The Cost of Defense
By John D. Turner
31 Mar 2006

I recently heard a discussion between a nationally syndicated talk show host and a liberal columnist who believes that we are spending too much on “the military”. Nothing earth-shattering here. To most liberals, anything spent on defense is too much, let alone the $450 billion we are currently spending, which does not include the continuing cost of the war in Iraq.

So who was this liberal columnist? What were his bona fides? What expertise did he have to comment, rationally, on how much we were spending and how much was “enough”?

Well, it seems that he has a regular weekly – travel column. His expertise is bringing us weekly advice on where we might like to go visit, what we can expect to find when we get there, and how much it might cost. This week, it seems, he decided to visit the defense budget – and he didn’t like what he saw.

Now, this is a free country. He certainly has the right to speak out on whatever topic he wishes. Being a travel expert, does not preclude him from having expertise in other fields. Many of us have done enough research in areas outside what we normally do for a living to be able to express an opinion on a variety of topics, and cogently argue our positions.

But this is where liberals differ from conservatives. For us, it is about facts. For them, it is about feelings.

You see, he “feels” that the defense budget is too high, and that the money could be better spent on other “more important” things. Like combating AIDS in Africa, or forgiving debt to third world countries. It is his considered opinion that spending $100 billion of our tax dollars for either would be just fine, and a fantastic “investment”. He likes that $100 billion number; that’s also what he thinks we should be spending on national defense. Why $100 billion? Well, it’s a nice number, and it’s a lot of money, and certainly we can get the job done for that amount. Why not? Others get by on far less, so why can’t we?

For “facts” to back this up, he points out that the U.S. spends far more on defense, in total dollars, than all the other countries in this hemisphere combined. Surely, this is an outrageous expenditure on our part, particularly as we aren’t at war with anyone. (Not of course, counting the Global War on Terror which is after all, just a fabrication on the part of George Bush and the military-industrial complex to justify so much spending).

When asked what he would cut, he really didn’t have any answers. Just cut the budget and let the pieces fall where they may. He didn’t know what the money was spent on, how much things cost, or what our defense needs were. He really didn’t care. But $100B should be able to do the job nicely, in his “professional” opinion.

The fact that the US has interests all over the world that need to be protected, whereas countries like Bolivia do not, did not factor into the equation. The fact that the US has a much larger population and far larger economy than most of the countries in this hemisphere made no difference. The fact that our military is more technologically advanced, and our military equipment is more expensive was immaterial. And we won’t even get into personnel costs, which he “assumed” were insignificant compared to the total budget. (Reality check: they aren’t). As with most Americans, he had no idea what our military professionals are paid, even though these pay scales are a matter of public record. He wasn’t interested. He just “felt” we spend way too much.

For anyone who is interested, a quick Google search on Military Pay Charts turns up a plethora of information. There is a bit to wade through, as the military isn’t paid a fixed salary as are most civilians. The closest thing to a salary is what is called “Basic Pay”, which is taxable, and is what ultimately, retired pay is based on. In addition to that, there is Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH), and Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS). BAH is “housing allowance”, and is paid to people who live off base. The amount depends on your rank, and whether or not you have dependents. Both BAS and BAH are tax free allowances. These three pays, Basic Pay, BAH and BAS are the three main components of the military compensation package, as far as pay is concerned.

Then there are a whole raft of special pays, depending on what you do, where you are located, and, nominally, what branch of the service you belong to.

For example, there is flight pay, for those who are on flight status, submarine pay for those pulling submarine duty, hazardous duty pay, for those in designated “hazardous duty” areas, sea pay for those serving at sea, etc. There are also allowances, such as dislocation allowance, which you get when you move, travel allowance, which you get when you travel, and so on. These special pays and allowances are pretty much non-taxable.

Then there are bonuses. These are paid for special events, such as enlistment in a critical specialty, re-enlistment in a critical specialty, etc. These are usually taxable.

And finally, there is the income tax exclusion for those serving in designated combat zones. Remember when President Bush cut taxes and the Democrats were screaming that he was unfairly punishing those who were fighting overseas, because they didn’t benefit from the tax cut? Except for the very highest paid officers (whose exclusion is capped at the amount that the highest paid enlisted person gets), most of them weren’t paying any taxes at all! Re-enlisting in a combat zone is very popular. It exempts your re-enlistment bonus from Federal income taxes.

