Quora Question: How Has the U.S. Military Grown to Such a Massive Size?

A Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago/Handout/Reuters

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Answer from Jon Davis, Sergeant of Marines. Fought in Iraq during OIF. Amateur military historian.

Superfluous, huh? Military spending is one of those topics which is governed primarily on perception rather than reality. Facts are facts, but if you don't look at enough, then you don't understand the whole story. No, I am not saying that US doesn't spend a whole lot, but that most don't understand why. The fact in and of itself is more than enough to justify some judgment of guilt from those who don't know better. For example, most of the narrative is based upon only a few key graphs based on only a fraction of the information available.

In fact, the narrative is so overwhelming that to assume anything other than the popular point of view is tantamount to blasphemy. Consider, if you will, how a question, a thing which itself is an open admittance of ignorance, as all questions are, would be delivered with such righteous indignation as is the current wording of this question. Oh well. I can't say that everything is as it should be or even what is and isn't right or what anyone should do. What I can do is offer some ways of thinking about military spending that you probably haven't thought about before. I feel that everyone is entitled to a change in the narrative. As a United States Marine Corps Sergeant who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2007, I'd like you to give me a few minutes of your time; not so much for my sake, my war is over after all, but for those who will be fighting them in the future.

An Incorrect Assumption

Before moving on, and to answer the question "why has the US military demanded and gotten funds..." briefly, the United States military doesn't really get to "demand" very much. It does have some political power, but its budget is set and determined by Congress. They determine how superfluous the military gets to be and as I have said before elsewhere, they are your fault in the case that you don't like their decisions, at least in the case that you are American voter. As it is said, democracy is a beautiful thing because the people always get exactly the government they deserve.

Second, there is the assumption that their enormous strength is superfluous, or even adequate. The rest of this write-up will focus on this assumption and some other facts that should be considered along with it. That said, by the end of it, I am pretty sure the assumption won't stand so strongly that, according to the question that stands today, one might consider the American military to be "unnecessary, especially through being more than enough."

It's not like we are the only ones doing it:

The first graph most people ever look at is the one that shows how the US spends more than anyone else in the world on their military budget. It's a pie graph with a big red chunk making the very clear (and oh so scary) point that the US spends more money than anyone else in the world by far. It asks the question of why do they need that much, but you know what? That isn't the question to ask. That particular question is too short term.

Consider this. When you show that graph for 2009, and then 2011 and then 2012, did you notice a pattern? If you say, "The US spends more than the rest of them!" you'd only be half right. The truth is that there is more going on. You probably didn't take a look at the changes in the rest of the nations. These sorts of things are hard to do when you only read pie graphs, but here is an interesting one.

The USA led the rise [in military spending], but it was not alone. Of those countries for which data was available, 65% increased their military spending in real terms in 2009. The increase was particularly pronounced among larger economies, both developing and developed: 16 of the 19 states in the G20 saw real-terms increases in military spending in 2009.

 — Sam Perlo-Freeman, Olawale Ismail and Carina Solmirano, Military Expenditure Chapter 5, SPIRI Yearbook, June 2010, p.1

This graph shows the % change in military spending over the last decade. On the right, you can see how these amounts measure against one another, but the bars to the side are what are most important. They show long term pattern of growth and answer the question, "Which nations are most dedicated to growing their military?" 

Many nations, such as China and India, are staying even with the %GDP spending and the growth in military spending shows a somewhat even with the economy. Others, however, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia show significant spikes even as the world at large, including the US, is showing a pattern of reduced military spending. The US? Why yes, check this graph and several more throughout this post. Military spending in the United States has gone down significantly over the past few years even during a time when we were and are still involved in two different wars. What is interesting is, despite the narrative, though the US is leading the others in military reduction, it doesn't seem to be determining how much they spend since the reduction in its spending is not matched by a proportional reduction in military spending overall worldwide.

Note the blue line, that's the US. Since 2010, it has steadily been reducing its military spending in relation to GDP. Meanwhile, many other nations have not. I used Russia and Saudi Arabia as two important examples because of how much their priorities seem to be changing and also given their precarious political situations presently. What is also shown is the World average (and the UK which is miraculously even with it) which shows that the rest of the world, while spending less overall than the US, is declining its spending on military nearly as quickly as is the United States. Given that so many sources are in agreement that the US makes up such an enormous amount of worldwide military spending, this would be surprising. For the graph to be true (see sources at bottom of the image), others would have to be filling the gap in spending left by the US military's budget reduction. That is the case throughout much of the world. The world isn't becoming a more peaceful place as the US declines in influence. It's gearing up for something, to be more precise, many small somethings. Many nations, many nations that many other nations don't trust are still growing even as the US military is cut down by social pressures to do so. While I will agree that the spending of the United States military seems exorbitant, current spending doesn't matter nearly as much as growth in spending. Size today is static, but growth is measured exponentially when time is a factor. 

Being even is the Deadliest form of Warfare

A lot of people might think that all this military spending is wasteful and overkill. Non-military minds believe that one simply shouldn't need that much power to overcome an adversary. I'll admit that this way of thinking makes sense in most regards, but when you consider the way of thinking in which men and women's lives are at stake, that kind of thinking starts to falter.

Let's look at it another way. In the men's 100 meter dash, the difference between the fastest man on Earth, Usain Bolt and the second fastest man, Tyson Gay, is just over 1/10th of a second. It doesn't matter how much faster Bolt is, so long as he is just a little bit faster than Gay. That's all he needs to win. Being 10 times faster isn't necessary secure victory. People understand that. People also understand politics. Under normal or ideal conditions when a person gets more votes, he is the winner. There isn't really a debate after that. He or she doesn't need a landslide. One vote should be fine. People understand that. These, realistically are the only forms of competition that non-military minded people ever consider. The two competitors compete, under perfectly equal grounds, one is declared a winner and the loser is not really worse off than if he had done nothing at all. It's straightforward, it's fair, and in some circles, such "sportsmanship" would be considered a holy practice. But not in warfare. Warfare is something completely different. Warfare is an unholy thing and those who think that "playing fair" and to try to make a necessary evil into something more moral in practice by leveling the playing field are, in fact, advocating for atrocities on a scale impossible to imagine.  

Consider this; in the 1990's, Saddam Hussein commanded the 4th most powerful military in the world. 4th. Of the hundreds of nations in the world he was among the top four. That means that he was an insanely powerful individual by measurements of those days. Even given all his strength, however, in less than a month his army was utterly defeated. To top that, his regime was defeated so badly that coalition forces only lost 190 servicemen to enemy action while the Iraqi lost somewhere between 20,000-35,000. That's not even including wounded. The simple fact is that in warfare, the loser almost never loses by a close margin. They are almost always utterly decimated presuming that they don't have the sense to surrender early. I've studied this from a historical perspective before. In an answer to 'how has mortality rate per battle changed throughout history?' I described how the presence of overwhelming force, among other things, is actually the factor that saves lives as it quickly ends conflicts.

In the opposite case, conflicts in which competing forces are mostly even, or where overwhelming force is absent are horrific cases indeed. These are known as a Pyrrhic victory, a victory with such a devastating cost that it is tantamount to defeat. I'd like to talk about events in American history where even forces led to disastrous ends. One example being much of the American Civil War. Battles like Antietam and Gettysburg are remembered for being the bloodiest days in American history. One thing is for certain, they would have never had happened had either side not believed they had a chance of winning. Another example, one I regret to speak about would be Iraq not long after 2003, my war. While overwhelming force there did secure the single greatest military upsets in history, the occupying force was far too small to prevent the insurgency which followed, growing larger and angrier in the power vacuum that consumed Iraq. This, of course, led ultimately to the events of today.

But a better example exists elsewhere.

Let's consider next the conflict between Russia and Germany during WWII. By some accounts, in three separate battles, the dead numbered more have been killed in the entire history of American warfare. What most don't understand, is that this is the ultimate result of when militaries try to be too efficient, and send in just enough men to get the job done, without predicting the inevitable failures in planning that are an unavoidable part of war.  According to estimates and official records for the Battle of Stalingrad, Axis powers had over 850,000 total casualties (killed, injured, or captured) with the Russians suffering 1,129,619 total casualties. The main reason for this is simple; there wasn't a single force with the strength of overwhelming force early enough in the campaign to secure a victory, and thereby likely prevent the deaths of over one million people. This is, of course, an oversimplified view of one of the most important series of battles in history, but it also goes to show just how dangerous a "fair fight" is to those who fight it. I don't want to get into the argument of whether you would have wanted Stalin or Hitler to win, or play a hypothetical debate on where the world would be if either of them hadn't done so poorly. The point of this lecture is to show that overwhelming force saves lives, in spite of how much of a counter-intuitive contradiction it sounds.

Given the new consideration that overwhelming force prevents otherwise horrendous casualties How much stronger is the United States military compared with the next strongest power? asks an interesting question. One graph worth noting from that question is this one.


Here, you see a short glimpse of some very important figures that indicate basic strength measurements between the two most powerful nations on Earth. First, we see is the cost basis in which the US is essentially 10 times as large and its % of GDP is also twice that of China. Besides that, this doesn't actually tell you as much as you think, but it is a good indicator of the massive advantage that exists between #1 and #2.

Of course there are some important things to know. Namely is that China's military really doesn't seem to be as focused with protecting, or even expanding China's interests outside of the county, but rather as a balance against a nation of 1.4 billion people getting sick of being holistically governed by less than 7% of its population, i.e. the Chinese Communist Party. So the military there exists for different reasons, at least for now.

Now, I am not saying the China and the US are on any sort of military collision course, but the original title of this section was called, "It doesn't do anyone any good to be second place in warfare." Therefore, the question has to be asked, "who would win?" One would obviously suggest that the Americans would easily defeat the Chinese military. There, the spending surpasses the Chinese by more than 10x. In the next section, however, I will make a very clear point: that very expensive strategies can be undone by very cheap ways of thinking. Consider, for example, the large amount of submarines owned by the Chinese. I love our aircraft carriers, but they are massive cities floating out on the water. They are massive money pits, even if they are a very important part of a very large global strategy. What's even more? They aren't even one ship. They are literally always surrounded by others.

What's my fear? A single nuke taking all this out. What's even worse? China already has that exact weapon! And at least sixty more of them. (DF-21 Dong-Feng 21) I fear that the days of the aircraft carrier being numbered and China's large number of subs, really their best asset I see on that graph, are exactly why. Even worse than that is that the US has build almost its entire integrated naval strategy around its aircraft carriers. It has eleven of them, which doesn't sound like that much, but that is still 11 times more than all the other guys (except you UK).

So why the side rant on how inefficient, or at least dated it seems that we have built a massive war beast? Well, consider again, twenty years ago when Saddam was sitting high and proud on his chair in Baghdad. Then he lost, and now where is he? Where is his country for that matter? Would you like to be fourth place in a world that didn't like you?

To summarize, John Steinbeck put it best by saying that, "If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck.”

Increase in costs of military technology:

There is rule of thumb in understanding the costs of military technology. It's called Augustine's laws. Augustine's laws were a series of tongue in cheek aphorisms put forth by Norman Ralph Augustine, an American aerospace businessman who served as Under Secretary of the Army from 1975 to 1977. In 1984 he published his laws. The book and several of the laws were the topic of an article in Sound and Vibration magazine in March 2012. His most cited law is number 16, which shows that defense budgets grow linearly but the unit cost of a new military aircraft grows exponentially:

"In the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one tactical aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3½ days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day."

There's a chance you didn't read that correctly. Take a look again at that y-axis and if you need to, refresh yourself on reading log scale. So that we are clear, the F-22 isn't 20% more expensive than the F-15. It's actually about 25 times more expensive to build and develop. And to screw with your mind a bit more, the F-15 isn't twice as expensive as the WWII P-51 Mustang; it's actually more than 220 times more expensive.

The reason for this pattern is that weapons technologies are needed to always stay ahead of the other combat systems constantly being put out to defeat them. This is a thing one really doesn't understand until you've full experienced it is that incredibly smart systems can be defeated by really cheap ones. Take for example the Humvee. That's a really great vehicle. Trust me, I've driven one. It was also a pretty expensive improvement from the old Jeep and other combat vehicles in warfare of the late 20th century.

But did you know this beautiful machine could be leveled by the usage of a simple unspent twenty year old artillery shell wired to a makeshift  detonator with a cell phone as a trigger?

I promise you it could, I've seen it happen.

So to overcome this, we went through a very costly process where, more or less, every Humvee in theatre was given a very costly "uparmoring" process. These involved massive plates being installed all over the vehicle.

This was a very costly change to be made, and sadly, it didn't really help that much. It was a massive cost, but didn't increase survivability of the soldiers or Marines inside much if a bomb went off underneath them. That blown vehicle I showed you before, was partially uparmored, by the way. What the plating was good at, however, was destroying transmissions. The vehicle was never meant to carry the weight of all that plating along with its normal load. Something else had to happen.

So we made the MRAPs. MRAP stands for Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected and actually I think the South Africans developed it first. Either way, it solved our problem of jury rigged bombs bringing down the most powerful military machine on the planet. This vehicle looks like it just took massive blow to face, but it will keep on going and so will the Marines or soldiers inside. There's a catch though ... you guessed it. It is very expensive; far, far, far more expensive than the old Jeeps.

