Common Misconceptions About U.S. Defense Spending
February 10, 2023
Every year, the President of the United States submits a defense budget request. This document, called the President’s Fiscal Year Defense Budget, highlights the U.S.’ national security priorities for the coming fiscal year. The President sends the bill to Congress, which with the power of the purse, allocates the funds where it sees fit. Fund allocation is a straightforward process for the U.S. government, with Congress holding this right for over 200 years. Members of Congress understand this process, but the American public often holds misconceptions about defense spending.
A study conducted by The Pew Research Center in 2018 reported that 51 percent of the American public discusses politics with others a few times a week, and roughly one-third of that number discusses it every day. Early in 2022, America’s concern about the war in Ukraine and its implications for the U.S. military budget increased, but attention shifted elsewhere as the months went on. Lack of discussion and awareness of defense spending makes the public more susceptible to misunderstanding the U.S. defense budget.
Here are a few of the most common misconceptions about U.S. defense spending, followed by the facts.
Myth: Defense spending is at an all-time high.
Fact: This claim is one of the most common misconceptions. Defense spending as a share of the GDP is at an all-time low of 3.3 percent, well below the 4.3 percent average. The all-time high occurred during the Cold War (1945-1991) when spending ranged from 5 to 10 percent of GDP. This percentage dropped almost immediately in 1992 and has remained below average for the last 30 years. The only exception to a below-average share of GDP was in 2010 when defense funding increased in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although federal defense spending is expected to increase in the coming years, it is still projected to continue decreasing as a share of GDP from 3.3 percent to 2.9 percent by 2030.
Myth: Defense spending does not contribute to the economy.
Fact: This claim is also false. While many Americans may not see a direct link between rising military spending and increased revenues at home, the by-products of defense spending boost the U.S. economy. The U.S. Navy ensures free access to trade routes that secure America’s access to global markets. Since trade comprises a significant portion of the U.S. economy, about 23 percent, access to international commerce benefits American jobs and manufacturing exports. Additionally, overseas defense investments create more jobs in the U.S. defense industries (e.g., Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics.)
Myth: Technological advances make up for military presence.
Fact: While this claim holds some truth, assuming it to be entirely true would mean overlooking the principles of the Security Dilemma. The Security Dilemma states that any action taken by a state to increase its security will provoke a reaction from other states. States react because they do not trust the actions of other states. Thus, any effort to enhance a state’s security will essentially decrease its relative security because the opposing state will take similar measures to increase its security. This phenomenon results in a security dilemma, an everlasting competition to improve each state’s defense. The security dilemma explains why an increase in technology or advanced weapons systems will not replace the physical presence of the military. Although technological advances may lessen the reliance on physical military presence, claiming that it is enough to make significant cuts to the budget neglects the fact that other militaries will follow suit.
Paula Thornhill, retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, describes a phenomenon in her article, “Americans Have Faith in the Military, but They Don’t Understand It.” She argues that military topics are often untouched in academia, except for a few specialized studies. This lack of knowledge results in an uninformed population about the nation’s most expensive and trusted institution that depends on U.S. citizens and tax dollars for its survival. The U.S. geopolitical role will not lessen in the coming decade, and its evolving investments in foreign affairs provide a good reason for the American public to prioritize their understanding of defense issues.
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Author: Anneli Sánchez-Ortiz, Associate at WBD, is a cyber policy and foreign affairs professional engaged with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).