Question X: What is the right level of military spending?

Chatting with a retired vice admiral the other day, I was startled by what he said about the military budget. This is a man who spent a long stretch of his career in the carrier fleet, the queen bees of which more than $10 billion apiece. Even Larry Ellison would have to dig deep for a yacht like that. This VADM is a bedrock member of the military-industrial establishment, yet he told me he thinks the military budget, even post-sequester, is bloated. And that the top officers haven’t begun to think about how they can cut costs.

I was thinking about that when interviewing someone with a completely different point of view. Dakota Wood, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation, also has his military bona fides, having served 20 years in the Marines. He’s published an exhaustive report showing military strength — and by extension military spending — is far below what it should be. The index of military strength maps the existing military against the political, military and economic threats the U.S. faces around the world. And finds it wanting.

For instance, Wood has concluded the Army needs 50 brigades to support a strategy of prevailing in a major conflict while having sufficient strength in reserve to deter mischief on the rear. It now has 32 brigades, and only about half of them are fully ready. The size of the Navy, a perennial debate, would rise to 346 ships under Wood’s analysis. It now has 275.

Washington has an abundance of well-informed military analysts who issue periodic reports and assessments. As someone who’s followed federal affairs in some detail for a long time, I never grow bored with these military questions, but claim no special expertise in them. The problem for me is that, in isolation, everyone can sound convincing. Still, if the best way to win a fight is to avoid it, one way a nation like the United States can avoid it is for would-be adversaries to conclude, “I ain’t touchin’ those guys. Provoke them and I’m dead for sure.” I’ve held that notion for a very long time, so I guess that puts me in the Woods camp.

The dollar questions, like other questions of public policy, have at least two ways to consider. One is the absolute dollars themselves. Should the budget be $525 billion, $545 billion, or $608 billion? That third figure came from the  new, two-year budget deal and includes the overseas contingency operations line. Is the right proportion of the 3 plus trillion dollars the government spends in a given year? The other way to look at spending  is as a percentage of gross domestic product. Wood argues the justifiability of military spending at its historical norm of  4 percent of GDP. That would bring it to more than $700 billion. He says the $600 billion level for 2016 barely maintains the status quo.

That crusty retired admiral scratched on an envelope some figures often cited in support of a structural reduction in Defense spending. The $600 billion spending figure of the U.S. compares to about $200 billion for China and Russia — combined. I asked, what about personnel costs? Surely China doesn’t pay its troops as much, or offer them the pensions, health insurance and other benefits the United States does. He said, other countries have personnel costs too.

Put another way, the United States spends nearly one of our every three dollars spent worldwide on defense by all countries that have a military budget. That may be an interesting fact, but in isolation it doesn’t explain anything. The U.S. is a big country and a highly productive one. It may be that some countries spend what they do because  the U.S. spends as much as it does. It may also be that no other nation can ensure peace or assuredly prevail to the degree the United States can. That latter notion hasn’t really been tested in a while. Anyhow, we get what we get for the dollars we spend.

Given the range of what various groups think is the right level of spending, Congress, in its shambling way and driven by the ceaseless demands of the Pentagon itself, manages to arrive at a reasonable compromise in spite of the process.

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