Most of the World has a Complex About Their Military and Their Industry

In a post I mentioned that the US military budget will soon equal 50% of all defense spending on the planet. (If we haven’t already passed that particular milestone.)

Keith, the author of the excellent gunblog Anthroblogogy, has left a comment asking why this is so. He wonders if it’s due to a sudden and massive US increase in spending, or if it is simply the result of a gradual decline in foreign military budgets.

I think it’s clear that the major reason for these figures is due to the decline of most of the military forces in the world. Just to cite the example with which I’m most familiar, Canada has allowed all of their forces to simply rust away. It’s gotten so bad that they’re buying crappy, worn out submarines that clearly pose more danger to their crews than they ever would to a potential enemy. This is simply unbelievable when one considers that these purchases were supposed to be for front-line weapons, the most advanced in their fleet!

China is seen by many people to be the next big enemy. I suppose they are, if for no other reason than there simply isn’t any other candidate. Much hay has been made about the way that they keep increasing their defense budget every year, but few people mention that it’s still only 1/8 of what the US spends. A subject that’s discussed even less frequently is how the majority of the Chinese weapon systems are antiquated when compared to those of the West, and these systems would have to be replaced or upgraded before they could hope to stand against US forces. This post from points out that the Chinese are still trying to match the Japanese in combat ability. It would take a great deal of time for the Chinese to achieve force parity with the US even if they could match us dollar for dollar.

This doesn’t mean that the rest of the world’s militaries are no threat, of course. But it does mean that we’re seeing something that’s never happened before. The US is a military power that could, conceivably, conquer the majority of the world using military force but which deliberately chooses to avoid doing so. This is simply astounding, not that the US refuses to use its overwhelming might but that the rest of the free world trusts us enough to hand us the chance.

16 thoughts on “Most of the World has a Complex About Their Military and Their Industry”

  1. Spending is only one measure of capability, and not necessarily the best one. We have assumed the role of global guardian of the seas and skies, and of the peace on much of the land. That is expensive. Finding ways to thwart us or damage us when we are operating in someone else’s backyard may be much, much less expensive. The Vietnames conmmunists beat us with a lot less than we had, by leapfrogging our military superiority and directly attacking our will to fight. The Sandinistas skipped the military confrontation part entirely and opened lobbying offices in Washington as an initial measure. They stopped a military confrontation before it could even happen. Cheaper than the Vietnamese method.

    Plus, a country with a small budget and a dire need may get more bang for its buck by spending wisely, not something we are known for.

    All this means that the 8 to 1 ration of our spending to China’s may not tell you much. They can use all of theirs near home and focus on fighting us. We are dispersed and cannot focus solely on them. Don’t think that the 1/8 figure means they can’t hurt us badly. Japan at the beginning of WWII was assessed as having 1/10 of our overall warmaking capability. Japan was not a pushover.

    Another thing going on is that this stance results in many countries free-riding on the US defense capability. Canada in particular. Why have a Canadian military at all? The United States has to defend North America. Let the USA pay for it. Generally, this is OK. It means that the other developed countries are reliant on us and cannot threaten us. We may resent them not “carrying their own weight” but I am just as happy that the Germans don’t really have an army, for example.

  2. It may not tell us everything, but it does tell much in the case of China. Their systems are not terribly sophisticated and they have not proven capable of developing the complex systems necessary to challenge us in our global guardian of the seas and skies mode. They will continue to confront us asymmetricly for several decades, at a minimum. I expect their preferred method of conflict might be bribery based on the Loral experience. It has worked well for the Saudis.

    Japan had as many aircraft carriers and 60% (haha) as much battleship tonnage as the US at the start of WWII and only one ocean to deal with. The U. S. had the 40th largest Army in the world in 1938 as I recall. Japan was already engaged in a major ground war in Asia at that time. Do you have a source for the 1/10th the warmaking capability? Japan was also a lower priority than Germany. But to reinforce your point, we did defeat Japan with our lowest cost weapon system, the submarine. But one never knows which one will work best till they are put to the test.

  3. It is also unfair to say that the “U. S. could, conceivably, conquer the majority of the world using military force.” The U. S. could probably defeat the military forces of any other nation or even the military of any 3 other nations in conventional combat. But to conquer territory requires a fair number of troops as Iraq has demonstrated, or an amount of ruthlessness uncharacteristic of American policy. Conquest is no longer a profit making enterprise, at least for the U. S.

    India is the other candidate, but the politics aren’t there, so no one takes it as a likely probability.

    The rest of the world is probably making a good assessment of the threat that we pose to them and our ability to keep the peace for them. They’re all free riders now, except the U. K. and Australia. And like Lex, I’m just as happy.

  4. Another thing going on is that this stance results in many countries free-riding on the US defense capability.


    It means that the other developed countries are reliant on us and cannot threaten us. We may resent them not “carrying their own weight” but I am just as happy that the Germans don’t really have an army, for example.

    I don’t mind it that they won’t contribute their fair share, but it bothers me that they complain about how the US goes about protecting them.

