Strength in Numbers
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?