The Department of Defense has a deceptive name. Defending the United States has never been its primary or sole mission (ironically, the military did have this purpose prior to World War II despite a more bellicose description of the government departments involved). While everyone knows this, the name has had a profound effect on how people analyze the budgetary issues involved.
It is easy to simply assume that the purpose of the United States military is to be able to crush any potentially hostile military force in the world in a foreign world by entirely destroying its military and occupying it a la the Iraq War. But that is an unrealistic mission that can only ruin America economically.
A responsible federal government clearly has a duty to protect the American people from foreign threats and domestic insurgencies, and to have military forces necessary to prevent such invasions and insurgencies from overwhelming our democracy. But, if all we were concerned about were protecting the United States, we could put together a force that would meet those needs with something on the order of $60-$80 billion a year, about 20% of the peacetime budget of the U.S. military or perhaps a little more.
Such a notional force might have 150,000 active duty ground troops with another 150,000 in reserve forces, plus some National Guard forces which would reflect an ability to overwhelmingly outnumber Canadian, Mexican or amphibious assault forces in the unlikely event of assault from any of those quarters under a radically different international regime than one in place now, and to put down a full fledged insurrection in some of the U.S. states.
In the Navy it might have no aircraft carriers, about 40 surface combatants (all of those not routinely tied to aircraft carrier groups) for commercial ship escort, anti-piracy and interdiction of invading ships particular near Hawaii and Guam, about 20 attack submarines for similar duties, and perhaps 6 amphibious ships whose purpose would be solely to rescue American expatriots from third world countries that had dissolved into anarchy, rather than for mounting amphibious assaults.
The Air Force and naval air resources would concentrate on aircraft like maritime patrol and air to air combat roles for interdicting invading forces. Our large current capacity to bomb military targets in foreign states would be less important.
Nuclear forces might stay at similar levels, given the deterrence justification for their existence, but most of this is sunk cost. The operating resources necessary to maintain the American nuclear arsenal are quite small.
I'm not proposing such a force for the United States. There is a place in U.S. foreign policy and within the obligations of a world superpower to intervene militarily on behalf of our allies in foreign wars. Little countries do this by sending out units to participate in peace keeping missions. Our obligations are greater in that regard.
But the Defense budget, beyond the first $60-$80 billion should be understood to be what it is, foreign military aid.
Seen in that light, the Defense budget is no longer all for a core purpose of the federal government. Also, this kind of recognition suggests that we should more carefully compare the benefits of a marginal dollar of military foreign aid with the benefits of a marginal dollar of non-military foreign aid or spending in lieu of military spending when evaluating our budget priorities.
How many foreign conflicts could you end by buying off their leaders with $50 billion? At what price would North Korea be willing to give up the submarine force that we now spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to have the ability to destroy? How much terrorism could we prevent by using several billion dollars a year funding programs that give young men brighter futures in places like Saudi Arabia that produce a large share of foreign fighters and suicide bombers in Iraq and produced most of the 9-11 terrorists?
Recognizing that the Defense budget is mostly foreign aid also calls for more careful analysis of whom we are aiding.
Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Israel, the Bosnians and the people of Kosovo are big beneficaries. The Phillipines and the Eastern Europeans also receive significant benefit. In other areas, like South Asia, our Defense spending seems to work at cross purposes, while other areas, like Latin America and Africa are largely neglected by direct U.S. Department of Defense spending.
Our direct defense spending when added to our military aid and arms sales also presents a conflicting puzzle in the Middle East where we have simultaneously funded both sides of an arms race between Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one hand, and Israel on the other, that has only benefitted U.S. arms makers.
Some spending, like the Iraq War, has been immense, but actually made American less safe than they would be if it had never happened, by germinating a new generation of terrorists and anti-American hate while defusing a threat that never existed in the first place.
Once we get beyond the notion that we are actually defending ourselves, as opposed to our allies, with our massive defense budget, we can better weigh these supports against competiting and foreign needs for funds without wrongly thinking that the survival of the Republic is put in danger by not making this spending.