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April 4, 2009

U.S. Military Spending Is Not Starving Domestic Programs

Just when President Obama and the Congressional Democrats are spending untold levels on domestic programs, it looks like they're getting ready to cut one of the few things actually authorized in the Constitution, the military. From The Weekly Standard on Friday:

Just days after Chinese warships harrased an unarmed U.S. naval vessel, the USNS Impeccable, in international waters off the coast of China, Barack Obama's Secretary of Defense is set to announce massive cuts to the U.S. naval fleet.

Just days before the expected launch of a North Korean missile in violation of the spirit if not the letter of every agreement Pyongyang has ever signed with the international community, Barack Obama's Pentagon will release a budget that guts the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

This according to a report from InsideDefense.com (the article is behind a firewall) citing sources "close to the budget process." According to those sources, Gates will essentially terminate the Missile Defense Agency and with it Boeing's Airborne Laser System which was considered particularly well suited to the missile threat from North Korea.

Gates will further announce that the United States will have to make do with just nine aircraft carrier battle groups. The Navy currently has eleven, already considered a shortfall by the Senate Armed Services Committee which objected when the Bush administration decommissioned the USS John F. Kennedy in 2006 due to fiscal constraints. The shovel-ready, already under construction USS Gerald Ford, the first of the Navy's new class of supercarriers, will be delayed.

On the upside, Gates is expected to announce an increase in the end strength of the F-22 fleet from the current 183 to 250, keeping the production line open for at least another three years. The Army's deservedly maligned Future Combat Systems program will also be restructured and the massively over-budget program to replace the president's fleet of helicopters will be terminated.

Barack Obama is spending billions on this country's infrastructure, but he's shortchanging the United States military and undermining its ability to project power overseas and mitigate the missile threat from rogue regimes. Obama will also be eliminating tens of thousands of high-tech and union jobs in the process.


I'm going to wait until the cuts are actually announced before commenting on specifics. My purpose here is to knock down the idea that we spend a huge amount of money on our military, because we don't.

As noted below, some charts and numbers are from Truth and Politics, and other charts from Heritage. Unfortunately most of the charts and numbers don't cover the past few years. If I can find more tomorrow I'll fill in the gaps.

My apologies that the charts are not totally clear. I could make them larger but then they'd be blurry. Follow the links to see them more clearly.

Military Spending as a Percent of GDP

First, as a chart from Truth and Politics

US military spending as a percentage of GDP, 1940--2003

This chart from Heritage is pretty up to date

Another chart from Heritage showing National Defense Spending as a Percentage of GDP, 1962-2007


Defense Budget as a Percent of GDP

Then, the actual numbers from Truth and Politics

After the year is the amount we spent as a percentage of GDP

1940 1.7
1941 5.6
1942 17.8
1943 37.0
1944 37.8
1945 37.5
1946 19.2
1947 5.5
1948 3.5
1949 4.8
1950 5.0
1951 7.4
1952 13.2
1953 14.2
1954 13.1
1955 10.8
1956 10.0
1957 10.1
1958 10.2
1959 10.0
1960 9.3
1961 9.4
1962 9.2
1963 8.9
1964 8.5
1965 7.4
1966 7.7
1967 8.8
1968 9.4
1969 8.7
1970 8.1
1971 7.3
1972 6.7
1973 5.8
1974 5.5
1975 5.5
1976 5.2
1977 4.9
1978 4.7
1979 4.6
1980 4.9
1981 5.1
1982 5.7
1983 6.1
1984 5.9
1985 6.1
1986 6.2
1987 6.1
1988 5.8
1989 5.6
1990 5.2
1991 4.6
1992 4.8
1993 4.4
1994 4.0
1995 3.7
1996 3.5
1997 3.3
1998 3.1
1999 3.0
2000 3.0
2001 3.0
2002 3.4
2003 3.7

So excluding World War II, spending peaked during the 1950s but has mostly fallen since.

As a Percentage of Discretionary Outlays

US military spending as a percentage of discretionary outlays, 1962--2003

First, as a chart from Truth and Politics


Then from Heritage

Defense v Entitlements

Wikipedia has it as

U.S. Defense Spending as a Percent of Total Budget Outlays

U.S. Defense Spending as a Percent of Total Outlays

Then, the numbers from Truth and Politics; US military spending as a percentage of discretionary spending, 1962--2003

1962 72.9
1963 71.3
1964 69.5
1965 65.6
1966 65.4
1967 67.6
1968 69.6
1969 70.5
1970 68.1
1971 64.5
1972 61.7
1973 59.1
1974 58.4
1975 55.5
1976 51.2
1977 49.5
1978 47.8
1979 48.7
1980 48.7
1981 51.3
1982 57.0
1983 59.4
1984 60.1
1985 60.9
1986 62.4
1987 63.6
1988 62.6
1989 62.2
1990 60.0
1991 59.9
1992 56.7
1993 54.2
1994 52.1
1995 50.2
1996 49.9
1997 49.6
1998 48.9
1999 48.2
2000 48.0
2001 47.1
2002 47.5
2003 49.0

Again, we see the same pattern.