Information on these and more, as well as the current basic pay charts and BAH rates for the CONUS (aka “the lower 48”) can be found here. As well as information on how they all apply and who qualifies. A quick sample from the basic pay chart:

An airman basic (E1), just entering training, is paid $1,178.00 each month. After four months he or she will automatically “get a raise” to $1,273.50. Since they are living in the barracks (their housing is taken care of), and they are eating at the chow hall (their subsistence is taken care of), they will get minimal BAS and BAQ. However, if they were living off-base, they would draw from $278/month (Minot AFB, ND) to $1,117/month (Santa Clara County, CA) in BAH (single rate), plus around $210 each month in BAS. Of this total, only the basic pay is taxable at the federal level. State tax laws vary from state to state.

Note that this amount is more than some people make all year in countries like Bolivia. (OK, so their Gross Per Capita Income is almost twice an E1’s basic pay, at $2,490/year. Does anyone seriously think they pay their raw recruits the equivalent of 6 month’s average pay for an entire year each month?)

A second lieutenant (O1) just entering service is paid $2,416.20/month base pay. That will increase to $2,514.60 after two years service. Actually, he/she will probably get three pay increases that year. One, the annual cost of living adjustment on 1 January, next, their “over 2 years” pay increase (based on commissioning date), and third, when they pin on first lieutenant, which will also happen at the 2 year of active service date. That last increase jumps their pay to $3,170.10 per month. Remember, these are base pay figures. Since officers typically aren’t living in barracks, figure in BAS (currently $157.26/month tax-free), and BAH, which depends on location and ranges from $380 (Minot) to $1,389 (Santa Clara) for a 2Lt (single rate), and $424 to $1,518 for a 1Lt (single rate).

By comparison, when I entered the service in October 1980, a second lieutenant was paid $924.30 per month, and I drew additionally $187.80 in BAH (then called BAQ – Basic Allowance for Quarters, which was a fixed rate no matter where in the US you lived), and $82.85 for BAS, for a total of $1,194.95 each month before taxes. It was the most money I had ever made in my entire life.

That was 26 years ago. Today, that 2Lt makes from 2.5 to 3.5 times what I made back then, depending on where they are stationed. You won’t get rich in the military, but you can indeed live fairly comfortably.

And of course, there are other benefits, such as the $400,000 in insurance benefits paid to beneficiaries when a serviceman dies via SGLI (Serviceman’s Group Life Insurance), assuming they elected not to reduce their benefits (and the premium they pay for those benefits), a non-contributory retirement plan that pays 50% of the average of the last three years basic pay after 20 years of service (and 2.5% more each year up to a maximum of 75% of basic pay after 30 years service), and essentially free medical for themselves and their dependents during the time they are in service (although there are some costs involved now, where there weren’t in years past).

As you can see, military compensation isn’t all that cheap, and it does absorb a significant part of the military budget. It’s an all-volunteer force; well trained and well compensated.

Then there is the equipment with which we fight. None of it is cheap either. Take the F-22, the Air Force’s new stealth air superiority fighter. Depending on how you calculate the cost, and how many you buy, they cost around $131 million each. Do we need the F-22? Couldn’t we just “make-do” with the F-15 (at $70-$90 million each – a real bargain)?

A whole article could be spent on that argument, particularly since an air-superiority fighter has little bearing on our current conflict, the global war on terror.

But the terrorists aren’t our only adversary. And it takes a long time to develop a new fighter; 15-20 years from conception to actual production. If we scrap the F-22, we won’t have a new replacement available until around 2030 or so. Having a second best air superiority fighter, if we get into conflict with a country with a better aircraft, will be short-term penny-wise and long-term pound-foolish. In war, there is no substitute for victory.

Then we have the maintenance cost of keeping what we have purchased in usable condition.

Things wear out and need to be replaced. The more you use them, the faster this happens. Even in peace-time there are losses. Wartime just accelerates the process. Planes crash in training accidents. On aircraft carriers, sometimes they fall off the deck (or in an emergency, are pushed off). The longer an aircraft flies, the more maintenance it requires. The older it gets, the more downtime it needs for maintenance, and the more expensive the maintenance gets. After awhile, it becomes more cost and mission effective to replace it with a new plane. Planes in the hanger being repaired do nothing positive for your unit sortie rate. And in war, what counts is how many planes you can put in the air, not how many planes you have sitting in hangers.

