Proponents and opponents alike of defense budget cuts have spilled much ink lately. The debate will spike even further over the coming months as the actual budget is submitted to Congress for passage, and as Congress' "super committee" for identifying long-term deficit-reduction measures gets closer to its deadline that, if missed, would mandate automatic defense cuts. As with other topics, however, the Washington defense budget debate seems to be occurring in a vacuum, not taking much account of the rest of the world, nor the implications of the spending decisions on potential adversaries' strategies.
In putting the debate into its global context, a few figures bear mentioning. At $700 billion, the total U.S. defense budget is greater than those of the next 17 countries combined. Minus supplemental spending for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the U.S. defense budget, at $549 billion, outspends the next 10 countries. Given the choice, no military -- or civilian -- leader would complain about such a mismatch, least of all when one is leading a country with global responsibilities. That said, even many of those who argue for increased defense spending acknowledge that military power cannot be divorced from economic power. Most also recognize that all power is relative, so decisions to build or decommission military capabilities should take into consideration the rest of the world's forces.
Despite the difficulties the U.S. military has faced in the "post-conflict" portion of its recent wars, when it comes to conventional conflict, the countries that some alarmists point to as potential adversaries simply do not have the ability to take on the U.S. What's more, according to the Defense Department's Quadrennial Defense Review (.pdf), no peer competitor will emerge against the U.S. for at least a decade. Nevertheless, many who support boosting defense spending, especially in heavy weaponry, use the possibility of a rising China using its military buildup for aggressive purposes as a justification. Two main arguments should cause us to at least question this straw cman.