Refocusing U.S. Defense Strategy

  • Benjamin H. Friedman and Christopher Preble
November 1, 2010

The Department of Defense will spend about $721 billion in fiscal 2011, of which $159 billion is for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.1 This department's huge budget includes much more than just "defense" activities. The bloated size of our current military spending stems from all kinds of extraneous missions besides the basic and constitutional requirement to defend Americans.

These days, policymakers want the U.S. military to contain China; transform failed states into stable democracies; chase terrorists; train various foreign militaries to chase terrorists; protect sea lanes; keep oil cheap; democratize the Middle East; protect European, Asian, and Middle Eastern states from aggression; spread good will through humanitarian missions; respond to natural disasters at home and abroad; secure cyberspace, and much more. For the supporters of such missions, the military forces and budget needed to pursue these goals can never be enough. But the relationship between all these objectives and the proper mission of the Department of Defense to protect Americans is tenuous.

Defining the requirements of our defense so broadly is counterproductive. Our global military activism wastes resources, drags us into others' conflicts, provokes animosity, drives rivals to arm, and encourages weapons proliferation. We can save great sums and improve national security by narrowing our goals and adopting an actual defensive posture in the world.

Arguments about defense spending are arguments about defense strategy. What you spend depends on what you want to do militarily, which depends in turn on theories about what creates security. A more modest strategy of restraint starts with the observation that power tempts the United States to meddle in foreign troubles that we should avoid.2 Restraint means fighting that temptation. It would husband American power rather than dissipate it by spreading promises and forces hither and yon. 

Restraint does not require cuts in military force structure and spending. It allows them. A less busy military could be a smaller and cheaper one. But though you can have restraint without savings, you cannot save much without restraint. Indeed, it would be a mistake to take up the force structure reductions that we recommend in a related essay without also adopting the strategic rationale behind them. That would overburden the force without improving security.

Substantially reducing military spending requires reducing the ambitions it serves. Efforts to increase the Pentagon's efficiency through acquisition reform, eliminating waste, and improving financial management would deliver some savings, but these items aren't the core reasons for today's excessive military spending. The 50 percent growth in our military's cost in the last 12 years (adjusting for inflation and leaving out the wars) stems more from the proliferation of our objectives than from the way the military is managed. We spend too much because we choose too little.

Rather than pursuing efficiency gains to drive savings, we should cut spending to enhance efficiency. Market competition encourages private organizations to streamline operations. No such pressure exists in government, but cutting the top line and forcing the military services to compete for their budgets can incentivize them to cut costs.3

Our military budget should be sized to defend us. For this end, we do not need to spend the roughly $700 billion a year we currently spend. By capitalizing on our geopolitical fortune, we can safely spend far less. The following sections briefly rebut the arguments generally employed to justify our huge military budget.


Contrary to conventional wisdom, counterterrorism does not require much military spending. Today's large U.S. military forces are most useful in defeating well-armed enemies. Terrorists are mostly hidden and lightly armed. The difficulty is finding them, not killing or capturing them once they are found. The best weapons in that fight are intelligence and policing. The most useful military tools are relatively cheap niche capabilities: surveillance and intercept technologies, special operations forces, and drones.

Some contend that we can be safe from al Qaeda and other terrorist groups only by occupying and transforming the failed states where they operate. And so, countering terrorism is supposed to require something approaching global counterinsurgency. That claim does not bear scrutiny. Few failed states have provided havens for anti-American terrorists.4 Even in Afghanistan during the 1990s, the supposed leading example of this phenomenon, the trouble was that the government allied with al Qaeda, not that there was no government. And we have lately learned that we lack the power to reorder unruly states with military occupations, despite great expenditures of blood and treasure.5 Experience tells us, in fact, that occupations tend to cause terrorism aimed at the occupier rather than prevent it.6

State Rivals

Our massive military budget cannot be justified by threats from rival nation states. North Korea, Iran, and Syria collectively spend roughly one sixtieth of what we spend on our military. With the possible exception of North Korean missiles, they lack the capability to attack the United States. They are deterred from doing so in any case. They are local troublemakers and, as a result, they have local enemies that can contain them.

