We Need to Spend More on Our Soldiers and Sailors

Yes, the U.S. already spends a lot on our military. But our people are more valuable—and cost more—than any other armed force in the world.

An American soldier walks through a flash checkpoint set up in response to the killing of two U.S. soldiers in a car-bomb attack on June 11, 2010, in Ali Ayun, Iraq.

Photo by Warrick Page/Getty Images

One day after Slate published my column on why the United States needs a more capable and more expensive military, a group of terrorists launched a series of coordinated attacks in Paris that left dozens of innocent people dead and wounded. Spending more on the U.S. military will not mean the end of mass-casualty terror attacks, and anyone who tells you otherwise is mistaken. But it is also foolish to believe that such attacks would cease if the U.S. and its allies were to withdraw from the wider world.

Threats that emerge in one part of the world can quickly spread to another. There is no going back to a world in which we can wall ourselves off from foreign threats, if there ever was such a world. Whether we like it or not, we have a stake in the success of Libya and Yemen, both of which are in the midst of bloody civil wars that have been overshadowed by the Syrian conflict. Jihadist groups feed on the chaos and dislocation caused by these conflicts, and the violence that results has a way of spilling over into Western societies. When states collapse in West Africa, severe epidemics like the Ebola outbreaks of 2014 grow more likely, as does the prospect of their spread to cities like London and New York. When a devastating earthquake hits Haiti, and when a tsunami leads to tens of thousands of deaths in the Indian Ocean rim, families are uprooted, some of whom then become migrants looking for a home. If a nuclear war were to break out between Pakistan and India, the consequences for the world, and for the environment we all share, would be dire. That is why the United States must concern itself with more than defending the homeland against invasion, or avenging Americans killed in terror attacks. We have a vested interest in building up the defense and governance capabilities of vulnerable countries around the world, and in ensuring that minor conflicts don’t become major conflagrations.

Of course, the U.S. can’t be everywhere and do everything, nor should it. But because the U.S. is an affluent, populous, and dynamic society situated far away from rival powers, it is in a unique position to make selective investments that can have a disproportionately positive impact on global security. No one is calling for the U.S. to double its military spending, or even to return military spending to the 5 percent or more of GDP that was common in the Cold War era. Serious advocates of higher military spending are focused on far more modest goals.

When I first called for a bigger U.S. defense budget, I argued that one reason the U.S. spends so much more than other countries is that the U.S. military aims to do far more than the militaries of other countries. Apart from defending U.S. territory, the most important thing the American military strives to do is deter rival powers from coercing and dominating weaker states, especially our allies. It is important to understand that deterring rival powers, like Russia, China, and Iran, is about more than spending more on the military than they do. It is about ensuring that military resources are in the right place at the right time.

Consider the case of Russia. The U.S. spends far more on its military than Russia does, but Russia has pursued a military-modernization effort that is focused not on defeating the U.S. on all fronts but rather on achieving temporary military superiority in its near abroad, and then ending the conflicts it starts on favorable terms. In the latest issue of Survival, defense analysts Elbridge Colby and Jonathan Solomon assess the threat Russia poses to NATO members in the Baltics and in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as to other friendly countries like Finland and Sweden. Though Colby and Solomon are confident that the U.S. and its allies could defeat Russia in a long-term conventional war, they argue that Russia’s goal wouldn’t be to prevail in a conflict that stretches on for months or years, thus giving the U.S. all the time it needs to bring its full military strength to bear. Rather, Russia is far more likely to move swiftly to seize strategically important territory and then to make it extremely painful for the U.S. and NATO to roll back its gains. What matters in this scenario is Russia’s short-term advantage over the U.S. in its own neighborhood, not America’s superior global capabilities. By maintaining local, short-term superiority, Russia could force the Western powers to the negotiating table, and to demonstrate that U.S. security guarantees are not worth the paper on which they’re written.