    There’s two major beefs I have with our “traditional allies”. The first is how they moan and complain in an effort to influence American foreign and military policy. If they’re not paying for it, if they don’t want to make the sacrifices in blood and treasure, then they should only offer advice before we act and support afterwards.

    The other problem is how they try to claim the moral high ground. America hasn’t “evolved” as far, they say. We’re primitive in our reliance on military prowess while they engage potential enemies and defuse tense situations. Our approach is dim-witted, theirs is “nuanced”.

    Of course, I think that drawing a line and standing guard so innocent people can live free is about as moral a stance as your ever going to find. But I suppose that’s just me.


  5. “a source for the 1/10th the warmaking capability” Richard, I read so much stuff I can’t remember where it all came from. There was a Japanese Army officer charged with gathering economic data on the USA and Japan to compare their overall warmaking capacity, pre-12/7/41, and we had them overwhelmed in all categories, with a cumulative assessment of 10 to 1. The Japanese leadership disregarded the report. This is a well-known episode, but I can’t recall exactly where I saw it.

    James, the other countries gripe because they cannot confront us directly, so they try to do politically what they cannot do militarily, i.e. obtain advantages at our expense. International politics does not change its nature. It is a competitive system. Our military predominance means that foreign countries usually opt for non-violent means of trying to get things at our expense. That is a huge advantage all by itself. Expecting them to like being relatively weak and compelled by circumstances to live within a framework we impose is really asking more than human nature can bear. We may think we are acting selflessly for the common good. No one else on the planet thinks that. At best they think we are a relatively benign hegemon that provides some benefits in the course of arranging the world to its own advantage. I think that is actually pretty close to the truth.

  6. Expecting them to like being relatively weak and compelled by circumstances to live within a framework we impose is really asking more than human nature can bear.

    Many students of history would justifiably claim that it’s against human nature to refrain from using overhwelming military might to enrich your own people at the expense of others. We seem to manage it, though.


  7. Well, we have learned that we get a lot richer letting others police themselves and trading with them. We are smart enough to see that we really would not be able to enrich ourself at the expense of others, in the long run, by using our military power to be overt imperialists. It is not entirely cuddly niceness that makes us not go around looting and pillaging. As it happens, those things are bad for business. And I mean neither sarcasm or irony when I say that we rarely do things that in the long run are bad for business. Like our predecessors the British, we like to establish trading relationships that yield more than the one-time profit you get from sacking some place.

  8. Well, we have learned that we get a lot richer letting others police themselves and trading with them.

    That’s certainly true enough.

    Like our predecessors the British, we like to establish trading relationships that yield more than the one-time profit you get from sacking some place.

    That’s only because slavery has gone out of style, which is another reason to be thankful that the North won our civil war and the Allies won WWII.


  9. Yes, the Chinese are still QUITE a ways behind the number two defense spender, Japan. I don’t really consider them free-riders, as they have spent heavily on everything but force-projection capability (which we made them accept) and nukes, but we let them keep a nice stockpile of near-weapons grade plutonium around.

    And we have had a similar share of total global spending for quite a while. Turns out the Russians weren’t spending as much as they made us think they were during the Cold War, but they did do their damnedest. Jane’s Defense or other usual suspects would have good historical numbers.

    Recent worldwide military stats can be found here at the State Dept. and perhaps the best military data link page is the UMich govt. doc collection military stats page.

    Also note that our trade imbalance with China isn’t a problem as many fear. That amount of real goods in exchange for fiat money formerly would have been recognized as tribute! Hundreds of millions of Chinese clawing their way up the economic ladder, purely on the size of the American consumers collective appetite! Oh frabjous day, who’d a thunk it?

    We just have to hold on and keep spending to stay on top in the Strategy of Technology playing field. Google that title to read a free copy at Pournelle’s Chaos Manor.

  10. Hmmmm. This page says that China was spending more than Japan at least as far back as 2003. Instead of Japan being #2, it looks like it’s #4 (after the US, Russia and China).

    And this page says that Japan is #5 because France spends more.

    I agree with your points about the US trade imbalance with China, BTW.


  11. I’m not even convinced the “free rider” part is an issue. If they were overtly hostile, we would need about the same number of troops to fight them as to protect them, as the old slur would have it. A sweet and cuddly China would not let us draw down our Pacific forces, as we would have to protect our shipping lanes anyway. Against whom? Well, against anyone. Against whom do you lock your door?

    Ideally, I would like to see more spending by Europe and Canada. They don’t have to have massive land armies, but their inability to project power is embarrassing. A small, flexible, lethal force would be ideal, except for siphoning money away from the welfare state. Utopia is expensive.

  12. Not new to have a hegemon.

    You might wish to look back at the glory days of the UK Royal Navy when the English policy was to maintain a Navy several times the combined fleets of all potential adversaries.

