The military spending free riding discussion

There's again a public discussion about whether allies of the U.S. have a free ride on its military spending. Many comments and contributions in this discussion are charged with faulty logic, ignorance, disinformation, prejudices, domestic partisanship or emotions.

One example of this discussion is here.

Bigger graphic file here. Hat tip to P.a.p.-Blog.

I think the "answers" in this decades-old discussion can be grouped like this:

(1) Yes, they do. They should spend more.
(2) Yes, they do. The U.S. should spend less.
(3) Yes, they do. It's what the U.S. wants; be ahead of all other's military capabilities.
(4) No, they don't. It's no free ride if you pay billions as well.
(5) The greater U.S. expenses are due to its need for greater logistical and forced entry capabilities.
(6) No, the Europeans don't, for there's no problematic threat to them in sight.
(7) It depends. About which ally are we speaking?

Now I'd like to comment on these generic answers:

(1) Yes, they do. They should spend more.
What for should Germany spend more on the military, for example? It could modernise its military a bit quicker, that would feel better for military fans - and few else. There's no present threat we'd need to build our military up against. Equipment shortcomings are more a problem of suboptimal procurement than caused by budget limitations.
The answer may be correct in regard to Japan and Taiwan, but I suspect that Taiwan simply has a different grand strategy than an utterly hopeless arms race with mainland China.

(2) Yes, they do. The U.S. should spend less.
The "Yes, they do" part suffers from the same problem as (1). The "spend less" part makes sense, but it depends of course on the preferences of the U.S. electorate.

(3) Yes, they do. It's what the U.S. wants; be ahead of all other's military capabilities.
Again, same problem as (1) with the "Yes, they do" part. The later part is a reasonable attempt of an explanation in my opinion.

(4) No, they don't. It's no free ride if you pay billions as well.
It's a reasonable perspective, but it doesn't really answer what the critics mean; the different efforts in %GDP.

(5) The greater U.S. expenses are due to its need for greater logistical and forced entry capabilities.
This is again a reasonable explanation for a significant part of the difference in military spending. Let's again take Germany as example; there's simply no reason why we should have a forced entry Marine Corps and a full-fledged amphibious fleet or strategic sea-lift ships. There was a discussion about one amphibious landing ship (enough for a battalion of ground troops) in the 90's and the idea was dismissed.

(6) No, the Europeans don't, for there's no problematic threat to them in sight.
This is a major part of my answer to the question as well. See my explanation in (1).

(7) It depends. About which ally are we speaking?
That's a smart answer - and apparently too smart for many participants of the discussion.
South Korea faces a clear threat and has a strong military (the U.S. forces in South Korea are very small by comparison). It's lacking a modern fighter force to face the PRC's air power, but they have no chance to change this anyway because of their much smaller economy.
Taiwan has a quite 'suboptimal' army and seems to orient its military spending at the scenario of a military air/sea blockade by the mainland Chinese.
Japan could clearly spend more on its military and shape up, especially back in the 90's when it was pouring fortunes into stimulus projects anyway. Japan is on the other hand not in serious conflict with any threat country and might be well-served by a neutrality policy with a defensive military strategy.
The European allies could overpower both the Russian threat and the Arab threat at once. There's no real need for any U.S. military strength for the defence of Europe. It has two nuclear powers, guaranteed air dominance based on European air forces alone, vastly superior ground forces (due to higher quality) and vastly superior naval power. It takes a huge prejudice or ignorance to think that Europe's defence wouldn't be ensured without an unusually high level of U.S. military spending.

- - - - -

I've sometimes read the opinion that the Europeans would spend more if the U.S. spent less. The opposite may be true.
Some of the European army modernisation efforts are aimed at interoperability; compatibility of communications equipment. Many other costly projects are about buying "modern" equipment ; the old equipment has at times only become outdated due to newer U.S. equipment, not due to threat equipment. The Javelin ATGM with its lock-on infra-red sensor is a good example. TOW could still be considered to be modern and on par with all threats if Javelin wasn't introduced. Some European armies have bought Javelin or the similar Israeli Spike missile.
A U.S. military procurement low tide could contrary to some expectations even reduce European military spending.

The military needs of the East Asian partners of the U.S. are being driven by the increasingly more powerful Chinese military. It's reasonable to say that the latter's growth is at least in part due to the threat posed to China by the U.S.. A great power like China cannot be expected to accept naval and air superiority of a distant great power in its coastal waters. The same can be said about air superiority of the same distant great power over China's territory (in the event of conflict). It's only natural that China invested in a large modern fighter force - and this created the fighter procurement shortfalls of Taiwan, South Korea and Japan in the first place.
A U.S. national defence policy that's more about defence and less about force projection would be less threatening to China and would likely reduce, not increase the military strength needs of Taiwan, South Korea and Japan (although not necessarily their budgets).