In order to assure a maximum aircraft availability, each aircraft, when purchased, comes with a suite of spare parts, from bolts to engines. As these spares are used, they too, need to be replaced. As you might expect, there is very little on a modern jet fighter that is cheap.

So in any given year, we have to purchase some aircraft to replace the ones we lose or which become uneconomical (or dangerous) to fly. This shouldn’t be any great mystery. It isn’t any different than the family automobile.

The guest also mentioned China, whose military budget is the second largest in the world, as a country that seems to “get by” with only spending around $90 billion on defense, five times less than our 2006 budget of around $450 billion.

Of course, what he didn’t mention is that China’s 2006 military budget has increased by a whopping 14.7% over its 2005 budget. This on top of a 12% increase the year before. Indeed, according to an article in Asia-Pacific News, entitled “China’s big arms budget” (6 Mar 2006), China’s military expenditures have shown double-digit increases every year for the past 18 years. Remember, China too, is a country that currently isn’t at war with anyone.

It is interesting that he uses the number $90 billion. Beijing itself only admits to a military budget of around $35 billion. The $90 billion estimate actually comes from our own Defense Department. The reason for the discrepancy is that China’s official budget numbers hugely understate what they are actually spending; a conclusion reached not only by US defense analysts, but by military analysts around the world. While estimating their actual expenditures is difficult and subject to interpretation, some analysts believe the amount to be as much as $110 billion for 2006.

The guest’s reason for bringing up China, was to note the huge gap between the US defense budget, and that of the second leading nation in the world (in terms of total dollar expenditures), again, in his mind, illustrating that the US spends far too much money which could be better used for other, more humanitarian purposes. He didn’t, of course, note the following.

Does the US spend “too much” on the military? In terms of actual dollars, it seems like a lot. But things have changed significantly from when we fought with massed armies of musket-equipped troops, charging entrenched fortifications with fixed bayonets. There is no “cannon-fodder” in the modern US military. We have too much invested in our troops to spend them in that manner.

High-tech weapon systems, while great force multipliers, are also great cost multipliers. All the things we have done to make the modern battlefield “safer” for our troops, body armor, up-armored Humvees, rapid medevac via helicopter, etc, things that other military forces don’t have or even worry about, also costs a lot of money.

Today, a wounded soldier can be taken off the battlefield and within 24 hours be in a state-of-the-art hospital in Germany or even the States. This capability is fantastic, and has saved the lives of countless soldiers, who, in earlier wars, would undoubtedly be dead. This comes, however, at a high cost in dollars.

How can one measure the cost of a human life? That is a great philosophic question, and one that can be debated endlessly in our colleges and universities. In the real world, however, such things do indeed cost real dollars. Then there is the continuing cost of the medical care that soldier will probably require for the rest of his or her life. The military picks up the tab for that as well. Most militaries are not willing to spend the money – let the soldier die, human life is cheap. There are always others to replace him.

And this doesn’t even count things that get shoved into the military budget that have no business being there, like breast cancer research.

The military budget is a complex issue; much more complex than finding the best restaurant to eat at in the San Francisco area this week, or where to stay when visiting Acapulco. And it’s a bit more important. If I spend a few bucks too much in lodging expenses, it probably won’t kill me. Not spending enough on national defense, however, could cost all of us a lot more.

I really don’t know very much about the travel industry. It would never occur to me to write a column about travel issues, at least not without quite a bit of research, and even then it would probably be on a very narrow and limited topic within that industry. This liberal columnist, however, has no difficulty whatsoever expounding his opinion, on a national stage no less, concerning matters that even he admits he knows nothing about. He sees no problem with that, either, believing his opinion, based on “feelings” to be just as valid as anyone else’s opinion, based on facts.

I guess that’s just another difference between liberals, who think that all opinions are equally valid, regardless of facts, and conservatives, who prefer to deal with “what is”, rather than what one might like reality to be.

Other interesting source material:
China’s Military Budget Jumps Another 14.7%”, 14 Mar 2006