Military Spending Doesn’t Equal Military Strength

One of the great themes in American politics involves national security. Right-wing hawks argue that America must increase military spending to protect itself from its enemies. This is a very common theme, and it works. America spends five dollars on military spending for every dollar that China (ranked #2 in military spending) does. It spends ten dollars for every dollar on the military that Russia (ranked #3) spends.

But this doesn’t mean that America will win the next big war. If you look at history, military spending seems to have little correlation with military strength. There are tons and tons of examples of one country soundly winning a war against another country which outspent it militarily. These examples aren’t obscure. They’re some of the most famous events in world history.

Take the Roman Empire in the late fourth century. The Roman Empire arguably had the highest military budget of any entity in the world at the time. Military spending by the Romans certainly vastly outnumbered military spending by the barbarian tribes to their north.

We all know what happened next, however. The declining, decadent empire was repeatedly invaded and defeated by those tribes. Rome was sacked multiple times. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476.

Let’s take another example. The major regional powers of the West during the seventh century were the Byzantine and Persian Empires, locked in perpetual conflict. Nobody paid attention to the desert tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. Certainly nobody looking at their military budget. Yet those desert tribes had one thing that the Byzantines and Persians didn’t have: they had God. A century later the Islamic Caliphate, with its tiny amount of military spending, had destroyed the Persians and broken the Byzantines.

Then there were the Mongolians, who carved out the largest land empire the world has seen. Every single foe the Mongolians initially defeated – the Arabs, the Chinese, the Eastern Europeans, the Persians, the Russians – probably had a higher military budget. Yet as the Mongolian state grew and Mongolian military budgets with it, military success decreased conspicuously. Kublai Khan outspent the Japanese only to watch his fleet founder in a tsunami.

Not much military spending here.

But things have changed, you might say. Today is the age of guns and atom bombs. No longer can a tribe of barbarian horseman topple an empire. Today the country with a higher military budget generally has the upper hand.

Which is why the United States, for instance, won the Vietnam War.

Military spending does do a lot of useful things. It helps the technology that a country’s soldiers have, for instance. But military spending provides no guarantee about the quality of those soldiers. It couldn’t make enlisted peasants able to resist Mongolian horse-archers. It couldn’t make the American elite willing to send their sons to die in Vietnam. That’s a lesson that many people would prefer to ignore.

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3 Responses to Military Spending Doesn’t Equal Military Strength

  1. George says:

    Israel is he key to world history, always has been, and it will remain long after the Battle of Armageddon, which, by the way, the world is quickly approaching. Russia goes down first, the Euro Union along with the US, second, along with China’s attempt to destroy Israel and capture the Middle East Oil for its own territory. That is how this is going to come down, it will not alter.

  2. Ed says:

    This is an important argument, but I should note that your comments on “Rome” are really completely, factually incorrect. You basically just gave the Hollywood history of ancient Rome.

    The Roman Empire did seem to greatly increase military spending in the late third and early fourth centuries. They also recruited more and more from the Germanic peoples (or “barbarians” who lived beyond the northern frontiers. Eventually, by the end of the third centuries, these peoples were allowed to retain their tribal organization and still serve in the Roman army. Their kings, who were often educated at Rome or Constantinople, were given Roman military titles.

    Of course “Rome” at this point wasn’t actually “Rome”, Italy had been reduced to provincial status at the end of the third century, it lost its tax privileges and the capital. The rest of the army was recruited from “barbarian” peoples who lived within the boundaries of the empire, and the Emperors came from this stock.

    According to Goldsworthy’s “How Rome Fell”, the increased military establishment may have been mostly fake, though there are records of large numbers of military units in several provinces, there are no records of them being used to do any fighting. It seems that the local officials simply pocketed most of the military budget.

    Starting in the early 5th century, the cash and credit economy of the Mediterranean world began to collapse. This may have been due to a series of plagues. Emperors started essentially turning provinces which couldn’t generate enough taxes to cover their cost, which were mostly in northwest Europe, over to the army, which at this point was made up of Germanic peoples organized into tribal groups. The process was mostly orderly, but got out of hand when Africa and Italy were taken over by these tribal groups. Both places were reconquered and brought back into the central administration by armies sent from the Eastern half of the empire in the 6th century.

    Eventually, Roman armies were defeated by smaller “barbarian” forces as you portrayed and the empire fell (actually was reduced to a small area around the new capital), but this occurred in the 7th century and the forces were Arab. Plus the empire had just barely won a war against Persia and was bankrupt, they needed a forced loan from the church to finance the Persian war. Military spending really wasn’t the problem at this point.

    • inoljt says:

      Well, locals officials are pocketing most of the military budget in America as well. Unless knives really cost $100. 😉

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