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Strength in Numbers

February 6, 2012
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Update: Don’t bother reading what I wrote below. Go read what Gulliver wrote almost a year ago instead.

All of the DoD budget talk and the vociferous debate over whether or not to preemptively strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure has highlighted what I think is a troubling trend in military analysis.

Too often, analysts point to total military expenditures as a means to compare relative military strength. For instance, proponents of forthcoming DoD budget cuts like to cite the fact that the U.S. spends more on national defense than every other country in the world combined as evidence that DoD can afford to tighten the purse strings. This evidence also appears when analysts and pundits are making the argument that Iran does not pose a military threat to the United States.

This argument is not limited to appearances in pithy op-eds and blogs either. It’s prevalent in scholarly journals and other academic texts as well. The following is from a 1997 article in International Security:

Each of the Eurasian great powers (with the exception of Russia) spends about the same amount on its military as the others, which suggests that none could easily overpower the rest.

Now, the authors moderate their claim by using the word ‘suggests’, but the point is clear – they believe similar levels of military spending equate to similar levels of military power.

Is this really the best way to measure the relative military strength of two or more countries? I submit that the answer is no. Military power is far too complex to measure with a simple fact like military expenditures. Concepts like doctrine and readiness are hard to quantify, but play a huge role in military power.

Let’s take the following hypothetical.

Let’s assume that the U.S. and Russia spend the same amount of money on their respective militaries. Let’s further assume that the U.S. allocates a sizeable portion of its resources to training – we’ll say the average fighter pilot gets roughly 150 hours per year in the cockpit. Russia, meanwhile, elects to spend its resources on slightly more capable jets, but its pilots only get 20 hours per year flight time, and they ran out of money before they could build a simulator. If we assume that similar circumstances exist throughout the Russian armed forces, who has the more capable military? The well-trained one or the one with the expensive equipment that the troops don’t know how to use effectively?

Military spending is an easy way to measure military strength, insofar as it can provide an initial estimate for assessing the comparative military strength of two or more countries and/or be included in an introduction to set the stage for the main argument. But it’s hardly appropriate to cite such data as your sole evidence while making an argument in favor of budget cuts or whether a hostile power represents a military threat.

And if that’s not convincing, just look at the Pentagon. Not exactly the model for spending money efficiently or wisely, huh?

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7 Comments
  1. jimmysky77 permalink
    February 6, 2012 11:50 pm

    Agree, but I would actually take your argument even further. The whole concept that spending levels roughly approximate military capability is premised on the idea of conventional warfare amongst near-peer competitors. Under this construct, I can sympathize with the (overly-simplistic) tendency to use spending as a yardstick to measure capability. However, the further you move away from traditional state-on-state military engagements, the more clearly this example falls apart, which should lead you to question whether it applied in the first place.

    An obvious, if somewhat overplayed example, is al-Qaeda. Militarily, the US, NATO, etc are clearly superior and spend several orders of magnitude more to achieve this capability. However, since al-Qaeda (just like most enemies) are not stupid, they play to their strengths. Since they know that they can not match us militarily or financially, they attempt to fight an entirely different battle entirely, one they can actually win. They are not attempting to defeat us directly, they are attempting to get us to spend ourselves into irrelevance.

    The more I think about it, the more I think someone should write a book about this…

    On a slightly more conventional front, if I’m China, I see the US “pivoting” toward Asia and I know what US military capability levels are and roughly what it would cost to get there. I look at my current internal economic condition and decide that its not worth it. I don’t want to pay the price to match you toe-to-toe militarily either. So, instead of investing in traditional military capabilities at a rate that is unsustainable, I leverage my education system and population to create a network of cyber assets that can conduct espionage and “cyber-war” against you until your posturing in the region becomes unsustainable.

    While its difficult to say in the long run if either of these approaches would be successful, its not hard to say that they cheaper, which really seems to undercut the idea of using military spending as a metric for capability.

  2. Jomini permalink
    February 7, 2012 6:35 am

    I don’t know how deliberate this is, but you are sort of implying that the huge budget for the U.S. military doesn’t necessarily translate into an advantage in combat because much of the money disappears into corruption, OK into the part of the Department of Defense that makes it impossible to produce audited accounts.

  3. February 7, 2012 10:58 am

    The approach you’ve described, particularly the quote about spending parity among Eurasian great powers, is common in the international relations/political science literature. Military analysts – both academic and popular – should do better.

    Here’s what I wrote about this almost a year ago, after the 2011 IISS Military Balance was published:

    Which brings us back to relative military power: from a strategic planning perspective, comparative measures aren’t particularly useful. We should more appropriately be asking “what is X country’s capability to perform this particular mission?” Frankly, it doesn’t matter one damn bit whether China achieves parity in global military power with the U.S. next year, ten years from now, in a century, or never. What does matter is when Chinese capabilities begin to meaningfully impinge upon the USG’s ability to accomplish its desired ends in a particular theater, the most important of which, of course, is probably Northeast Asia/the Western Pacific. You could argue that this is already happening, and that the pace at which this is happening is accelerating. That’s a much more important piece of analysis than simply projecting that Chinese defense spending will match the U.S. budget in real terms within a certain number of years.

    All of which is a long way of saying: I agree with you.

  4. February 7, 2012 11:28 am

    Jomini—you are sort of implying that the huge budget for the U.S. military doesn’t necessarily translate into an advantage in combat because much of the money disappears into corruption

    Jon can defend himself on this, I’m sure, but I think this is a serious misreading. In fact, I can’t find anything in the original post to support this interpretation.

    What the post does imply is that “the huge budget … doesn’t necessarily translate into an advantage in combat” for a variety of reasons, which is so true as to scarely merit comment. (One of my big whines about the defense bureaucracy is the tendency to use the word “capability” as a synonym for a weapon system. A piece of gear only translates into a capability when it’s manned by trained personnel, employed in a manner consistent with sensible doctrine, maintained by people who know what they’re doing using a sustainment infrastructure that’s been developed through effective forward planning, and so on.)

    The failure to effectively translate cash into capability isn’t just a matter of corruption; in fact, corruption plays a comparatively small (though significant) role when considered alongside the many, many other structural, bureaucratic, strategic, and tactical constraints that bear on how well we use the money allocated for defense.

    • jimmysky77 permalink
      February 7, 2012 11:41 pm

      Ok, now that I read Gulliver’s response, I realize that I have often fallen into the trap of using capability as shorthand for a weapon system. [hangs head]

      • February 8, 2012 11:02 am

        Dude, we all do it. It’s basically unavoidable. I just think people need to be more conscious of the fact that the cost (and effort) involved in developing and employing real warfighting capability must take into account far more than the sticker price for the hardware. (This eventually drifts into “hollow force” territory…)

  5. wjrue permalink
    February 7, 2012 12:44 pm

    Jomini, I’ll just echo what Gulliver said–I did not say, nor did I mean to imply, that DoD does not have an advantage in combat because money disappears into corruption. My only argument is that using military expenditures to measure comparative military strength can lead to wrong conclusions and is not appropriate. I point to the JSF program as additional evidence of that argument, nothing more. To my knowledge, the JSF program hasn’t been plagued by corruption so much as it has inefficiency and ineptitude.

    Gulliver, I missed your post on the subject. Had I seen it, I would have at least linked to it and most likely not written my own. As usual, you tackle the same subject with quite a bit more understanding and complexity.

    Sky, you nailed it better too.

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