US military spending befits its purpose

Richard Halloran says, however, that more must be done to cut waste and curb fraud

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2012, 2:45am

Critics of American spending for military power often make three arguments: The US spends more than a combination of the military budgets of the next 12, 15 or 17 nations, depending on who is counting and what is included; military spending drains funds from welfare, health care, education and other domestic programmes; and, military spending is rife with fraud, waste and abuse, and should be rigorously scrutinised and scrubbed.

Despite their political appeal, the first and second arguments are simplistic and should be rejected as misleading. The third is pertinent and has been so for at least 30 years.

A rational way to compare national military expenditures is to see what share of gross domestic product is allocated to military spending.

For the US, that figure is 4.7 per cent, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That is more than most other nations because the US, for better or worse, has been the world's policeman since the second world war.

As a result, allies and friends have been able to allot much smaller shares of their GDP to military spending. In Asia, the institute reports, treaty allies South Korea, Australia, Thailand, Japan and the Philippines spend between 0.8 and 2.7 per cent of GDP on military power. India, with which the US has been cultivating new military relations, assigns 2.7 per cent of GDP to defence.

Cold-war adversary Russia assigns 3.9 per cent of its GDP to military spending but drafts people who are paid a pittance. China, with the world's second largest economy, allots 2.1 per cent to military power.

North Korea, which was not covered in the study, is estimated to spend about 25 per cent of its national wealth on military power, thus allowing people to starve while the armed forces develop and fire ballistic missiles.

The relatively big spenders are in the Middle East. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia allocates 10.1 per cent of GDP to its military budget, for example, while Israel allocates 6.5 per cent.

In the US, the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis, using a different set of figures, says that consumption of durable goods, non-durables, and services takes 70.9 per cent of America's GDP while defence spending gets just 5.5 per cent.

Clearly, the US can afford to spend about 5 per cent of its wealth on military power. Are those funds well-spent? Equally clearly, no. But no administration in the past 30 years has shown the political will to eliminate congressional pork, insist on Pentagon reform, and get allies to pick up a larger share of the burden.

It is to those slices of military spending that the critics might better put their attention.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington