One statistic that is often noted by critics of the military-industrial complex is that America spends more on its armed forces than the combined spending of the next 20 countries. America’s military spending accounts for 41% of all military spending in the world, and currently there are only 20,000 fewer American soldiers in Germany than there are, well, German soldiers in Germany.
Other countries have taken note of the disparity. Whether or not China is beefing up its military budget in reaction to American influence in the region (or just to make Japan nervous) is uncertain, but either way it will probably be years before they catch up. But stacking up the US military against other militaries around the world is a poor guide to determine how large it should be.
The chattering classes often latch on to statistics like the size of the military to argue that it's time to cut back on Pentagon bloat, whatever that means. But this is based on the assumption that the purpose of the military is to be like an alpha wolf: big and strong enough so that the others don’t want to fight, but no bigger than necessary.
This is the "good enough for government work" approach to the Department of Defense. However, this approach does not address the actual purpose of the military, which is to provide security, both for the United States and the rest of the world. In 2011, the Marine Corps evacuated thousands of Japanese tsunami victims from damaged areas and provided security, shelter and food when Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2010. Nothing represents America’s aid abroad more thoroughly than the first responders of the military.
This is not to say that the military’s conduct in such situations is perfect. But locals often have more confidence in the ability of American soldiers to provide military support and aid than they do in the ability of United Nations Peacekeepers — who have a less than stellar record in crisis areas — to do the same.
Aid missions are definitely relevant to combatting terrorism, in as far as they undermine the propaganda of organizations like Al-Qaeda. But the most important mission of the military is still combatting terrorism directly. This task is difficult and expensive. Terrorism may not have any great amount of resources at its disposal, and its funding is so anemic as a percentage of its adversaries' budgets as to be hardly visible at all. But it is also invisible and can take root just about anywhere.
And, unlike the militaries of most countries, terrorists do not attempt to balance getting the job done with avoiding risks. They actually train for suicide missions. Stopping people with that level of determination requires much more than being able to match the weapons that they have, particularly for those who have a more thorough respect for life.
This is not to say that every dollar spent on fighting terrorism is spent in the right way. Propeller planes might be as good at fighting terrorists as a drone or F-35, and at only a fraction of the cost. But one should make no mistake: It is easy to do damage, but very difficult to prevent it. The Department of Defense’s massive budget is part of the cost of preventing it— not just in America, but in Europe, Africa, and Asia. But this is only a part of the cost. And the Department of Defense’s budget is only a part of security spending. The Central Intelligence Agency had a budget of nearly $30 billion in 1998, which is approximately what the budget for the entire State Department is today. These organizations spend significant funds on hiring security contractors and mercenaries.
This might be not only necessary, but inevitable. Some conflicts require a more surgical approach. But spending more efficiently does not always mean spending less. We might be spending too much on some parts of the defense budget, but as long as terrorist organizations can set up training camps from which to launch attacks against the United States or its allies, it means that not enough is being spent on some portion of the defense budget.