It is common knowledge that the United States military has a budget which dwarfs those of other countries. In fact, the American military receives more funds larger than the next seven or eight nations combined, depending on how military spending is quantified. However, the US military is certainly not larger in size than the next eight militaries combined. In fact, it employs fewer people than the Chinese military despite receiving about three times more funds. And India, whose military budget is a small fraction of the United States, has almost as many troops. Why does the American military consume such a sum of money when it isn’t even the largest in the world? Here are a few of the reasons why.
The US military loves technology
The American military’s embrace of technology is the first and foremost reason for the massive budget. Recruiting a million soldiers and giving them rifles is one thing. Recruiting a million soldiers and giving them the latest body armor, vehicles, radios, weapons, etc. is another. The US military tends to solve its problems with advanced equipment, rather than by recruiting more personnel. In many cases, this equipment gives American forces a huge advantage in combat. For example, one fighter airplane with a powerful radar can be as powerful as ten with inferior equipment, if the radar allows the advanced plane to strike before the simpler aircraft even know what hit them. Similarly, a soldier outfitted with advanced night vision equipment can overpower many opponents who are blinded by the dark. Such technological advantages allow the US military to stay dominant without having to recruit tens of millions. Technology also reduces the number of casualties taken in combat, as advanced equipment allows American forces to deliver massive firepower while putting fewer soldiers in danger. Of course, the drawback is that all this equipment costs huge sums of money.
Another downside of this technological approach is that adversaries benefit from America’s progress. In order to discover and implement technologies before its competitors, the US military has to fund huge amounts of research and development, while also paying to purchase the new and expensive technologies it helps create. Other military powers, such as China, tend to wait a few years until another military has perfected a technology and then reverse-engineer it, avoiding much of the research and development process (although this is changing as China boosts its funding).
Also, while technology is hugely helpful when fighting against a large conventional force in open battle, it has limits in other kinds of combat. In jungles, for example, tanks have difficulty maneuvering and airplanes cannot see below the thick tree cover. In dense cities, a sniper hiding on a balcony can go undetected by even the best sensors. Also, some enemies (such as the Taliban or Al Quaeda) prefer not to face American forces in open combat. Rather, they blend in with civilians and perform raids as well as terror attacks, attempting to frustrate and wear down the occupier instead of securing a battlefield victory. Against these kinds of enemies, securing the support of locals and preventing the recruitment of additional terrorists is more important than firepower.
The US military maintains a global presence
During the Cold War, America was the leader of a massive drive to stop the expansion of communism. This meant forming alliances with countries from South Korea to Saudi Arabia and stationing soldiers all over the globe to fight communist forces. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US emerged as the world’s sole superpower, with a global web of allies, treaties, and, of course, enemies. To defend these ties and keep its adversaries at bay, the US military deploys to over 150 countries around the world and maintains a network of bases in many allied nations. Just as vacationing is expensive, sending soldiers to far away places also has a price. Renting facilities from foreign countries, hiring translators, transporting soldiers, airlifting equipment, relocating families, buying provisions, and providing overseas compensation are just a few of the extra costs associated with the military’s global footprint.
The US military can deploy anywhere on short notice
Most of the world’s armed forces exist to defend the current regime, guard borders, and fight wars against neighboring countries. These militaries do not need to rapidly move troops and equipment over long distances because their responsibilities are not global. The US military, on the other hand, is tasked with engaging in warfare anywhere in the world. While the aforementioned network of bases helps to maintain a moderate number of troops in key regions, a much larger force would be needed in times of war, so the bulk of the American military must be capable of rapidly deploying over long distances when necessary. For this reason, the US Air Force has an unmatched transport force of over 800 aircraft, many of which are giants such as the C-5 Galaxy and the C-17 Globemaster II. To keep these massive planes aloft on trans-continental journeys, the Air Force has a fleet of 450 tankers, which are used to refuel other planes. Russia only has 19 such aircraft. The US Navy also operates many amphibious warfare ships, designed to land soldiers on foreign shores, and many troop transports as well. Of course, all these planes and ships cost hundreds of millions of dollars each — the ability to deploy anywhere does not come cheap.
The US military is a volunteer force
Many other armed forces obtain personnel by conscription (forcing eligible citizens to serve in the military for a period of time.) Because conscription is mandatory, conscripts can be paid low wages (or no wage at all) and there is no need to provide them with a retirement package or other amenities. The US military, on the other hand, is an all-volunteer force, meaning nobody is forced to join (except in extraordinary circumstances). Because of this, the US military has to offer enough compensation to convince citizens that a military career is worthwhile. For highly skilled military positions such as doctors, programmers, and lawyers, salaries have to be nearly as high as in the private sector. While the all-volunteer force undoubtedly improves morale and combat ability, it also means that the US military pays a large sum in wages. Other countries such as China also field all-volunteer forces, but the price of attracting volunteers in China is far less than in the US because of America’s high standard of living.
The US military is often at war
Unsurprisingly, war is expensive. Moving an Armored Brigade Combat Team one mile costs $66,000 in maintenance and fuel. One Standard Missile 6 anti-air missile is around $3.5 million dollars. Replacing destroyed equipment, buying lots of ammunition, paying deployment bonuses, compensating for injuries, purchasing extra rations, building infrastructure in the combat zone, and buying unfathomable amounts of fuel are just some of the factors that contribute to the cost of combat. During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which is designed to fund war costs and separately from the peacetime budget, received a staggering $160 billion dollars per year. While this figure is only an “approximation” of the actual costs of war according to the Government Accountability Office, it nonetheless illustrates the substantial fiscal impact of wars. And since the US has been involved in many wars of various sizes since its inception, its combat-related expenditures are far higher than for countries which generally avoid conflict.