Asymmetric Dialogue

Army leaders explain why Russia's tiny defense budget is a big threat

Army leaders were hit Tuesday with what Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called a “town hall” question about how Russia could be a top threat to the U.S. with a relatively tiny defense budget.
Moscow spends about $80 billion per year on defense, about 11 percent of the U.S. defense budget, which is set to top out at $717 billion in the coming year, Durbin pointed out during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the Army’s annual spending.
The Pentagon’s new security strategy names Russia a top global adversary and proposes shifting away from 9/11-era counterterrorism to focus on potential conventional wars with it, China and other developed nations.
“Let me get this straight, we are spending $600-$700 billion against an enemy that’s spending $80 billion. Why is this even a contest?” Durbin said.
The answer comes down to people, said Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff.
“What is not often commented is the cost of labor and everyone who takes Econ 101 knows cost of labor is your biggest factor of production,” Milley said. “We are the best paid military in the world by a long shot.”
Personnel costs for troops account for about 50 percent of the military’s spending while Russia and China pay “a tiny fraction” to support their armies, Milley said.
“We would have to normalize the data in order to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges,” he said. “We’d have to normalize the data or take out the [military personnel] accounts for both the Chinese, Russians, and/or the U.S., and then compare the investment costs.”
Milley said the countries’ investments in modernizing their forces and new weapons systems is a better comparison. Their military research and development programs are also government-owned, he said, while the U.S. works with a commercial industrial base to develop new technology.
“I think you would find a much closer comparison, senator,” Milley said.
The U.S. also has many more global military commitments compared to Russia, Army Secretary Mark Esper told the Senate committee.
“We have commitments of course with our NATO partners that we have to maintain. We have bilateral defense agreements with several countries in Asia,” Esper said. “You can’t look at one, you have to look at the sum of things.”
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