After decades of military competition and buildup against the Soviet Union, with billions of dollars poured into technologically superior weaponry during the War on Terror, there is no doubt that the United States is the dominant military force thus far in the 21st Century. Accounting for 582.4 billion dollars in military spending, representing 37.98% of the entire 1.538 trillion dollars in worldwide military expenditure, with its closest competitor, China, spending a fraction of this number at 139.2 billion dollars, the United States is by far the world’s dominant military force.
In the United States, however, there is disagreement over this assertion, with some contending that their unprecedented military dominance is in rapid decline and that foreign powers will soon be on par with and able to contend with, or defeat the American military. While this is a politically stimulating narrative, it has also masked the reality of the deep ties between the military and the economy, appearing on the surface as the military industrial complex but pervading far deeper than the defence industry and reaching into the manufacturing, service, technological and scientific sectors, among others. The narrative of decline and the reality of supremacy have come together to create a bloated, and inefficient military-industrial complex that is unnecessary and stands in the way of a more cost effective, yet still fully capable fighting force.
Coming to tackle this problem has been a domestically oriented President who has been idealistic in pursuing international cooperation and cautious to commit hard power resolutions to global crises. Congruent with his disagreement with long and grueling ground combat deployments, President Obama has taken on the reduction in military spending, and the seeming redirection of these funds to domestic initiatives such as Medicare and Social Security, or domestic infrastructure. Despite this, there does not appear to have been much consideration of the economic effects of such a reduction in employed troops, or the effects on industries with ties to defence or involved in servicing army bases, apart from the elected officials whose districts rely on such business.
The new American military budget for 2015 is pinned at $496 billion, down from $528.4 billion last year. It calls for up to 80,000 active Army soldiers, 30,000 Reservists and National Guards, 8,000 Marines, and around 11,000 Navy Servicemen and Airmen to be relieved from service, with further troop reductions forthcoming if Congress mandated cuts return in 2016. Within two years, the current budget could save 75 billion dollars and will save 487 billion dollars over ten years. The potential Congress-mandated cuts however, would be severely damaging. If enforced VP-RX by Congress, they would mandate a reduction in spending to save 600 billion dollars over 10 years, drastically reducing the funding for personnel and equipment. This consideration does not yet include the possible 60,000 – 260,000 civilian workers under the Pentagon who may be laid off. Other aspects of the budget would increase the number of personnel in the Special Forces to 69,000 (the size of Canada’s entire military) and increase the security personnel of American embassies, scrap the combat proven A-10 Thunderbolt II Close Support Aircraft, initiate pay freezes for most personnel in two years, and protect the development of the controversial F-35II while continuing to support American cyber warfare efforts. The release from the Department of Defence can be found here for further reading.
Much of the budget’s criticism is levied against what this means for the military’s capabilities. Experts agree that the reductions mean that the United States will no longer be able to engage in two majors combat theats simultaneously and emerge victorious in both. However, the capabilities outlined by the Department of Defence indicate that the United States would remain the premier fighting force in the world and could more than adequately defend American soil while maintaining a major combat deployment overseas against a foreign power. It is also worth noting that the United States is part of a network of allied states across the world that account for the majority of worldwide military spending – including both NATO and American Pacific allies. In fact, while the United States may be warning Europe not to reduce military spending based on assumptions of American military power, East Asia has ramped up defence spending of its own accord. Even excluding China, defence spending in Australia, India, Japan and South Korea is set to overtake Western European spending in 2015.
Despite the budget cuts, and any electorally stimulating narrative to the contrary, American dominance is not going to decline significantly in the face of these reductions. However, that is not to say that America will not be pressured by circumstance into further cooperation with less-dependent and more capable allies, such as Japan. Contrary to the narrative of decline, this may be the best way to ensure an economically feasible and dominant American military moving forward.
Disclaimer – Some sources may refer to the active troop count of the United States army as 490,000. This is the planned size of the Army at the end of 2014, but the reduction from the current 520,000 personnel is ongoing.