If you were only to listen to the Republican debates, you would probably assume that America is struggling militarily. From Rubio to Trump, Republicans have warned us that the great military of the United States is nothing but a shell of its former self. This assessment is absurd and lacks any empirical or quantitative support. For starters, the United States accounts for 33.7% of global defense spending. To put this in historical context, let’s look at the Cold War, a period of sustained military competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. During 1989, right around the time of the Reagan buildup, the U.S. accounted for 35% of global military spending. I hardly think that a drop of 1.3% is meaningful, especially since we now live in a far more stable, far less dangerous period.
Nuno Monteiro effectively captures the spectacular power of the United States military in the opening lines of Theory of Unipolar Politics.
Since the Soviet Union collapsed almost two and a half decades ago, the United States has enjoyed unparalleled power in the international system. U.S. preponderance is particularly marked in the military realm. The United States is the only country whose military has a global “defense” perimeter. In Pentagon-speak, Central Command is not in charge of defending the territory around Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the contiguous forty-eight United States. Rather, it is in charge of maintaining – and, if necessary, creating – conditions that Washington considers secure in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. To promote security on a global scale, the U.S. military maintains or has access to more than 1,000 facilities scattered over more than 140 countries, in which more than 200,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed. In their leisure time, they can enjoy one of the 234 golf courses the Pentagon runs around the world. 1
No other state in modern history has enjoyed this sort of power preponderance. At the end of the nineteenth century, for instance, Britain was the most powerful state in the world. In the era when global power projection relied mostly on naval forces, British strategists developed a yardstick to guarantee Britain’s edge: the Royal Navy had to remain as powerful as the two next-largest navies combined. Today, eighteen countries operate blue-water war fleets. The U.S. Navy fleet is larger than all the other seventeen combined. 2
But size only begins to tell the story of U.S. military predominance. U.S. advantage in the realm of military technology is even more pronounced. The superiority of its combat aviation, for example, is remarkable. The F-15 fighter jet – for decades one of the workhorses of U.S. air-to-air combat – has a record of 107– 0 in one-on-one confrontations. This explains why, paradoxically, there are no “aces” – pilots who have achieved the five “kills” necessary for the honorific title – on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. Faced with virtually certain defeat, few other pilots dare face U.S. fighter jets. With such skewed odds, the U.S. military achieves full air superiority – a key advantage in battle – soon after it engages any opponent. As a result, while during the last half-century U.S. air power has inflicted tens of thousands of casualties on the ground in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among other theaters, the last American soldier killed by enemy air power died on April 15, 1953, fighting in the Korean War. 3
U.S. preponderance in land power is similarly pronounced. The most effective among other fighting land forces – the British and French armies, both of which are U.S. allies – are roughly the same size as the smallest branch of the U.S. military machine, its Marine Corps. 4 Going down the ranks of foreign armies, their odds of successfully facing U.S. land forces in combat quickly become vanishingly small. At the outset of the 1991 Gulf War, for example, Iraq possessed the world’s fifth-largest army, with more than 3,000 Soviet-designed tanks. Still, the discrepancy in technology and training between U.S. and Iraqi forces was so great that U.S. forces managed to expel their opponents from Kuwait while suffering only 148 combat fatalities. 5 In fact, engagements in which U.S. forces faced more of their Iraqi counterparts did not result in higher U.S. casualties. To the contrary, the larger the number of Iraqi ground forces engaged in battle, the greater the casualties they suffered. 6
In sum, the U.S. armed forces are one order of magnitude more powerful than any other military. 7 This superlative power-projection ability is made possible by the capacious U.S. defense budget, which, over the past decade, has represented almost half of global defense expenditures. Not only does the United States spend vast resources on its current military power; it also invests lavishly in defense research and development (R& D). Indeed, the U.S. defense R& D budget is around 80 percent of the total defense expenditures of its most obvious future competitor, China. 8 This means that the massive U.S. advantage in military technology can hardly be eroded anytime soon. In fact, it may well augment.
As a result of its across-the-spectrum military preponderance, the United States possesses – and will for the foreseeable future continue to possess – “command of the commons.” 9 If Washington so decides, it has the capability to deny any other country access to space, airspace, and the high seas. Whereas some countries (namely all other nuclear powers) might be able to avoid defeat in a defensive war against the United States, none can compete with it militarily on a global scale. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, no other state has the capability to engage in prolonged politico-military operations around the globe. 10 Granted, several other states possess regional spheres of influence. But, to use Kenneth Waltz’s felicitous turn of phrase, the United States is the only state to possess “global interests which it can care for unaided, though help may often be desirable.” 11 Since the fall of the Soviet Union, then, the United States has been the world’s sole great power. We live in a unipolar world.
Now, there are two main arguments used by Republican candidates to convince the public that Obama has weakened the military. The first is military spending. It is certainly true that the U.S. has cut its military spending, but equating this with military weakness is misleading for two reasons. First, not so long ago we were fighting two wars. Of course the military received more funding then than it does now. Wars are expensive. But comparing military spending during times of war with spending during times of peace is comparing apples to oranges; it’s obviously ridiculous. Second, between 2008-2012, Obama spent more on the military than Bush did at any point during his presidency. It is, therefore, completely nonsensical to argue that Obama has eroded U.S. military capabilities.
The second major argument Republican candidates love to use is the classic “we can’t even beat ISIS.” Again, this is incredibly misleading. The reason we haven’t completely destroyed ISIS is that we are utilizing a minuscule portion of the combined power of the U.S. military to undertake operations against the terror group. Even ignoring that, though, we are defeating ISIS. ISIS has lost 30% of its territory, its income is drying up, and it recently lost Ramadi. Sure, one can argue that Obama’s strategy is wrong. Indeed, I’m very sympathetic to that argument. However, one cannot argue that Obama has made the military so weak that it isn’t able to defeat an oversized group of jihadis.
There are plenty of legitimate criticisms regarding U.S. military posture, Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, and the particularities of America’s response to ISIS, Russia, and China. I’m all for voters and politicians holding the administration accountable for its poor decisions. What is not acceptable is to knowingly lie and mislead the American public about its security and the strength of its armed forces. The Republican candidates are manipulating the truth for political gain, and I am sick and tired of it. America has the most powerful, well-trained, well-funded military on the planet, and that will be true for many years to come.