Without question, the United States has the world’s most expensive military.

In 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. spent 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, a whopping $582 billion.


But while the percent of GDP spent on defense may seem high, it is not nearly the highest in the world. According to Forbes, Saudi Arabia spends 10.4 percent of its GDP on defense, followed by Israel at 5.4 percent, and Russia at 4.5 percent.

All the same, $582 billion sounds like a lot, and it is. But let’s look at it in context. Here’s what the United States spent on defense as a percent of GDP during wartime:

  • WWI: 21 percent
  • WWII: 41 percent
  • Korean War: 15 percent
  • Vietnam/Cold War: 10 percent

The decline of U. S. defense spending since the end of the Cold War in 1991 is a two-thirds reduction. This astounding decrease occurred while our military has been continuously fighting multiple regional wars. Recent testimony by each branch of the service, surveys of serving members, and assessments by military experts all indicate our service members are over-extended, that our ships, aircraft, and equipment are depleted, and that the entire force is struggling to keep pace with ever-expanding tasks.

A survey of respected national security think tanks finds that threats are expanding around the globe and polls indicate that Americans are extremely worried. Many recognize we are already at war on many fronts including jihadists and from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea through the use of asymmetric, unconventional, clandestine intelligence and cyber warfare. In light of these real and growing threats, what should we be spending on defense?

National defense, as made clear in the Constitution, is a core function of our government. Yet, in 2015 the defense of our country and our way of life was a distant third in the budget. From the Congressional Budget Office:

  • Social Security and Income Security: $1,184 billion
  • Medicare and Health: $1,030 billion
  • National Defense: $582 billion

The courts have upheld that federal spending on Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, welfare and health care are constitutional. A crucial question is how much should we spend on the plethora of generous social entitlements such as unemployment insurance, disability pensions, food stamps and other forms of welfare, and retirement and health care relative to spending on the critical function of national defense? Spending on these “entitlements” has increased astronomically since the end of the Cold War:

1991               2015               % increase

  • Social Security                         $272B            $882B            +324%
  • Medicare                                  $123B            $646B            +525%
  • Medicaid                                  $98B               $545B            +556%
  • Income assistance/welfare       $53B               $218B            +411%
  • Disability compensation          $48B               $143B            +298%
  • Food Stamps                            $17B               $80B               +470%
  • Defense                                    $306B            $582B            +190%*

Having the social benefits that Americans now enjoy is well and good, but what will they be worth if our enemies defeat us in the future because we have neglected our national defense?

Spending more on defense does not require increasing our national debt if we have the political will to shift some of the excessive spending on social benefits to national defense. Means-testing for Social Security, elimination of rampant fraud in Medicare and Medicaid, time limits and job search conditions on unemployment compensation, more rigorous medical screening on disability claims, and work requirements for supplemental food assistance are all reforms that have great potential to reduce the overwhelming financial burden of our social services networks.

If you survey the current literature of organizations with expertise on our military, the picture of the readiness, capacity and capability of the military is not pretty.[1]  Much of our military is too small in the face of burgeoning threats and our forces are in many areas no longer technologically superior to our potential adversaries. The number of ships, aircraft, missiles and other weapons, and the manpower to support those platforms, is insufficient for defending the nation and carrying out national strategic policy.

America, it is time to wake up before it is too late.

Brent Ramsey is a retired U. S. Navy Captain who lives in North Carolina.


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