Now, to understand truly how important Augustine's laws are we have to consider what the phrase "defense budgets grow linearly but the unit cost of a new military aircraft grows exponentially." Really means. It means that we have cooler stuff, but those technologies and weapons systems are set to do much, much more. A single Marine now is outnumbered by far more people than he would have been in 1943. The days where a storm of Sherman tanks can overtake and overwhelm enemy locations and where hundreds of thousands of Jeeps can be produced to do every job imaginable are over. Now, we live in a world where a single F-22 must do the old job of 100 P-51 Mustangs and one MRAP is provided for the hundreds of Jeeps no longer on the road. This means that where the technology is they rule, but where they aren't, where they can't be, there is vacuum.


I really love the piracy example because it is just a beautiful way of reminding people that, oh yeah, if not for a globally integrated military leading an international effort to protect our frail and valuable trade lanes, I wouldn't have this beautiful wifi enabled iPad to voice my disapproval of said military to the world.

The United States has, for reasons you may or may not agree with, taken a leadership role in combatting international piracy as it is a threat to not only the peace and stability of various regions around the world, but also, more obviously, our own trade lanes and economic stability, as well. This can be seen through a thorough reading of  Rear Admiral Joseph Kuzmick's testimony to Congress on counter-piracy operations (April 2013):
 Page on www.navy.mil

In it, you'll see three different piracy hot spots where the US is either leading coalition efforts to combat piracy, namely in the fighting of Somali Pirates, the Gulf of Guinea, and in the seas of Southeast Asia.

The United States Seventh Fleet has led the effort to enhance area nations’ ability to combat piracy and maritime crime. Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SECAT) is an annual multinational exercise held at Changi Naval Base, Singapore. The exercise highlights the value of information-sharing and multilateral cooperation in maritime interdiction scenarios, including counter-piracy. Participating nations in 2012 included Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. Additionally, Commander, Seventh Fleet conducts annual bilateral Cooperation Afloat – Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises with various ASEAN nations. In 2012, the United States conducted CARAT exercises with Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. The at-sea phases of CARAT focused on maritime intercept (MIO) operations, counter-piracy, anti-smuggling and, maritime law enforcement.

What's important to remember about this operation is that it is one of several. Many nations are involved in some of these operations, but only the United States military is present, in fact providing the backbone, in all of them. In the case of Southeast Asia, being that nearly one quarter of the world’s commerce and half its oil pass through the Strait of Malacca and South China Sea, I find it odd that no other major military powers around the South China Sea were present in the effort to safeguard what is essentially one of the most important trade routes in the world. My oversimplified point of view on the matter is that they don't have to. As I've written before in an answer to What would happen if the USA stopped trying to "police the world" someone else will do it.

In fact, piracy is only one of the many functions the United States military has been beholden to do, for better or worse. It would do you well to check out what a world where the US did not expend so much of its budget into international operations by checking that link again.

Have you really done your homework?

One thing that I hate is when the current narrative feeds the future narrative. What's happening now is that the narrative reads, "US spends more than any other country in military spending." I've shown reasons why that might be explained, and as some might believe, even be necessary, but few will listen. I'm sure that some will only cite a quote of a quote of a quote depicted from a graph. But those third hand analysts probably haven't noticed that the one graph they referenced is changing every year, even though the main fact still remains constant. They probably haven't noticed that the spending of the US military has decreased every year when compared to GDP. What they also probably didn't know was that this decrease in spending by the US  is also leading a total world decrease in defense spending, in spite of many other nations increasing their military budgets, but not quite by enough.

Secondly, the narrative denies the fact that the spending level experienced today is only slightly more than the norm since WWII, this is in spite of the fact that for over a decade we have been entangled in not one, but two major foreign wars with little foreign assistance.

As one can see, even though we are still involved with one of these wars, United States military spending has been reduced significantly, regardless of whether the conflict was actually over or not. In the last three years there have already been a reduction of more than one hundred billion dollars. As I've said before, this doesn't communicate well when you only read static pie graphs. Going back even further tells another story altogether.

What's important to see here is what it looked like in 1912 and 1940. The US military had almost no budget relative to today. And what happened next? World Wars I and II. An interesting bit of trivia is that at the time that WWI began the United States military had a smaller force than did Romania. What happened next was a very costly armament and training period in which a military with virtually no experience and no understanding of modern warfare was thrust into battle.

