For the first time in decades, Americans are evenly divided when asked if the U.S. has the No. 1 military in the world.
A recent Gallup poll found that only 49% of Americans believe the U.S. has the best military — that’s the lowest percent recorded in the 23 years Gallup has been asking this question, and significantly lower than the 59% who said the U.S. is No. 1 one year ago, in February 2015.
And this is important to people: The Gallup poll found about two-thirds of Americans say the U.S. should be the No. 1 military in the world.
That only half of the population believes the U.S. is No. 1 might seem crazy given the size and scope of America’s military.
Take military spending, the most obvious indicator of a nation’s power. The U.S. spent over $600 billion on its military in 2014, outspending its closest rival, China, by nearly $400 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The next seven countries on the list — China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the U.K., India and Germany — spent about $600 billion combined in 2014.
But does that make the U.S. military No. 1 in the world?
This is where skeptics will point out — and rightfully so — that you can’t compare one country’s military spending to that of another without accounting for the country’s size and economic capacity — not to mention differences in labor, materials and production costs.
Put another way, $1 million in the U.S. will pay fewer soldiers and buy less supplies and materiel than $1 million in China or Russia — so the U.S. must spend more just to keep pace.
This may matter especially when it comes to manpower: Personnel costs account for over half of the Department of Defense budget (and that doesn’t include the billions of dollars outside the defense budget that go toward benefits and services for veterans, among other outlays).
Breaking military spending down by GDP and per capita, the U.S. is not No. 1.
U.S. military spending is 3.5% of GDP, which puts it in 22nd place — mostly behind a crop of Middle Eastern and African countries. Russia’s at No. 12 with a military allocation of 4.5% of GDP, and China, at 2% of GDP, ranks No. 43.
And if you look at military spending as a share of overall government spending, the U.S. ranks 26th. Our defense spending is mighty — but so is all of our spending.
On a per capita basis, the U.S. ranks fifth — far outpacing rival geopolitical powerhouses Russia and China.
If you adjust for these variables, America’s military pre-eminence does appear smaller than the stark picture painted by comparing $600 billion in spending to, well, anything else.
At no time in my career have I been more confident than this instant in saying we have the most powerful military on the face of the planet.
This is just how far $600 billion can go
But looking at other metrics directly related to a country’s war-making capabilities — like manpower, equipment, technology and weapons — the U.S. is not just keeping pace with the likes of China and Russia. Its huge financial firepower has translated into an arsenal and land, by sea and air war-making capabilities that aren’t just the No. 1 in the world but No. 1 by a large margin.
The U.S. probably doesn’t rank No. 1 in the size of our military. Data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies put the U.S. at No. 3 in armed-forces personnel, behind population juggernauts China and India. But that says nothing of education, level of training or quality of those personnel.
The U.S. has a near monopoly on aircraft carriers, one of the greatest symbols of military power. Its carriers are about equal in number to those of the rest of the world combined — plus American carriers are more technologically advanced than virtually all others.
And let’s not forget that decades after the arms race of the Cold War era, the U.S. is No. 1 in nukes. The U.S. has about 6,314 stockpiled and deployed nuclear warheads, according to data collected by the Arms Control Association. Russia comes close to matching that, at 6,082, but no other country breaks the 500 mark.
The U.S.’s tentacles spread far and wide around the globe: It is judged to have more foreign military bases than any other people, nation or empire in history has had.
A report by Credit Suisse in September 2015 ranked countries according to a “military strength indicator,” and the U.S. came out No. 1, handily beating out Russia at No. 2 and China at No. 3. Credit Suisse said in the report that the U.S.’s fleet of 13,900 aircraft, 920 attack helicopters, 20 aircraft carriers and 72 submarines far outweighs the military might of any of its close rivals.
So why do so many Americans believe their military is less than it should be?
One simple reason: that we’re in an election year. As Vox recently pointed out, the more that Republican candidates attack President Obama’s foreign policy (and charge him with gutting the military), the more Americans come to believe that U.S. military strength is less than it should be.
Another reason could be the changing nature of what we understand as “war.” Years of fighting “the war on terrorism” hasn’t seemed to reduce the threat, leading many to wonder if the military as it stands isn’t cut out to combat the likes of ISIS.
Yet one more possible reason is that only a fraction of Americans have served in the military — and thus aren’t in a good position to know one way or the other.
Recently, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and most definitely in a position to know), was asked about the Republican candidates’ claims of military weakness.
His response: “I won’t be argumentative, but I will take umbrage with the notion that our military has been gutted. … I stand here today a person that’s worn this uniform for 35 years. At no time in my career have I been more confident than this instant in saying we have the most powerful military on the face of the planet.”