No other country comes close to America’s hard power, but its lead is slipping.
Despite falling spending, America’s military pre-eminence is vast. A budget of $US600 billion for 2014, including $US84 billion for “overseas contingency operations” such as Afghanistan, buys a weighty punch.
Next year, when the Pentagon’s base budget is expected to fall to $US498 billion (spending in Afghanistan is uncertain, but will be much lower), America’s military outlays will still be around 35% of the global total. Its main allies account for another 25% or so. China and Russia combined spend less than half what America does, though their costs are lower (see chart).
Not only is American kit better; American troops, unlike China’s, have lots of experience of using it in battle. Chinese commanders talk about not being able to match American hard power until 2050 at the earliest.
Unlike China and Russia, who have few real friends, America has allies everywhere. That forces America to spread its forces widely and thinly. But history suggests that countries with allies tend to beat those without.
Still, the frustratingly inconclusive campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have sapped morale and burned through cash that could have been invested in even better technology. Also, the impression that America could not beat an infinitely weaker enemy, though simplistic, has dented its image of invincibility and thus encouraged foes.
Financial constraints make it harder to repair the damage done by the wars of the past 12 years. Some cuts were to be expected after the fat years of George W. Bush’s war on terror. But the failure of the White House and Congress to agree on a sensible deficit-reduction plan, resulting in the 2011 sequester, condemned the Pentagon to cutting nearly a trillion dollars over a decade–equivalent, on some calculations, to a real spending decrease of more than 30%.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is getting less bang for its buck. Personnel costs rose by 59% after inflation between 2001 and 2012, despite a mere 3% increase in the number of people employed. “Operational and maintenance” costs increased by 34% in real terms. Congress hates curbing military pay or closing unwanted bases, two things the Pentagon says are needed if enough money is to be spent on new weapons. The yawning gap between Uncle Sam and his potential foes seems bound to shrink.
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