Deflationary forces were really strong for a decade. Current inflation is high, true. But it is not clear at all that the anti-inflation forces are going to disappear from the world in the long term. Maybe we need a new kind of Hitler, this time from Russia, to give purpose and meaning to our spending. Spending money against him can be a rare consensus, agreed by republicans and democrats alike. Agreeing to spend money against a murderous dictator, that's how the big depression ended for good in the thirties. That's the invasion from Mars Paul Krugman used to talk.

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Great article. I agree with most of what you said. The only real omission in your article IMO is the cyber warfare component. It relatively cheap, the USA has vast skill sets to call on. And it can disrupt both the front line battle field and mainland infrastructure and manufacturing.

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To be fair I don’t think Matt was necessarily calling for cutting military spending as asking military analysts to actually justify our current level of spending and to be less rigid in what we buy. I do not know if aircraft carriers are obsolete either, but given we have so many and we could probably extend their lifespan (and said carriers are already likely better than whatever Russia can offer) perhaps spending so much of our naval budget on them is a mistake. The American military has also clearly done a poorer job developing equipment than we did previously. The F-35 has been a complete struggle and the littoral class ship has also been a disaster. We need to do better and emphasizing that our military establishment has failed isn’t a bad thing.

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There's a gigantic mushroom-shaped elephant in the room that you both appear to be ignoring in your posts thus far.

If China's military buildup leaves middle-sized east Asian countries feeling less than confident that the USA is able to deter attacks on them, it's not going to just result in a massive conventional military buildup, it's going to result in some of them pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities, which makes the conventional military buildup largely moot.

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Apr 15, 2022Liked by Noah Smith

I’ve enjoyed the back-and-forth here.

Does anyone have a similar set of articles looking at military spending in Europe/India/Japan?

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I think Theodore Roosevelt formulated exactly the right idea on foreign policy when he said "speak softly, and carry a big stick" - the US should always seek peaceful relations with other countries, and should approach every situation with the goal of solving problems through negotiation first, but should be ready to hit harder than anybody if negotiation doesn't work and our adversaries insist on picking a fight, not only because we can't count on other countries sharing our preference for peace and need to be prepared if things go sideways but because of the deterrent effect you cite.

I think the right balance is significant military spending and investment in our international alliances (NATO and a similar network we should seek to build in the Pacific among Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, etc. to deter China), with no stupid, pointless wars of choice like Iraq.

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I would like to point out that while the F-35 had some procurement issues and went way overbudget, the product is by all accounts a highly effective weapon system.

But I think Matt had a good point that we should spend some money developing weapons systems that might not be too useful for the US military, but would be very useful for allies (official or unofficial)

For example, the US military spends comparatively few resources on ground to air defense systems. We have the Stinger missile a man portable system to shoot down low flying targets, and the Patriot missile which is primarily an anti-ballistic missile system, and we helped develop the Iron Dome which is apparently only useful for shooting down unguided rockets from Hamas. On the other hand, the Soviets, in addition to MANPADS, have a short ranged system (pantsir), medium ranged system (Buk) and long range (S-300).

Now, it makes sense that the US military doesn't spend too many resources on air defense. The US Air Force is the most powerful air force in the world. And the US Navy is arguably the second. So in any engagement with US troops involved, we can assume air supremacy. But as the invasion of Ukraine is showing, we can't always commit US troops and therefore US air power.

So maybe we should develop a full spectrum of air defense solutions, including both missiles, computers, and radars designed for export. It probably shouldn't be our absolute top-of-the-line tech and there should be some focus of reducing maintenance and operations costs and improving ease of use. But even with those constraints, I'm sure we can develop a system better than what the Russians have. It might be especially useful for a hypothetical island nation that has a hypothetical large, belligerent, nuclear armed neighbor that is making hypothetical revanchist noises.

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My objection to America's huge military is that much of the foreign policy community ( neocons, especially) see military action as the first choice solution in foreign policy questions. "We've got the biggest damn hammer in the world so we're going to effing use it.". Because the public, in general, does not engage with foreign policy the scope for counterproductive actions is greater. The neocons in the Bush Adminstration never really paid a price for their mad project of democratization through invasion.

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Apr 15, 2022·edited Apr 15, 2022

Its like watching your parents fight about defence procurement...

More seriously, I think the 'fog of peace' effect is so underestimated. Almost no one predicted the Ukraine-Russia, and in fact no one even predicted they'd be peer competitors at all. Destroying small militaries and then failing at counterinsurgency, which is how the US gets fighting experience, is a poor substitute for a proper war.

I think we basically have no idea what WW3 will look like and need to hedge our bets. For example, if logistics really wins wars, maybe being able to churn out 1000s of mediocre tanks/jets a month will be better than having the best tank in the world. Or maybe they'll be completely irrelevant. Gotta have those plan Bs.

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Apr 15, 2022·edited Apr 15, 2022

The discussion of aircraft carriers seems limited to forward projection of air power over hostile land -- the idea of F/A-18s bombing stuff in hostile territory is not anywhere near their only function.

Carriers also function to maintain air superiority over the fleet itself while at sea or bringing air support to friendly land. They are a projection of air defense that protects all kinds of sea craft, including attack and support vessels. The aircraft they support play anti-sub roles, etc. The full mission scope is just not being appreciated. Its role in the fleet is non-negotiable. A bunch of small missile ships out on an island is not a complete navy and would be highly vulnerable to air-to-sea, land-to-sea attack or sub-to-surface-vessel attacks. The sinking of the Moskva is much more inline with the concept of a carrier-less navy than one with carriers, that line of logic is just completely invalid.

Or maybe think of it another simplistic way: In a fight over control of the sea, imagine two navies, one with and one without carriers. How does that battle go?

