A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

#1 with a bullet: Why is the U.S. military budget so high?

June 11, 2004

Dear Cecil:

I have seen statements in the media that the U.S. spends as much on the military as the next top 16 countries COMBINED! I have been trying to verify that. The closest I've come is a listing in The Top 10 of Everything 2003 by Russell Ash, as follows (all dollars in billions): (1) U.S. $291.2, (2) Japan $45.6, (3) UK $34.5, (4) Russia $29.0, (5) France $27.0, (6) Germany $23.3, (7) Saudi Arabia $18.7, (8) Italy $16.0, (9) India $15.9, (10) China $14.5. No source or date for this information is given. Are these numbers accurate and directly comparable, i.e., is the money spent only spent on hardware and people used against foreign foes and not for internal security? Why does the U.S. feel the need to spend so much more on their military than everyone else?

Cecil replies:

David, surely it has not escaped your notice that the United States is engaged in various military … well, I was about to say adventures, but that might be misconstrued. Let's just say we've got global commitments, with a budget to match. However, the Ash book is not your best source of information. What you want is World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers, published by the U.S. Department of State (formerly by the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency) and available online. The 28th edition, published in 2003, covers expenditures from 1989 through 1999. The report answers your question and provides plenty of other fascinating info. A sample:

Top ten military budgets. The U.S. spends the most by far, but matters aren't as lopsided as your letter suggests. The WMEAT list (in billions): (1) U.S., $281.0; (2) mainland China, $88.9; (3) Japan, $43.2; (4) France, $38.9; (5) UK, $36.5; (6) Russia, $35.0; (7) Germany, $32.6; (8) Italy, $23.7; (9) Saudi Arabia, $21.2; (10) Taiwan, $15.2. The U.S. military, therefore, spends as much as the next six countries (not 16) combined, with just about enough change to cover Greece ($6 billion). To put it another way, the U.S. accounted for 33 percent of world military expenditures in 1999, a modest increase since Cold War days (28 percent in 1986). Sorry, no breakdown on percentage of the military budget used to suppress dissidents or otherwise deal with internal security.

Five largest armed services. Soldiers (in millions): (1) mainland China, 2.4; (2) U.S., 1.5; (3) India, 1.3; (4) North Korea, 1.0; (5) Russia, 0.9.

Arms exports. Here's where it starts to get interesting. According to WMEAT, the U.S. exports far more arms than the rest of the world combined — $33 billion versus $18.6 billion. The biggest arms importer? Saudi Arabia, $7.7 billion.

Top three in gross national product. Think you know this one, eh? We'll see. The first two are easy: (1) U.S., $9.3 trillion; (2) Japan, $4.4 trillion. Now guess the third. Time's up: it's mainland China, at $3.9 trillion. According to the CIA World Factbook, China's economy grew 8 percent in 2002, whereas Japan's grew 0.2 percent, so it's fair to say China will soon have the second largest economy in the world. In fact, on a "purchasing power parity" basis (don't ask), it already does.

Military expenditures as a percentage of gross national product. The U.S. spends a lot on its military but has a lot to spend. Some other countries don't have much but spend it on the military anyway. World leader: Eritrea, which spends 27.4 percent of its $757 million GNP (world rank: 155) on the armed services, most of it presumably to fight its archenemy, Ethiopia. The balance of the top ten, with percentages ranging between 21.2 and 8.8: Angola, North Korea, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Congo, Qatar, Jordan, Ethiopia, and Israel. U.S. rank: 52nd, at 3 percent.

Military expenditures per soldier. The U.S., one notes with patriotic pride, ranks first, spending $189,000 per soldier — Lord knows crack prison guards don't come cheap. Japan (number two) and the UK (number three) aren't far behind, spending $180,000 and $167,000, respectively. Who's at the bottom of the list? Why, Iceland, where annual military expenditure per soldier is $0, owing to the fact that the country has no regular military and thus no military budget. How can that be in our wicked world? Easy. The country is protected by the Icelandic Defense Force, maintained by — you guessed it — the United States.

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