Hoover Daily Report

Defense Mathematics

Monday, April 22, 2002

Defense policy is admittedly a complex topic. To understand the issue, it helps to keep five numbers in mind.

The first number is $750 billion. That's what all the world's nations combined spend on defense, according to the CIA World Factbook. It has been declining most years—but slowly—since the end of the cold war.

The second number is 3.2 percent. That's the part of the U.S. gross national product that our country spends on defense. It has been slowly declining, too, for the past decade. The percentage is small by historic standards. During the cold war it ranged from two to four times greater. It means we can maintain our current defense budgets with little or no effect on the U.S. economy. We're running at a comfortable pace.

The third number is $379 billion—the defense budget requested by the Bush administration for fiscal year 2003. It includes a $10 billion contingency fund to fight terrorism. What's interesting about this number is that the United States now spends as much on defense as everyone else in the world combined.

Rarely in history has a single country been so dominant. During the cold war, pundits argued over whether the Soviet Union or the United States was ahead in the so-called arms race. Today there isn't even a race. It means that the United States can do things no one else can—such as transport thousands of troops halfway around the world, build aircraft invisible to radar, and design bombs to land within a few feet of their target.

The fourth number is 17.6. That is the rate at which China increased its defense spending this year. It just reminds us that, despite America's predominance, there are countries willing to make the investment to challenge us at least in some regions.

The fifth number is 3,061—the number of people killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Somerset County, Pennsylvania, on September 11. This number reminds us that, though the United States is supreme in traditional military capabilities, hostile countries and terrorist groups can still strike directly at America from halfway around the world with devastating results.

These numbers are important, but the biggest issues facing U.S. defense policy today are not so much "how much" as they are "how"—that is how we select, organize, train, plan, and deploy our forces. We need to proceed aggressively on military transformation to create the flexible, agile, and rapid-response military force required to counter the asymmetric threats we now face.

Furthermore, organization is extremely important. The armed services, state governments, and even the private sector must all learn to work together in new ways. Today, threats can come from many different sources, and even seemingly weak adversaries can be dangerous.

Most of all, in the "post-post–cold war" era, the United States needs leaders who can point out threats and head them off early, Leadership and decisiveness are critical in using our powerful—but finite—military forces effectively.