As for our potential great power rivals—Russia and China—we would have no good reason to fight a war with either in the foreseeable future if we did not guarantee the security of their neighbors. Both lag far behind us in military capability. That would remain the case even with the modest reductions proposed here.7 As it stands today, the United States spends about five times more on defense than those states collectively. We account for about 50 percent of all military spending in the world, and our allies and potential strategic partners contribute much of the rest.

It is true that various states can pose problems for U.S. military forces should we invade their country or approach their coasts, where improved surveillance and missile technology may soon chase surface naval platforms or even aircraft farther offshore.8 Some might claim that a smaller U.S. force will exacerbate this problem. That is true in some respects. Certainly the cuts to the ground forces that we propose would make it harder to conquer and pacify populous states like Pakistan or China. On the other hand, states' ability to deny hostile forces access to their air space and coastal waters depends more on the technological balance between forces rather than their absolute numbers. That is one reason that the budget recommended in a related essay would maintain heavy spending on research and development. Besides, the strategy of restraint gives us fewer reasons to menace foreign shores, and therefore less reason to worry about this problem.

Global Stability

Another argument for high military spending is that U.S. military primacy underlies global stability. According to this theory, our forces and alliance commitments dampen conflict between potential rivals, preventing them from fighting wars that would disrupt trade and cost us more than the military spending that would have prevented war. This logic liberates defense planning from old-fashioned considerations like enemies and the balance of power. It sees the requirements of global policing as the basis for the size of the U.S. military. That is no standard at all, which is why hawks embrace it. Boundless objectives justify limitless costs.

The primacy argument overestimates both the American military's contribution to international stability and the danger that instability abroad poses to Americans. U.S. force deployments in Europe and Asia now contribute little to peace, at best making low odds of war among states slightly lower.9 Inertia, rather than our security requirements, explains the perseverance of our military alliances.

The main justification for our Cold War alliances was the fear that communist nations could conquer or capture by insurrection the industrial centers in Western Europe and Northeast Asia and then harness enough of that wealth to threaten us—either directly or by forcing us to become a garrison state at ruinous cost. But these alliances outlasted the conditions that caused them. During the Cold War, Japan, Western Europe and South Korea grew wealthy enough to defend themselves. We should let them. These alliances heighten our force requirements and threaten to drag us into wars, while providing no obvious benefit. Without our forces there, our allies would pay the cost of balancing local adversaries.

Despite its popularity, there is scant evidence for the claim that international commerce requires American military hegemony.10 The threats to global trade today are quite limited. The percentage of shipments protected by military means, let alone U.S. naval vessels, is tiny. And even when political instability does disrupt trade, it has only a minimal economic impact here.11 By linking markets, globalization provides supply alternatives for the goods we consume, including oil. If political upheaval disrupts supply in one location, suppliers elsewhere will take our orders. Prices may increase, but markets adjust. That makes American consumers less dependent on any particular supply source, undermining the claim that we need to use force to prevent unrest in supplier nations or secure trade routes.12

Military hawks also claim that we must spend heavily on defense today to prepare for the eventuality of new rivals. But the best hedge against an uncertain future is a prosperous and innovative economy supporting a capable military that can be expanded to meet rivals should they arise.


The United States confuses what it wants from its military, which is global primacy or hegemony, with what it needs, which is safety. Our leaders tend to exaggerate the capability of the enemies we have and invent new enemies by defining traditional foreign troubles—geopolitical competition among states and instability within them, for example—as pressing threats to our security. Geography, wealth, and nuclear weapons provide us with safety that our ancestors would envy. Our hyperactive military policies damage it by encouraging rivalry and resentment. Global military primacy is a game not worth the candle.13

We can defend ourselves with far more restrained military objectives, and at far less cost than the nearly $550 billion we will spend in fiscal year 2011 in the non-war portion of the defense budget. A policy of restraint that discourages state-building and permanent alliances would allow us to plan for fewer military actions and cut the size and cost of the military. This strategy allows $1.2 trillion in savings over ten years that we have outlined in a related essay.

Other paths to savings are possible. Those less inclined to restraint might select only some of our proposals. Analysts who believe that U.S. counter-insurgency campaigns are more likely than we do, for example, might accept or even augment our cuts that do not pertain to the Army. Those that would retain our current military objectives might still support cutting the nuclear weapons budget. Some might want to cut the Army and Air Force along the lines we suggest, but keep a Navy large enough to police the seas and bludgeon enemies without occupying their capitals.