The "free ride on U.S. military power" discussion suffers from a U.S. bias. It seems that most voices heard are of American origin. The discussion rarely takes into account that allied and befriended nations often have entirely different expectations for their military, different preferences, different strategies, different threat perceptions ... or the ability to think of threats first and military requirements second.

The ability to deploy 10,000 to 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan, an amphibious invasion fleet or an aerial tanker fleet would have little value to most allies. The idea that they're somehow free riding because the U.S. does things (like the Iraq invasion) that its allies don't want to do is quite fallacious at times. The Iraq invasion was against the political will of most allies, for example. So how would they "free ride" on the U.S. capability to pull off such invasions? The U.S. itself doesn't seem to benefit much of its "force projection" capabilities except some extremely nebulous "global stability" or "dominance" advantages.

It's also noteworthy that the U.S. military spending isn't so high because allied countries asked the U.S. to spend more and more. It's that high due to domestic U.S. political culture and habits. Being "strong on defense" is somehow being regarded as a plus for a national level politician. There's no such (assumption of) preference for military power in most other countries. Republicans boast that they're strong on "defense" and democrats don't dare to be labelled "weak on defense", leading for example to military budget increases under the Obama administration for no other apparent reason.
The reaction to a "I'm strong on defense" statement in a European election campaign would look approximately like this: "Huh? What do you mean? Anyway - what will you do to create more jobs?"

Last but not least, there is a desirable free-riding in regard to non-conventional forces. Taiwan, South Korea and Japan could build up nuclear arsenals if they weren't kinda protected by the nuclear-armed great power USA. The latter doesn't want such nuclear proliferation, so this free ride in terms of nuclear forces is entirely intentional.

It's illogical to accuse others of a "free ride" after raising the own expenditures for domestic reasons to almost half of the global expenditures and without being able to point out against which problem the others should spend more.

Show me a threat that Europe cannot meet on its own or together with a hypothetical 2% GNP military spending U.S. ally and I'll agree that we're not pulling our weight (having a "cheap", albeit not "free" ride).

The greatest concern is Europe's ability to ramp up its military power within 2-6 years in response to the emergence of a real major threat. Demands for more expeditionary capabilities and U.S. forces don't help in this regard. Only U.S. R&D on military tech is helpful, and that's a rather inefficient contribution because U.S. military R&D is extremely cost-inefficient.

Sven Ortmann


  1. Best thing for Japan, S. Korea, and Taiwan would be to proliferate.

    Then they could deter any threat of attack, and have no need to depend on USA--all at a reasonable price.

  2. I find the US annual defense budget to be more of a hindrance then a benefit. The fact that the US has such a global military reach has caused American politicians to look for military solutions instead of diplomatic solutions. Its time for the US military to scale back its spending and focus more on defense instead of projecting power.

  3. The number crunching is more interesting if you divide the $ figures by the costs for a Big Mac in each participant. A new application for the famous Big Mac Index

    Chinese expenditure value in comparison to the US doubles, creating a US supremacy of 3:1 instead of 6:1.
    Add to this some uncertainties about dual use research and investments and China could be achieving almost half the equivalent value of US military expenditure per year (that is inflated by fighting wars by choice and some giant procurement ideas with seemingly little return, among them the numerous nukes).
    And Russia is by comparison spending money for half the value that Europe does.
    While we are still safe, the absolute dollar numbers are in my opinion deceiving. Buying power for the same goods is not equal for the same sum of money spent in different countries.
    Subsidies can be part of the military or civilian transfer system and in my opinion further bloat the US numbers (of a country that has little "civilian" research).
    The simplistic Big Mac corrections neither reflect the exact situation, but help to better assess the official numbers. Both should be taken with a grain of salt.

  4. PPP (purchasing power parity) factors are much more useful than the simplistic Big Mac stuff. The Big Mac thing is only good for explaining the concept behind PPP.

  5. I agree that you are right on PPP. The PPP number is problematic with supposedly intentionally massively undervalued currencies if you look at PPP with a strong import component while military hardware is domestic.
    For this reason the Big Mac highlighted my point of PPP while also giving it the grain of salt I mentioned.

    As a sidenote roughly one third of current military expenditure of the US is related to ongoing conflicts. The draw down to peace levels will give them an effective military value lead of 2:1 in comparison to China and 2:1 with NATO vis-à-vis the SCO (if that ever becomes a real alliance).
    The pundits about a changing world order are right, but none so far looked at things from PPP.


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