Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to clarify a comparison of published defense spending between China and the United States.
There is little that is new in the letter that 50 members of the House of Representatives sent to President Joe Biden on March 16. In particular, the letter raises the disingenuous argument that “we could cut the Pentagon budget by more than 10% and still spend more than the next 10 largest militaries combined.”
This statement is misleading to the point of irresponsibility.
Completely overlooked is America’s role in the world, and with it the necessity of implementing a strategy that responds to its international interests. Equally important, the statement omits differences in economic systems, purchasing power and transparency that impact the comparative defense budgets of the United States and its increasingly powerful competitor, the People’s Republic of China.
The United States is a global power. The recently released White House Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which provides the Biden administration’s vision of how America will engage in the world, states that we ensure peace, security and prosperity by leading the world.
As a global power with critical interests and key allies in Europe, the Indo-Pacific region and the Middle East, the United States must maintain forces that can separately address threats in all three regions against one or more hostile powers. It therefore makes little sense to compare American defense spending to that of regional powers.
America’s global responsibilities mandate that it maintain large, standing forces, and for decades the United States has been fortunate to do this through an all-volunteer active-duty force that now numbers more than 1.3 million. The men and women of this force are provided with a total compensation package including housing, subsistence, health care, professional education, retirement, and myriad special payments and bonuses. The military and members’ families also benefit from programs for child care and youth development, a special school system, spouse education and career development, legal advice, and morale, welfare and recreation services.
The benefits awarded to the military by a grateful nation reflect a critical choice we have made in favor of a professionalized, well-trained, well-equipped and respected element of American society. All of these benefits are meant to offer some degree of support for the men and women who are prepared to give their lives to ensure the security of their fellow Americans.
By comparison, what other countries pay their armed forces is often a fraction of the support provided to U.S. military members and their families.
The pay and benefits of American service men and women represent about a fourth of annual defense budgets. In addition, the Department of Defense allocates funds for other activities unrelated to directly putting military capability on the ground, at sea, or in the air, space or cyberspace. These include environmental programs, overseas humanitarian and disaster relief, and even legal services for alleged terrorists.
When comparing the published defense budgets of the U.S. and China, the former may still exceed the latter, but if so, by not very much. For nearly every year over the past decade, the rate of growth in Chinese defense spending has exceeded that of the United States.
Moreover, China has lower personnel and material costs. And it does not have numerous treaty obligations such as those which underpin America’s global deployment and power projection costs.
In addition, China’s defense budget is notable for its general lack of transparency and the omission of major categories from published military expenditures. This includes elements of China’s space program, research and development costs, foreign weapons procurement, defense mobilization funds, recruitment bonuses for college students, and provincial military base operating costs. These costs are included in the U.S. Department of Defense budget.
What clearly stands out in the Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress — “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” — is that China already leads the U.S. in shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems.
Public discourse and debate on federal spending is crucial when it comes to the nation’s decisions on where to apply taxpayer funding, particularly to ensure security and competitiveness. Defense spending, which is 16 percent of the entire federal budget and includes billions of dollars in nondefense activities, should not be used arbitrarily as an offset for other priorities. We should carefully consider what we are asking our military to do and what levels of risk we are placing on the force as it sustains recovered readiness lost during years of budget declines, while maintaining modernization momentum.
Our elected officials should do better than mislead us with political rhetoric when discussing that most fundamental of federal responsibilities: that of providing for the common defense of its citizens.
Dov S. Zakheim is a former undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Defense Department. He is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Elaine McCusker, a former acting undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer at the department, is currently a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.