The myth of American military dominance

One commonly made assumption is that the United States has for decades enjoyed conventional military dominance, the ability to defeat any other actor in a conventional fight. The assumption of historic military dominance, often understood as fact, is almost entirely unsupported by meaningful evidence. While the U.S. military is unquestionably powerful, dominance cannot be measured by defense spending or even training. Dominance can only be measured through performance, and the United States’ history does not support a narrative of conventional military dominance…

Understandably, this discussion seems to have influenced how the American public sees its military as well. Gallup polling shows that over the past three decades a majority of Americans believed that the United States is the world’s preeminent military. Every one of the abovementioned experts and leaders spoke in good faith, but from a shared assumption about the character of global military power. This belief, founded in an underexamined narrative, is worthy of further scrutiny…

There are other arguments one can use to claim the United States can dominate adversaries in conventional military conflict. The first and most often referenced reason Americans are confident in their military is defense spending. The United States spent $596 billion on defense annually in 2016, $19 billion more than the $567 billion spent by the seven next most prolific countries. Few people, when asked directly, would argue that better funding ensures military victory. Despite this, the American military’s budget still serves as a source of reassurance to both policymakers and the American people, who somewhat justifiably assume that higher defense spending leads to more effective military forces.

Unfortunately, defense spending does not directly correlate with military effectiveness. Stephen Biddle notes that tactical proficiency is significantly more important than, and not directly related to, defense spending. Operational and strategic proficiency are even more important than tactical proficiency, and even less directly correlated to defense spending. It is also difficult to compare American military spending to other states, as the United States spends a disproportionate amount on personnel costs.

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