Refocusing U.S. Defense Strategy

  • Benjamin H. Friedman
December 19, 2016

The Department of Defense (DoD) will spend nearly $600 billion in 2017.1 Operations and maintenance will be 44 percent of the spending, personnel costs will be 25 percent, and procurement, research, and other activities will be 31 percent.

However, within the huge DoD budget are much more than just “defense” activities. The budget is bloated by missions and activities that go well beyond defending 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 do so; protect sea lanes; try to keep oil cheap; stabilize failed states; 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 a genuinely 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 recommended 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 deliver some savings, but these items are not the core reasons why we spend so much on the military, which is still about what we spent at the height of the Cold War, even after the recent drawdown resulting from lowered war costs and defense spending caps. We still spend so much because of the expansion of our military objectives, rather 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 low-value activities.3

Our military budget should be sized to defend us. For this end, we do not need to spend the roughly $600 billion a year we currently spend. By capitalizing on our geopolitical good fortune, we can safely spend far less. The following sections briefly rebut the arguments generally employed to justify our huge military budget.


Little of the U.S. military budget is related to fighting the terrorist groups that draw so much attention. Those costs are mostly contained within $59 billion Overseas Contingency Operations budget, most of which goes to programs unrelated to counterterrorism.4 A more generous count including the budget for special operations and a portion of the intelligence budget still falls well short of $100 billion, or a sixth of the total DoD budget.5 Even a more expansive war against the Islamic State and the various remaining al Qaeda affiliates would not require added military capability or spending in the base (non-war) Pentagon budget—unless, that is, the United States launches another manpower-intensive counterinsurgency operation in a nation or two.

Some analysts still contend that we can be safe from the Islamic State and other terrorist groups only by occupying and transforming the failed states where they operate. But the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq should remind everyone that the power to conquer states is not the power to stabilize, let alone liberalize them.6 Experience tells us, in fact, that occupations tend to cause terrorism aimed at the occupier rather than prevent it.7

State Rivals

Our massive military budget cannot be justified by threats from rival nation states.
North Korea remains a blustery troublemaker with a tiny nuclear arsenal and a ballistic missile arsenal of decent range. But poverty has atrophied its military capabilities to the point that its internal collapse is a bigger threat than its aggression. Iran has the money to fund extremists like Hezbollah and antagonize its neighbors, but its military lacks the expeditionary capability to pose much direct threat to them, let alone U.S. forces, unless they are occupying Iran. The Obama administration’s nuclear deal does not much affect that military balance. 

Russia is considerably more capable and a threat to its weak neighbors, especially Ukraine. Its treatment of dissenters, threats to its neighbors, and interference in U.S. elections are troubling. But Russia’s energy-dependent economy is now about the size of Italy’s, and its population is dwindling.8 The Russian military budget is about a third the size of non-U.S. NATO allies’ combined military spending.9 It retains a potent nuclear arsenal, but such weapons are of little value for offensive actions.10 Whatever its ambitions, the Kremlin has little ability to overrun anyone besides its weak neighbors, especially in the long-term.

Of course, in the longer term the most capable challenger to the U.S. military is China. Should it sustain its rapid growth, which is doubtful, and continue its recent rate of investment in its naval and air forces, it could become the dominant military power in East Asia, and even challenge U.S. capability in some respects. That might encourage Beijing to more forcefully assert its contested claims in the East and South China Seas, heightening tensions with the United States, insofar as it backs China’s local rivals. Several recent thinktank studies suggest that improved Chinese surveillance and missile capability will soon threaten U.S. aircraft and ships, especially aircraft carriers, at greater distance.11 That capability, it is feared, will deter U.S. forces from defending allies or embolden the Chinese to see things that way and risk aggression.

That argument should not preclude a drawdown in Pentagon spending for three reasons. First, it overlooks countermeasures that U.S. ships can take to defend themselves and the fact that, if need be, U.S. military spending can be redirected to address the problem, rather than increased overall. Second, China’s ability to conquer U.S. allies will remain quite limited, given the inherent advantages held by those defending their own shores and their ability to adopt the same technologies abetting Chinese defensive improvements. Third, the argument overstates the difficulty of deterrence. It implies that only invulnerable forces can deter aggression, which would have surprised the Cold War architects of U.S. defenses in Germany. And it casts China’s generally pragmatic leaders as zealots willing to risk economic dislocation and nuclear war for nationalistic adventures.

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.

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.12 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. We should state that we will honor our treaty commitments but reduce them legally and gradually over time. 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 costs of balancing local adversaries.

Despite its popularity, there is scant evidence for the claim that international commerce requires American military hegemony.13 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.14 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.15


Some U.S. policymakers confuse what they want from the military—global primacy or hegemony—with what America really needs, which is safety. Our leaders tend to exaggerate the capability of the enemies we have, while inventing 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.16

We can defend ourselves with far more restrained military objectives, and at far less cost than the nearly $600 billion we will spend in fiscal year 2017 on the Pentagon. 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 nearly one trillion dollars in savings over ten years, as outlined in a recent essay.17

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.

Such proposals may seem radical inside the Beltway. But 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 U.S. freedom or security.


1 Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2017, Historical Tables (Washington: Government Printing Office, February 2016), Table 4.1. The total spent on the budget function “National Defense” is somewhat higher, and includes non-DoD activities such as the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons program.

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; 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 Tony Bertuca, “Pentagon Will Need to Fund ‘Enduring Requirements,’ Now in OCO Account, Once Combat Ends,” Inside Defense, September 30, 2016.

5 U.S. intelligence spending in 2017 is about $70 billion. See Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “U.S. Intelligence Community Budget,” The Special Operations Command’s budget is $10.7 billion. See Andrew Feickert, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF): Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service,” RS21048, April 8, 2016.

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

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

8 Nicholas Eberstadt, “Drunken Nation: Russia’s Depopulation Bomb,” World Affairs Journal 171, no. 4 (Spring 2009): 51-62.

9 On Russian GDP and military spending, see The Military Balance, 2016 The Annual Assessment of Global Military Capabilities and Defense Economics (London: International Institute of Strategic Studies, 2016), p.189.

10 On the arsenal, see Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Russian Nuclear Forces, 2016,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 3, 2016. On nuclear weapons disutility for offensive military action, like conquest, see Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 29-35.

11 See, for example, Kelley Sayler, “Red Alert: The Growing Threat to U.S. Aircraft Carriers,” Center for a New American Security, February 22, 2016.

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

13 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.

14 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.

15 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): pp. 88–89.

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

17 Benjamin H. Friedman, “How the U.S. Military Can Save $1 Trillion” The National Interest, November 6, 2016.


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