To meet the Russian challenge, Colby and Solomon call for an integrated strategy that would require frontline states to invest in paramilitary capabilities that can deter Russian infiltrators. Yet they also call for stationing a modest number of U.S. and other allied troops in Poland and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, not only to demonstrate that the U.S. is committed to the defense of the region but also to make Russian military adventurism far more risky and costly for Moscow. Basing U.S. troops in the region wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive, as U.S. allies would help defray the cost. But it would cost something. The question U.S. policymakers have to ask themselves is if they’d rather spend a modest amount of money to deter Russian aggression today or if they’d prefer to spend far more fighting a war in Eastern Europe tomorrow.

The case of Russia helps illustrate why it is foolish to compare U.S. military spending to that of other countries. And Russia is hardly alone in modernizing its military in ways that threaten global security. China has been pursuing a similar strategy in East Asia, which poses similar challenges to the U.S. and its Pacific Rim allies. The U.S. military must be capable of overcoming threats not just in its own neighborhood, but in regions far from home. Yet there is another reason U.S. military expenditures are so high relative to America’s potential rivals, which is at least as consequential: U.S. labor costs are much higher than labor costs in poorer countries like Russia, China, and Iran. As Dinah Walker of the Council on Foreign Relations has put it, “$1 million in the United States will hire fewer soldiers than $1 million in Russia or China.” She points out that “[i]f military budgets were compared in a way that reflected varying personnel costs, U.S. military preeminence would appear smaller than it does using straightforward comparisons based on market exchange rates.”

One of the main reasons many Americans balk at spending more on the military is the sense that the Pentagon is obscenely wasteful. The trouble is that there is considerable disagreement over what counts as waste. Personnel costs are a good example of where the rubber meets the road. These costs represent roughly a quarter of all U.S. military spending, and compensation costs for active-duty service members and veterans have been growing at a rapid clip in recent years, due in large part to pension and health benefits. Robert O. Work, one of America’s foremost defense intellectuals and the current Deputy Secretary of Defense, has estimated that even if the rate of increase in personnel costs slows down sharply in the years to come, personnel costs will reach 46 percent of the U.S. defense budget by 2021.

The U.S. military has adapted to high labor costs in a number of ways. Jonathan Caverley, a political scientist at Northwestern, has observed that high labor costs are a big part of why the U.S. military gravitates towards more capital- and firepower-intensive military strategies over more labor-intensive strategies. We presume that the U.S. military is desperate to avoid casualties because of the political costs, but there are economic costs as well. The aversion to casualties also stems from the fact that the American armed forces rely on expensive and expensive-to-train military personnel. If there is a choice to be made between endangering the lives of U.S. military personnel and making profligate use of ammunition, gasoline, and high-tech weapons of all kinds to achieve its objectives, the Pentagon will always choose the latter. Poorer countries and nonstate actors don’t have the option of pursuing firepower-intensive strategies, and so they are profligate with the lives of their soldiers and followers instead.

Can the U.S. military reduce spending on personnel? Yes, it’s possible. If Work is right about the future trajectory of personnel costs, the Pentagon won’t really have much of a choice, even if the U.S. were to increase its defense budget substantially. But cutting personnel costs will be much harder than you might think. One approach would be to learn from the private sector and embrace offshoring. If high U.S. labor costs are limiting the number of active-duty service members the U.S. military can employ, perhaps the U.S. should emulate the United Arab Emirates and hire foreign mercenaries. Believe it or not, the U.S. has already gone down this route to some extent, as Sean McFate, author of The Modern Mercenary, recently explained to the New York Times. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. relied heavily on private military contractors to ease the burden on its own overstretched personnel. Suffice it to say, relying too heavily on mercenaries is far from ideal. It is easy to imagine that over time, the U.S. military will devote more of its time and energy to training foreign military personnel to do jobs that U.S. service members can’t or won’t do. Yet it is well-trained and well-paid U.S. service members who will have to take on these training duties in the first place.

