Why the United States Military Costs so Much


A holiday flag aboard the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf.

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


A US Navy Laser Weapons System Demonstrator.

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

MCAS Iwakuni

Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan.

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


Airmen load an M1A1 tank onto a C5M Super Galaxy airlifter.

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

Soldier celebrates re-enlistment with Iraqi ‘Swamp Cops’

Specialist Isaac Danner, an American soldier, celebrates re-enlistment with his Iraqi colleagues.

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

Iraqi Freedom

US Marines and Army Soldiers encounter resistance while investigating a factory in Iraq.

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.

3 Comments on "Why the United States Military Costs so Much"

  1. why? In the country of the United States of America, those bunch of !!! ¡¡¡ thieves, don’t respect the political power of their president 2017, why? Everyone wants to have the same power as the president, everyone wants to have so much power to steal the profit from Howard Hughes’ business any where, those all, want to Rob Hughes in Mexico and around the world, all those thieves Americans want the president’s power to rob, they don’t want to Respect the president. Always ever in the United States, they don’t want it to obey the president, he must to spend military power to take them to military jail to those bunch of thieves, ever those bunch of foolish selfish powerfully thieves, saying those are going to kill their own president to steal from any American factories business people, those are doing the same strategies, those did to assassinate and Robe to their own president in 1963, with Mexican help. The thieves ensure they can be as sso with any way they want, like in the communist power, those thieves want to be nasty with the power, the US American power, won the capitalist power in 1989, the communist team those lost, those communist bunch, hate they lost the power. So if they win the power this time 2017, they must to do the power as they want, the next time you can argue,

  2. Former Sailor | July 10, 2018 at 5:22 am | Reply

    All due respect, this is somewhat of a narrow-minded answer. The biggest reason has to do with how much money we spend on outsourced contract work, rather than in-house. Everything the military has is purchased by contractors. When the military is in need of new equipment they have a sort of auction system, where competing contractors make their pitch. 9 times out of 10, the military doesn’t even accept contracts for the best equipment available, instead they go for the lowest bidder to save money. This is a problem, because the blood sucking contractors then start their bids extremely high and work downward to least expensive. In reality, they don’t get very far down. For instance: on Navy ships, we have basic wall clocks. These wallclocks could easily be bought at Wal-Mart for an easy $5-$10 a pop. But instead we are required to get those clocks from contractors. I kid you not, that Was-Mart quality wall clock costs the military $3000 each. I was a Navy Operation Specialist a few years back. My main job was running the ship’s self defense system. That system is garbage. The interface looks like a an old 8-bit video game, and is often very buggy, yet it was one of the most advanced systems we had. That thing costs a fortune, when in reality it is likely worth $5000-$15000 max. Yet we pay millions for them. For this reason, we rarely upgrade our systems unless necessary. Our radar systems are the exact same ones we used in the 60s, and just recycled from older ships.

    Then there is the fact that we have to pay contractors to do maintenance on the ships. That costs outrageous amounts of money that we can’t afford. We have aircraft carriers who can be stuck in the shipyards for well over a year, and come out still broken, because we can’t afford to keep them there. Now our navy is falling apart. One of our aircraft carriers actually had their rudder fall off at sea for this very reason, leaving them stranded for days. Our own ship couldn’t do sharp turns because the rudder kept jamming up leaving us stuck, spinning in circles. Our nuclear engines were rarely turned off, because we’re afraid they won’t turn back on. All of this, right after getting out of the shipyard after over a year. We came out more broken than when we started, yet it cost us millions.

    Finally, there is the fact that the military does not own any of their bases. We rent the space! Yes, even in America! Guess how much those cost! We can’t even get our ships to the ocean and back to base without hiring contractor tug boats. They cost $500,000 each time we use just one! And an aircraft carrier needs at least 4 tug boats! So that means it costs $4million dollars every time an aircraft carrier is sent from the pier to the ocean, then back to the pier! It’s completely over priced!

    The reason why our military is so expensive, is because we are being conned by contractors. Fix that issue and we would be only spending a fraction of our current budget, plus we would be a fleet that is actually in tip-top shape. If we ignored that, but instead cut our budget in half… I can’t speak for wall branches, but the Navy would definately deteriorate in a terrible way.

    • Your points are well-taken — this article definitely deserves an update. I plan on adding a number of other factors including personnel costs, contracting, etc. Agreed that bases are a scam in many cases and stay open only because of politics.

      It’s always interesting to hear accounts from former military people detailing the waste they encountered. Scandals such as the whole Fat Leonard debacle indicate that there is definitely a good degree of bullshit going on, although there are genuine efforts being made to address this. For example, the use of incentive-based contracts with objective measures of success has increased notably in the past decade. The advancements being made in COTS are also very important. For instance, the Zumwalt-class DDG has a Linux-based CIC with commercial Dell blades and off-the-shelf monitors. This kind of an architecture is the future, and many older ships definitely suffer because they were built in a time when computing technology was in its infancy.

      The personnel managers and Pentagon accountants would tell you that even though contracts can have eye-poppingly high costs, they are often much cheaper than having the military do the same job. With regards to your tugboat example, if the Navy were to have its own tugs it would need to buy them new and probably have them be made in the US, which would be tens of millions. Then it would need to train a bunch of people to man the tugs, which would be millions more. Once you factor in housing allowances, healthcare, retirement, GI bill, etc. the cost of hiring sailors is quite high. After a few years, the tugboats would also need to be maintained and overhauled, adding even more costs. Plus, large ships only move in an out of port every so often, so the tugs would be sitting idle much of the time. In this case, it probably makes more sense to just pay a private contractor which already owns the tugs, can use them in an efficient fashion, and knows how to maintain them. This is true in many cases where the government only needs a service every so often and having military personnel dedicated to the task would be costly in the long-run.

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