In 2015, U.S. defense spending will be about $600 billion, or about 3.24 percent of GDP. The former figure would strike many Americans as sufficient, and a few would find it excessive. Robert Gates once said, “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on a budget of more than half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.”
But hawks want you to focus on the latter figure, 3.24: they believe that an arbitrary fixed percentage of national output should be dedicated to defense spending every year. For example, Mitt Romney and Bobby Jindal would peg defense spending at 4 percent of GDP. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens would see that, and raise them. In his new book, America in Retreat, Stephens calls for sharply increasing “military spending to upwards of 5 percent of GDP.”
It’s unclear whether these gentlemen fully appreciate what their proposals would equate to in real dollar terms. (Take a look at the chart below, prepared by my colleague Travis Evans). The bipartisan Budget Control Act (BCA) capped discretionary Pentagon spending at $3.9 trillion between 2015 and 2021, an average of 2.6 percent of GDP per year. That means Americans would need to spend $2.1 trillion above the current caps to meet the 4 percent threshold, and $3.6 trillion more to reach 5 percent. For added perspective, then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s FY15 alternative projected $4.2 trillion for defense, or 2.8 percent of GDP. In other words, Romney proposed to spend $1.8 trillion more than his running mate, and Stephens’ plan is even more disconnected from fiscal reality – $3.3 trillion more than the de facto GOP budget.