We cannot, however, have considerable savings without thorough-going strategic change. There are efficiencies to be had in our military budget, but making large spending cuts without reducing commitments is a recipe for overburdening service members. Nor should we embrace strategic restraint simply for budgetary reasons. It is a security strategy first that offers the opportunity to save. Indeed, these recommendations would make sense even without large federal budget deficits. But large deficits make them more pressing and more likely to attract support. Concerns about debt have historically been a necessary condition for defense spending cuts.

These proposals may seem radical inside the Beltway. However, what is truly radical is the ambition that now justifies the size of the U.S. military: the idea that the United States should use its military to secure rich states in perpetuity, arrest disorder in several poor ones simultaneously, insure global stability, and spend the better part of a trillion dollars a year to those ends. Given the strategy we advocate, our proposals are actually cautious. Were the United States to truly revive its historical non-interventionist ideals, deeper savings could be had, without sacrificing freedom or security.

1Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2011 (Washington: Government Printing Office, February 2010).

2 Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky, "Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation," International Security 21, no. 4 (Spring 1997): 5–48; Barry Posen, "The Case for Restraint," The American Interest 3, no. 1 (November/December 2007): 7–17; Harvey M. Sapolsky, Benjamin H. Friedman, Eugene Gholz and Daryl G. Press, "Restraining Order: For Strategic Modesty," World Affairs Journal 172, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 84–94; Christopher Preble, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009).

3 Harvey M. Sapolsky, "The Inter-Service Competition Solution," Breakthroughs 5, no. 1 (Spring 1996):1–3.

4 Justin Logan and Christopher Preble, "Failed States and Flawed Logic: the Case against a Standing Nation-Building Office," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 560, January 11, 2006.

5 Benjamin H. Friedman, Harvey Sapolsky, and Christopher Preble, "Learning the Right Lessons From Iraq," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 610, February 13, 2008.

6 Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005).

7 Even with the reductions in research and development funding that we propose in a related essay, the U.S. military will spend on research and development alone almost as much as Russia spends on its entire military.

8 On these limits on U.S. military hegemony, see Barry Posen, "Command of the Commons: The Military Foundations of U.S. Hegemony," International Security 28, no. 1 (Summer 2003): 5–46.

9 This case is especially strong in Europe. Stephen Van Evera, "Primed for Peace: Europe after the Cold War," International Security 15, no. 3 (Winter 1990/91): 7–57.

10 This is not to say that it is impossible that a rival state might try to disrupt U.S. trade during a conflict. That possibility, however, does not require policing all shipping now, as opposed to protecting threatened shipments at the time. The Navy we propose is more than sufficient to that task.

11 Eugene Gholz and Daryl G. Press, "The Effects of Wars on Neutral Countries: Why It Doesn't Pay to Preserve the Peace," Security Studies 10, no. 4 (Summer 2001): 1-57. Oil price shocks may be an exception. For that view, see James D. Hamilton "Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007–08," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity (Spring 2009), pp. 215-284. Other economists, however, argue that the U.S. economy is far less vulnerable to sudden increases in oil prices than it used to be. See, e.g., Olivier J. Blanchard and Jordi Gali, "The Macroeconomic Effects of Oil Price Shocks: Why Are the 2000s so Different from the 1970s?," MIT Department of Economics Working Paper no. 07-21, August 2007; Paul Edelstein and Lutz Killian, "Retail Energy Prices and Consumer Expenditures," Center for Economic Policy Research, Discussion Paper no. DP6255, April 2007. Even if our economy is vulnerable to political instability that causes oil price spikes, it does not follow that military deployments, as opposed to reserve stocks, are an efficacious way to mitigate the problem. For this view, see Eugene Gholz and Daryl G. Press, "Energy Alarmism: The Myths that Make Americans Worry about Oil," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 589, April 2007.

12 Harvey M. Sapolsky, Benjamin H. Friedman, Eugene Gholz, and Daryl G. Press, pp. 88–89.

13 Robert Jervis, "International Primacy: Is the Game Worth the Candle?" International Security 17, no. 4 (Spring 1993): 52–67.


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