U.S. military spending has been proportionally higher than other nations’ spending for a long time, but in 2014, overall military spending did decrease by 6.5% as a result of budget cuts, according to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
However, the fact remains that the cost of America’s military remains quite high, leading the international community in spending by a significant margin. The second-highest spender was China, and even China’s spending was almost three times less than the U.S. budget.
America suffers from the “never a good time” problem. Being as embroiled in international politics and conflicts as America is — a result of involvement in conflicts around the world, from Iran and Israel to Ukraine and Russia — the degree of concern for security both at home and abroad is such that it never seems like a good time to cut back in any extreme way.
So even when cuts to the budget are put into place, they’ve never be enough to reduce American military expenditures to pre-9/11 levels; there is usually ample justification for hawkish military precautions and signals. Cutting back on expenditures arguably sends the wrong message if threats from North Korea or espionage from China have been addressed recently.
At the same time, the level of military preparedness doesn’t necessarily have to work in parallel with the amount spent on the military. Streamlining and making targeted programs to handle security concerns can allow for some cuts to the more extraneous parts of America’s military — at least, that was true earlier last year.
“You have to always keep your institution prepared,” a senior Pentagon official told The New York Times in 2014, but “you can’t carry a large land-war Defense Department when there is no large land war.” On the other hand, despite President Obama’s continued message of a controlled, air-base-only level of involvement in the Middle East, others in Washington are in favor of a more direct approach.
“Since the air campaign started … [the Islamic State] has increased their size and areas of control,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), according to The Washington Times. “The reality is, we need more boots on the ground. … We need intelligence, we need special forces, and we can’t treat Iraq and Syria as different battlegrounds because it’s the same enemy.”
This is not a position that has the support of Obama or most Democrats, but the fact of the matter is that election season is coming up once again. While most politicians recognize the newly recovered economy, not many still-recovering citizens are likely to support a major push into the Middle East, but some of the reticence previously seen is fading.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in March, 62% of respondents were in favor of ground troops being sent to Iraq and Syria to curtail ISIL, with only 30% in opposition. Others argue that the U.S. military is only useful as a tool to combat problems in the Middle East, and that further intervention will only go as it has in the past.
“The U.S. military’s a great hammer, but some of the thorniest problems we’ve got in the Middle East simply are not nails,” said Paul Pillar, formerly of the CIA, in a debate organized by Intelligence Squared.
The U.S.’s military spending in 2014 reached $610 billion despite the 6.5% reduction; globally, $1.776 billion went toward military budgets, historically very high when one looks across the last three or four decades, as shown the chart above.
The other issue with cutting back on expenditures in America’s military system is that even when ground forces are accepted as an area where scale-backs would be appropriate, there are other areas of national security that must be expanded. In particular, the need for a continually updated and improving cyber security program in the United States is paramount.
Cyber warfare is the newest way in which countries are being forced to compete; not keeping up with the times and the latest technology and techniques can lead to major security breaches. And of course, cyber attacks aren’t only problematic for keeping government information safe — they have an effect on businesses, which can cause problems in the U.S. economy and in the safe operation of companies.