well TANF of the welfare reform act represented less than 1% of the federal budget, talk about inflating welfare and most welfare recipients where white, and welfare can include social security, medicare, public schools, even roads, if you make $100,000 and your neighbors make $50,000 you subsidize their road use and water use. Socialism indeed.

  2. I’m currently working with http://www.militaryeducation.org. They specialize in educating others who are interested in Military Scholarships.They have created a new Military Infographic, which I thought might interest your readers.

    You can review the graphic at http://www.militaryeducation.org/military-equipment/. If you like the graphic, I’d appreciate if you could add it to your blog or share it through your social media accounts. Thank You!

    1. Jonathan, interesting infographic! I don’t generally leave comments with outbound links up on my site, as they’re usually spam. I think your infographic has merit, so I’m leaving the link in place. Good luck with your work on it.

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