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When you look at military spending, raw tabulations of dollars paid, number of tanks, jets, personnel etc…are very misleading data sets. You need to really ask what are you trying to do with your military? For a country like America which is so far away from the other great powers it needs “power projection.” The US military, although nominally for US defense is really about fighting enemies “over there” to prevent threatening states from dominating Eurasia and less about securing the literal borders of our nation which is done through CBP.

If Americans want the ability to influence the military calculus of countries in other hemispheres then the US needs an expeditionary oriented military—i.e. one with large tonnage ships and long range aircraft with overseas basing. It also needs highly trained professional soldiers.

If we want to forego the ability to influence military events far from our shores we could save a lot of money on our military budget. But we would have to accept that other countries could block us out of their regions entirely without us being able to do a thing about it.

Like our self-imposed defeat in Afghanistan, it sounds good but in reality it is ugly.

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It would be interesting to include consideration of spending effectiveness and waste in this discussion. My sense is that US defense spending is analogous to US health care spending: comparatively more expensive than other countries’, with numerous indicators of uneven and notable instances of poor outcomes. It’s not just overpriced toilet seats; somehow, whole categories of unglamorous but sundry capabilities needed for US military commitments, like trucks, radios, and helicopters end up woefully undercapitalized. Examples: the HUMMVEE/MRAP debacle of the post 9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the Army’s current helicopter procurement—if it happens—will be the first all-new helicopter since Vietnam. There is a collision of various intractable factors here, including the entrenched cultures of the services, DoD civilians, and the parastatal defense industry, as well as the durable bipartisan consensus about supporting the troops.

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Bigger diiferences in military budgets between both sides are best for everyone.

One thing that folks almost always forget, if we do get into a conflict, the more the overmatch by one side, the shorter the war and the lower the total casualties on both the winning AND THE LOSING SIDES. The longest and bloodiest wars occur with two equally marched sides.

In addition, people are more likely to wrongly guess their chances, and thus start a war, if the two sides are more even.

Minor points:

The Chinese military directly owns large parts of their economy so the actual resources spent on their defense are widely believed to be much larger than the official defense budget. Again, the latter is widely believed to be heavily fudged. To see what their PPP budget in reality is, one can compare what it buys and in this respect China is at least on par with us on air force and naval spending.

Of course, inefficiency, political friction. and gross corruption matter too. For example:

China seems to have way to many types of fighters in production, over 5, which increases their cost per fighter (we aren't that much better across NATO)!

The US is widely believed to have way too many bases for its military size but can't close the extra because of politics.

In 3rd world kleptocracies, like Russia, much of the defense budget goes directly into the private bank accounts of presidents, their cronies, and top generals. This probably accounts for much of the underperformance of the Russian army now...

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Geez, every time I become frustrated with some of your points I find something that strikes me as spot on reminding me why I read you and that I need to check my own beliefs for heavy bias and resistance to new ideas.

So many people are too focused on actual dollars that they lose sight of the nature of our military power. The US has always really been a maritime power. While the great land battles our armies have fought in are the stuff of lore (Battle of the Bulge, for example) it is really our maritime operations that have set us apart from our enemies (Normandy, the WW2 island hopping campaign in the Pacific) that have truly set us apart. And since WW2 our naval dominance has kept international shipping safe and efficient, unmatched by anyone on the planet. And, as sexy as the job of fighter-pilot is, it is the surface warfare officers and the fleets they command that make the difference in the world. China understands this. It is why they are rapidly building up their navy and creating new islands where none previously existed. It is also why Taiwan is such a flashpoint. Look at where it sits relative to China's coast and where we have Naval bases or at least friendly ports. Control of Taiwan greatly reduces the strategic danger of having to contend with forces in Japan and the Philippines.

So yes, money spent on naval power is important. But the other things the US seems to be lacking are visionary thinking and rigorous training. Recent events involving our navy and the numerous accidents are a concerning sign of directing dollars to the wrong things. The Marine Corps takes pride (or at least it did when I served) in returning budget dollars to the Navy every year. We were taught to make do with lesser weapons. We accepted the the Army's hand-me-downs and learned to use them better. When I served in the late 80's and early 90's the First Tak Battalion at Pendleton was still using M60 tanks to train. It wasn't until the Operation Desert Shield that they received used Abrams tanks form the Army, which were being upgraded with newer versions.

In short, not only do we need to continue to spend, but we MUST reevaluate HOW we have been spending over the last 4 decades. I was heartened to see the Commandant of the Marine Corps consider a radical realignment of mission for the Corps. This is the type of think that is required to remain a relevant global military power. Otherwise we are just the distribution arm of Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics and the other arms manufacturers.

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Great article. And loved the reference to the Washington.

A couple of other reasons why unless we're going to dramatically reshape our strategic commitments, we need to outspend China:

First, the US will likely (hopefully) have to fight China or Russia thousands of miles from home. That away game is really hard, and means we must spend a ton on sea lift, air lift, forward bases, expeditionary units like aircraft carriers, and escorts for these long sea lanes just to get to the fight. It's way cheaper for the home team to just to build land based fighters, land based missiles, short range submarines, etc. But if we want to defend Japan or Taiwan we have to be able to fight in the South China Sea.

Another point is that because the US has so many priorities and operates in so many places, everything is more expensive. One surprising example is that our ships must be able to operate from the Arctic to the Persian Gulf, requiring massive heating and cooling capacities at great weight and cost. Similarly, a maritime war with China would place a premium on long range aircraft, but we can't exclusively build those because we need smaller, nimbler aircraft for a potential European or Middle Eastern war. The Chinese military can focus largely on a war in the China Seas with the US and thus get comparable power there much cheaper.

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You should disagree with Matt more often. Both reads were more fun as a result.

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