    In practical terms that meant the RN could apply something like 2-1 odds against a combined French + Spanish + everybody else fleet(Everybody = europe, the rest of the world *combined* didn’t amount to hill of beans in the world of 18th century naval combat.) Nevermind that the RN also tended to have more experienced crews and ships of at least comparable quality to the better third of the rest.

    I’d argue that this is as impressive, given the communications and administrative capability of the age.

  13. This report might add some interesting data to the discussion. He argues that a core commitment to a nation’s defense comes in at a relatively small percentage of the GDP (1.8% I think), and that defense costs beyond that are related to energy security. I don’t know enough to evaluate the validity of these claims, but it is an interesting read.
    The report is available for free at:

    Skislock, Kevin B.
    Partner and CEO
    Laguna Research Partners LLC
    Crisis on the China Rim: An Economic, Crude Oil, and Military Analysis (2005.04.14)

    There is a crisis rising on the China Rim, a crisis made of economic imbalances, energy insecurities, ancient hatreds, and unsettled scores. The catalyst for this crisis is success itself, the success of the People’s Republic of China (China) (PRC) in its de facto rejection of a failed experiment in communism and its rapid transformation into a thriving market economy. The inseparable companion of this success, though, is an insatiable hunger and thirst for precious and scarce resources… most important among these, crude oil. In a world that has been frozen in denial over the impending depletion of crude oil reserves, the emergence of China’s 1,298,847,624 citizens as a vibrant global economic force is thrusting every net importer of crude oil—particularly those on the China Rim—into an urgent quest for energy security. And it is thrusting every net exporter of crude oil—particularly those on the China Rim—into a rare concern over national sovereignty. Simply put, there will be far greater demand in the China Rim region for crude oil over the next five, ten, twenty, and fifty years, than there will be supply. And the China Rim is already deep in a fierce competition for energy security that the quick and strong will win, while the slow and weak succumb…

    Based on our analysis of the intense economic, crude oil, and military confrontations developing among the China Rim region’s largest economies, we believe that the most aggressive crude oil price targets calling for $100 per barrel within the next three years will prove to be conservative. In our view, specific crude oil price targets are the realm of financial organizations with equity and commodities trading desks. As a pure independent research firm, we have neither. However, it is our opinion that the “likely direction of surprise” in crude oil prices will continue to be to the upside….

  14. The issue of who spends more isn’t going to be the most telling factor. Consider that China doesn’t spend nearly as much on R&D, and that they have more purchasing power, both in terms of material costs, and in terms of paying for manpower.

    That having been said, China’s not spoiling for a fight. Their ambitions are largely regional. Ultimately what they want is to be able to do what they want in their own “backyard”. One major step to doing that is Taiwan, but unless they can figure out a way to score the coup of capturing Taiwan without engaging the US Armed Forces, they’ll keep thinking.

    The worry should instead focus on propaganda, indoctrination, and demographics. There is now a surplus of single young men, which means too much excess testosterone contained in the most volatile demographic. If these young men have only absorbed propaganda, and not been schooled in long-range strategy, then we may just see an increase in adventurism.

  15. China’s best chance to expand is to assist Mrs. Clinton in her presidential ambitions, as they did her husband. When she is president China can easily take Taiwan, since it will be after the Olympics in Beijing, and in addition the US will not resist.

    Taiwan is the gateway to the world for the communist Chinese. Yes, they are the communist Chinese, not a thriving free market nation. The Chinese military is expanding fiercely beneath the superficial statistical cover. Would you like to see how quickly China can nationalize its industry? After the conquest of Taiwan, the gateway, you will see.

  16. It wouldn’t be the first time the US was in a position to, literally, conquer the entire world through force, yet did not (because that’s just not the way the US does things). Just after WWII the US had a fully geared up military which had just won two wars (on land, sea, and air) on opposite sides of the globe and was still in fighting shape to win some more, should the need arise. For example, it had an air force capable of massive aerial bombardments of a sort which could completely raze every major city in a large nation within a year (it was capable of this but never actually did it, because the wars with Germany and Japan were won before such bombing campaigns were completed, probably not coincidentally). Keep in mind that this is the capability without nuclear weapons. Now, factor in the fact that just after WWII the US was the only nuclear power in the entire world. Now, factor in that the US had an army of over a million soldiers, and a capability to make effective invasions of well fortified enemy territory via ground, sea, and/or air. Now, factor in that the US was one of only two industrialized nations at the end of WWII with an industrial base that hadn’t been devastated by war (the other being Canada).

    If the US had wanted it could have turned on and defeated the Soviets at the end of WWII. It could have quite easily conquered a disorganized, chaotic, and devastated China. It could have quite easily swept up any part of the world it chose, from Southeast Asia to South Asia to the Middle East to North Africa to South America. There was no power on Earth which could have withstood the might of the US for long.

    Yet, contrary to the general theme of history of situations where one nation has a massive military advantage over others, the US did not attempt to conquer the world. Rather, it (foolishly as it turned out) rapidly demobilized its armed forces, and began rebuilding and strengthening its defeated foes. That is the nature of the United States of America.

Comments are closed.