There are other, less colorful ways to trim personnel costs. The Obama administration has proposed modest reductions in pension and health benefits, but even these modest reductions have proven extremely controversial, for the straightforward reason that many Americans believe that we shouldn’t skimp on benefits and pay for those who volunteer to defend their country. I happen to think that President Obama is right to call for pension and benefit reform for military personnel, and we might be able to reduce compensation costs somewhat further. In his new book The Future of Land Warfare, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution notes that “enlisted personnel of a given age and experience tend to make more than 90 percent of all civilian employees with comparable characteristics,” and that if health and pension benefits were accounted for, “the percentages would actually grow even higher.” The danger, however, is that if the military cuts compensation costs too much, it will have a harder time attracting and retaining the skilled women and men it needs most.

Of course, personnel costs aren’t the only fiscal challenge facing the U.S. military. In 20YY: Preparing for War in the Robotic Age, a 2014 report published by the Center for a New American Security, Work and Shawn Brimley explored the technological advances that are transforming the military landscape, and the technological investments the Pentagon will need to make to keep up. For years, the U.S. military enjoyed a near-monopoly over guided munitions, stealth technology, and drones. This near-monopoly has come to an end, which means that the U.S. needs more sophisticated combat platforms that can prevail over rival militaries that have learned to exploit the weaknesses of its legacy systems. To that end, the U.S. has developed a slew of advanced combat platforms, like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter air combat systems and Flight III Arleigh Burke–class guided missile destroyer, among others. The trouble is that, as Work and Brimley explain, the operations and maintenance costs of these more advanced combat platforms are in many cases higher than for their predecessors. Moreover, these platforms can’t be operated around-the-clock, as Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman explain in Deploying Beyond Their Means, an alarming new report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Historically, the Navy would deploy its ships for 6 to 7 months over the course of a period that could range from two years to three years, depending on the ship in question. In recent years, the Navy has given its ships less downtime. This has meant less time for maintenance, which in turn has meant that these very valuable assets are deteriorating at a more rapid rate. The same goes for the service members who operate them: the crews that man U.S. naval vessels and aircraft need time to train and to rest if they are to maintain their effectiveness.

Ultimately, Work and Brimley argue that the U.S. military will have to rely more heavily on unmanned and autonomous combat systems. The unmanned aerial vehicles that have become such an important part of the U.S. arsenal are paving the way for drones that will be capable of fighting on the ground and underwater. In theory, these systems can help the military achieve its objectives while reducing personnel costs. There are other ways emerging technologies might help contain military spending. Maintenance costs might fall as the military drives further advances in additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, which could eventually allow U.S. forces to replace parts and upgrade combat systems while deployed, without having to ship these combat systems back home or relying on long-range logistics infrastructure. Equally promising are electric weapons, which are potentially much cheaper per shot than guided munitions, and which can help counter the threat posed by ballistic missiles. Other thinkers, like Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and senior fellow at CNAS, emphasize the importance of relying on cheap weapons systems that are more flexible and less vulnerable than the top-of-the-line systems that are so sacred to the military, like the Navy’s prized carrier strike groups. Hendrix has called on the U.S. Navy to stop building new aircraft carriers, which can cost as much as $14 billion a piece, and to redirect the funds for one aircraft carrier to instead build “seven missile-laden destroyers, or seven submarines, or 28 frigates, or 100 joint high-speed vessels, or any combination thereof.” Hendrix says his “Fords, not Ferraris” approach would increase America’s ability to project power while containing costs.

Will advances and reforms like this mean that the U.S. military doesn’t need to spend more to do its job well? Not quite. If the Pentagon makes wise investments, the U.S. military could achieve its military objectives far more cost-effectively in the future. To get to this lower-cost future, however, the military will almost certainly have to spend more today. The reason is that the U.S. must maintain its core military capabilities in the present while also preparing for a future in which personnel costs will be far higher than they are today, and current systems will have outlived their usefulness.

Some fear that the bureaucratic inertia all but guarantees that if the defense budget increases, the U.S. military will just pour money into wasteful legacy systems while failing to invest in the combat systems of tomorrow. But these fears needn’t come to pass. What we need are policymakers who are willing to set priorities, make tough choices, and to push back when the military brass insists on buying Ferraris. What we have instead are policymakers who are imposing rigid, thoughtless, across-the-board defense cuts that are denying the military the resources it needs to do its job well today—and imperil its ability to protect America’s interests in the future as well.