Operation Iraqi Freedom as compared to past wars. The chart is via National Review and as of January 23 2006. Of course we've spent more since then but even so it wouldn't really change the chart that much.



The lesson from the data is clear; no matter how you measure it, the amount we spend on the military has been going down for decades. Those who talk about how military spending starves domestic programs are simply wrong. If anything, the opposite is the case, especially with the advent of Obama-level budgets. Spending on Iraq and Afghanistan has of course produced a recent uptick, but not really enough to make a big difference.

None of this is to necessarily argue for a particular level defense outlays. I've made the case for more defense spending elsewhere (see "National Defense" under "Categories" at right) and will do so again after the budget is actually announced.

December 16, 2010 Update

Looks like I was wrong, folks. While defense spending has been going down as a percentage of GDP and the federal budget, you get a different result if you measure it in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars ("real dollars")

via The American Maxim


Measured in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, then, we see more ups and downs, all of which are explained by various historical factors. The recent uptick is, of course, due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I don't think this changes the premise of the post, though, which is that defense spending is not starving domestic programs of money. The reason defense spending has gone down in terms of percent of GDP and the federal budget is in the first case to a GDP that increased faster than defense spending, and in the second that domestic spending increased faster than defense spending.

Posted by Tom at April 4, 2009 10:45 PM

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My only issue with the graphs is do they include ALL defense spending? What I mean is that do they include off budget items and the amount of defense spending that is buried in the budgets of other departments?

The real issue that we have to deal with under the concept of 'projecting power' is how much of this projection is due to our overwhelming military superiority and how much is due to the fact that we are the most powerful country in the world economically?

As our economy shrinks in importance (we now account for 25% of the total world economy which is about the same as the EU) will we be able to project a greater military threat to rogue nations to compensate for our economic shrinkage?

I fear we are going the way of the British and we see that there is no future in that. Without economic power everything else is just a parade...

That is why the economic crisis we are currently in scares me to death...it has damaged us and our prestige in the future...

Posted by: carl at April 5, 2009 8:36 AM

Astute question and good points, carl. It's good to look at these things critically. I don't have anything more than what the websites say but they seem to include everything. Anyone though who has additional or contrary information on this subject please leave it in comments.

You are also right about the issue of power projection and how much is due to military power and economic power. Economic power is part of what's called "soft power,"
which include such things as cultural influence, and diplomatic skill. Humanitarian relief efforts can have a big influence as they make people change their minds about the country providing the relief. It's just that these were not the subjects of this post, so I didn't discuss them.

Posted by: The Redhunter Author Profile Page at April 5, 2009 7:52 PM

IMO, the US infrastructure and the military are to some extent interelated. Isn't that part of the reason Eisenhower began the interstate highway system? Am no expert, but hear the F-22 is over-rated..perhaps pentagon could use $$ more efficiently?

Posted by: BB-Idaho at April 5, 2009 10:07 PM

Thank you for stopping by, BB-Idaho. Very cool handle.

Yes to the relationship between the military and infrastructure. I'm not entirely sure of your point though.

As for the F-22... I hear this about every high-tech weapons program while it's still in development. I hope to discuss it and other systems more next week. You're welcome to stop back by and share your thoughts.

Posted by: The Redhunter Author Profile Page at April 5, 2009 10:18 PM

I found your website while locating graphs for my defense spending paper for college. I think you should take a look at the allocation of 2009 taxes to see where the majority of our funds are going. There is a great deal of inaccuracy in the evaluations for defense spending prior to 1991. You may want to read a peer-reviewed article by K. Lapidus (1993) National Security At What Price? The Economics of Military Spending. So much was left out in the evaluations to include foreign military assistance, NASA expenditures, veterans' benefits, nuclear weapons, just to name a few. These correct figures are what we are putting together. Do you realize that during the Bush Administration, he requested $688 billion for defense spending? Ask yourself why!

Posted by: Pat at May 3, 2010 8:28 PM

Why don't you enlighten us with your wisdom and tell us why, Pat? Let me guess, you think it's to fund the Patriarchal-Imperialist-Racist-Halliburton-Military-Industrial-Complex, is that right?

Posted by: The Redhunter Author Profile Page at May 3, 2010 8:44 PM

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