With the world’s biggest defense budget — totaling nearly $600 billion — the U.S. spends almost as much on being armed and ready as the next 14 nations combined.
China comes closest, at an estimated $215 billion, according to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute.
So with President Donald Trump seeking to add $54 billion in military spending, the question becomes exactly what advantage would result.
The administration says its preliminary 2018 spending proposal “ends the arbitrary depletion of our strength and security, and begins to rebuild our U.S. armed forces.”
Experts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies see needs. They recently concluded that Western countries in general and the U.S. in particular were losing their edge in technological advances compared to Russia and China.
But it remains to be seen exactly how beefed-up spending, which peaked in 2010, but declined since, will be meted out and therefore improve American security.
After Trump said he would send Congress “a budget that rebuilds the military,” professor Anthony H. Cordesman, of the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, issued a word of caution.
“One needs to be careful about the merits of simply spending more on defense without deciding on priorities, or on real world future needs,” Cordesman wrote two weeks ago. “Far more fundamental reforms are needed.”
No doubt, Cordesman suggests, the system under the past two administrations came out something of a mess.
The necessary plans “have not been shaped by the need to perform key missions or to meet key threats,” he wrote. “Nor have they been tied to clear choices between force size, force quality and readiness.”
Some goals are roughly apparent. The Islamic State group is a clear enemy. Cyberwarfare is gaining priority. Trump has indicated he wants to boost Army and Marine Corps manpower, Navy ships, Air Force aircraft and missile capabilities.
The proven threat of military boondoggles greets any new president. Six years ago, the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated that the government lost tens of billions of dollars to contractor fraud and waste in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Shady foreign contractors, skimping on equipment and questions over billings from such companies as Halliburton were among the examples.
Whatever share of the new spending goes to procurement, maintenance, personnel or research, the challenges and costs add up to something huge against a moving target.