7.4.6 Defence Spending and the Cost of War

Defence spending is necessary if a country wants to use military force, either to protect itself or for aggressive purposes.  It includes the costs of equipment and ammunition, the people in the armed services and the public servants who administer the spending.

If a country engages in military action, or provides support to another country for that purpose, it consumes materiel and that increases its defence spending.  The cost of war, however, is far greater than the cost of materiel.  It includes the cost of reconstructing infrastructure, people’s medical costs, and the loss of productive capacity due to injuries.  And there is an enormous social cost: the loss of life, the damage to people’s lives and the flows of refugees.

A foreign policy that includes the use of military force, realpolitik (, is expensive.  An Independent Institute article, The Cold War Economy, recorded that American defence spending during the Cold War arms-race averaged 7.7% of its Gross National Product (GNP).

A popular desire for a strong military capability is a factor when considering the overall size of the budget.  The Republican Platform 2016, for example, put these words in first place:

“We dedicate this platform with admiration and gratitude

* * * * *

To all who stand strong in the face of danger

So that the American people may be protected against it —

The men and women of our military….”

The Republicans won the election, so they must have correctly judged American public attitudes at that time.

Politicians govern public spending in democracies (6.7.1), and the cost of defence competes with other political priorities.  Beyond the political popularity of military power, though, there are other considerations – as described in the following sub-sections:

●  A country makes a security assessment when deciding how much to spend on its defence (

●  Defence forces can be used to keep the population in check, to prop up a government, but sometimes they take over in a military coup (

●  A defence manufacturing industry can create jobs and pay taxes, benefiting the economy (

●  The sale of arms to other countries increases the economic benefit of having an arms industry, but has an impact on international security (

●  Military action can be sub-contracted, to supplement a country’s own army (

●  The total cost of wars is much higher than the spending on the manpower and equipment deployed (, as illustrated by the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.



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This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/746b.htm