Everyone knows how marvelously the US led invasion of Europe after Normandy went. It's all we talk about. What isn't talked about as much was the campaign for North Africa, ending in the occupation of Italy. That entire campaign was marked with costly mistakes and ill equipped men fighting against the elite German military machine. The only saving grace was the presence of superior manpower, a few experienced and unappreciated allies and a German line spread too thin from battles going on on across Europe and the Mediterranean, particularly along the Eastern front, which I've already mentioned. What you also might not know was that the War in the Pacific wasn't so easy either. In fact, one of the early battles nearly lost us the war. Perhaps a few did. Off the coast of the tiny island of Guadalcanal, the American Navy was defeated in one of its most humiliating losses of its history. The campaign would have been lost if not for the superior fighting strength of the stranded Marine fighting force on the island pushing back wave after wave of Japanese reinforcements until the Navy could return to secure the waters around the island. Frankly, this is what happens when an unprepared isolationist nation suddenly is plunged into a global war. A few history lessons would do much for those who wish for America to downsize its military force further.

Now you might say that all this is, as the question states, superfluous. Maybe, but I don't think so. You might think that spending what we do is overkill, so to speak, but hopefully I've made you at least see it bit differently. Hopefully, you've at least seen another narrative, one which knows that a nation unprepared for war is hopelessly endangering not only its warfighters, but also its sovereignty.

Quite frankly, we value self-determination. We value it a lot. We don't want others making decisions for us. We spend a lot to ensure that there isn't even a possibility that someone might be able to take away our freedom of will. And as I have shown, we are going to have to spend more in the future to be able to maintain the same level of security, not only for ourselves, but for our allies and markets as well. Really, the costs aren't financial. The costs are much of our conveniencies, some extra comforts or an easier life for all Americans. We are going to have to work harder for our luxuries than will so many who live peacefully under the veil of security we shelter them within. That is, until we don't. Then I don't know really what will become of them. The risks, however, are unfathomably high, so much so, that questions like this seem justified. You might not agree, in fact, I am sure that many won't, but the simple fact is that Congress does.

So to answer your question, the military rates a large budget because:

  1. We aren't the only force out there investing in our military.
  2. Historically speaking, it sucks to be in second place.
  3. A fair fight isn't, particularly if you're there.
  4. Military equipment is often easily overcome by cheap countermeasures which necessitates an exponential cost increase in production and development of new weapons and defensive systems.
  5. Pirates are real, and they're everywhere. To fight something that is everywhere, you have to be everywhere.
  6. Stop regurgitating graphs if you don't know how to read them.

Why I am writing this:

As I have mentioned before, I was a member of the United States Marine Corps who served in Iraq. That war was and still is a wake up call to all of us, but I fear that the American public in particular are taking the wrong lessons from it.

But that was then. Today I am a writer and a teacher. My wife teaches third grade and this last year, I worked with high school and sixth graders. I think about these kids in ways you wouldn't. I don't just see them as children, but know that once I sat in their very same seats. Once I walked in the same halls of their school and that once I was exactly like them. I eventually went to war. That is how I see them, each one of them. They, just like I was, are all potentially warriors in some conflict I pray every day never comes.

I speak to my wife's classes every year for Veteran's Day to tell them what it was like. Demographically, I know that poor kids are the ones who will one day enlist in far greater numbers than their wealthier peers regardless of what grades they made growing up. I also know that her third graders this year will be 18 in 2025, just about the right time for something nasty to kick up again. Like me, they may want to get an opportunity to get out and see the world. Like me, they want a means to go to college, since large universities recruiters never visit small towns like ours. Like me, they may feel an obligation to serve that is somehow less potent in the more blessed socioeconomic sectors, a fact which has always escaped my understanding. And like me, they will be joining the military when they graduate.

A boy in black shorts and a yellow shirt in the front row wants to join the army because his big brother did. In 2025, he will be trained up and in front line of whatever future engagement he is a part of, if he is unlucky enough to be involved in such an ordeal. The problem is that he will likely be one person per every 80 miles of territory for which his unit is responsible. He will probably be one person per 80,000 people in the country he is deployed too. That's a heavy load. I remember not long ago I helped my wife sort his homework. That day he learned about metamorphosis in frogs.

The point of all this is to remind readers that the talks about military budgets today in no way affects any of us. Those of us in malls today aren't really affected by the redistribution of 1% of our annual GDP either way in a meaningful way, not even people like me, the former warfighters. I've long ago retired my boots to souvenir status at the back of the closet, as have so many others like me. No, the people who are affected by conversations on budgets today are those who tomorrow will need to make up the difference for our short sighted understanding of the modern military and how it fits into a globally integrated network. Some of these people are going to die if we make poor choices. Even more will die if we make selfish ones. These people today are learning about metamorphosis in frogs, basic algebra, and getting their first kisses. It's jarring to consider, I know, but reckless not to.

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