President Obama and the defense budget: a factoid that falls short
“And I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined.”
— President Obama, remarks on the Defense Strategic Review, Jan. 5, 2012
Many questions remain about the Obama administration’s plan to reduce defense spending, most of which cannot be answered until the formal budget plan is released. But in making the case for his plan last week, the president cited a “fact” that we have seen uttered time and again by various politicians: The $550 billion U.S. military budget is larger than the military budgets of the next [fill in the blank] countries combined.
The president chose the number 10. We’ve also seen the number 14, or similar figures in the past.
But how relevant is this statement and does it really say something significant about the relative strength of the U.S. military?
Without a doubt, the United States has the most powerful military in the world, in part because it is the world’s only global power with global responsibilities. The Web site Globalfirepower.com ranks countries based on 45 factors, and the United States tops many of the charts. Here’s one small statistic: The United States had 11 aircraft carriers, as of the end of last year; no other country had more than two. The United Kingdom even is mothballing its single aircraft carrier.
But the president appears to be arguing that the United States has a strong military because its budget is larger than those of the next 10 largest countries combined. The mostly widely cited public source for this claim is the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, whose military expenditure database suggests that the U.S. military budget is bigger than those of the next 19 countries combined.
However, raw numbers can be misleading. The official Chinese figure of less than $100 billion a year is believed to be dramatically understated; SIPRI pegs it at around $100 billion. The Defense Department believes the real number for the Chinese military to be $150 billion.
Even that doesn’t tell the whole story, because it costs China less money to buy the same goods and services as the United States. Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives, who edits a Web page on Chinese military power, says that using a rough calculation of purchasing power parity, the correct figure for Chinese defense spending would be as much as $240 billion.
That’s still less than the United States spends, of course, but it is an indication of how fuzzy some of these calculations can be. The comparison to China also does not include the fact that because it is not a global power, Beijing may actually spend more on its military in the western Pacific than does the United States.
There is also a question of whether one counts just the base military budget or also the spending on the wars such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An administration official said the president’s statistic was derived from an examination of a classified version of the CIA Factbook, which presumably would show higher levels of spending for countries such as China.
If war spending is included, then the U.S. military budget is larger than those of the next 12 countries combined, the official said. If only base budget outlay is counted, the U.S. military budget is larger than those of the next eight countries. So the White House decided to split the difference, which is why the president said the U.S. budget was larger than the budgets of “roughly” the next 10 countries combined.
Oddly, the public version of the CIA Factbook ranks the military expenditures of different countries only by percentage of gross domestic product, not by spending. On that scale, the United States ranks only 24th, though there also are obvious limitations with this approach. Percentage of GDP is a good indicator of how a country chooses to use its resources — the top ranks of the list are dominated by oil-rich Middle Eastern countries and Israel — but the statistic does not shed much light on the effectiveness of a country’s military.
Indeed, even SIPRI urges caution in how its data is used, saying that beyond “very broad and clear comparisons” between countries with vastly different budgets, “attempts to draw conclusions about a country's level of military capability from its level of military expenditure should be regarded with considerable skepticism.”
The administration official agreed, saying the White House applied that same skepticism in looking at the data and treated it conservatively. But, he said, the president was permitted to make a “rhetorical point” in a speech.
Some military experts, however, said the president’s fact is facile. Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mail:
“Rhetoric is rhetoric. How do you compare spending between an all volunteer and underpaid conscript force? One where procurement is at command vs. market prices? One where much of procurement and R&D are not in budget? Why does this measure U.S. ability to implement our strategy and perform key missions? The problem is that rhetoric is not only rhetoric, it easily becomes logical rubbish…..The comparison that counts is what level of spending gives us the mix of forces necessary to meet our commitments and implement our strategy. It is not a matter of relative spending or force size.”
Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said that the president’s comment was a “true fact” but that “the more relevant metrics are the pace of downsizing and the residual level of spending — compared not to others’ budgets but to past drawdowns in the U.S. By those standards, it’s [the president’s defense cuts] a responsible plan, I think, but the comparison with the next 10 budgets isn’t that germane.”
The Pinocchio Test
The president’s statement was carefully crafted. He cited this fact as an observation but did not directly claim that it was a reason why the defense budget could be cut. However, he certainly left the impression that the statistic was a measure of U.S. military power, offering it as a demonstration of why the budget would keep the “nation secure.” Moreover, giving a presidential imprimatur to such a suspect statistic is probably not good practice; we were swayed by SIPRI’s words of caution in drawing conclusions about military capability from spending figures.
We nearly gave this our “true but false” rating but ultimately settled for one Pinocchio, which can mean “no outright falsehoods” but a selective telling of the truth.
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