How Much Energy & Money Could Be Saved If US Military Was Just 3x As Large As China's, Not 6x?

army helicopters photo

photo: US Army/Creative Commons

Within hours of Osama bin Laden announced dead a number of commentators asked if it weren't time for US forces to come home from the overseas adventures of the past decade. Surely it's a massive drain on US finances and resources. I had been wondering what sort of energy savings might result from reining in US militarism might result prior to bin Laden's demise, and now that seems doubling important. So here we go:The United States is far and away the largest military spender on the planet--but you probably already knew that. How much more? In 2010 the US accounted for 42.8% of all military spending in the world (and has doubled military spending since 2001). The next nearest competitor, China, accounts for 7.3% of global military spending. The UK, France, and Russia each spend roughly 3.7%. Japan, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Italy round out the top ten. All other nations spending 25.3% combined.

In dollar terms, the grand total spent on military offense and defense in 2010 was $1.6 trillion. So based on those calculations, done by a Swedish think tank, the US outspent China by 5.86 times.

Now it's been argued that some of that gap is because the US has assumed the role of world policeman, allowing other nations to spend less on arms than they might have to if the US weren't so eagerly relishing its roll as lone superpower. To some degree that's probably true, but surely even if the US just outspent China by 3 times, and other nations increased spending slightly, domestic and global security could be maintained--such as it is, considering the nature of modern military threats being so asymmetric in that non-state actors are just as much a threat as the adversaries of the 20th century.

So, cutting US military expenditure roughly in half would mean 21.4% of global spending would be from the US--$3.424 billion. That's a lot of money that either could be saved entirely or repurposed in some proportion for domestic non-military programs.

How much energy could be saved? Of all military spending, energy accounts for a small proportion, roughly less than 2% of total military expenditures and 2% of total US energy usage--but is 93% of all US government energy consumption.In fact, the US military is the single biggest consumer of energy in the nation, at about 932 trillion BTU in 2009, resulting in 4% of all US carbon emissions.

Oil accounts for 78.5% of all US military energy usage (54% of that is jet fuel); electricity is 11%, direct use of natural gas comes in a bit under electricity. Direct use of coal and other sources of energy are small fractions of total usage.

Now, the US military has made great strides in energy efficiency, is well aware of its dependency on oil and the vulnerability that causes, and has begun to embrace renewable energy. So it'd be wrong to single out the military itself here for improvement. In some ways the US military is ahead of the nation at large in its thinking about energy and climate.

What we really ought to be considering is whether such a large military is needed at all. Cut spending in half but keep the proportion of energy spending to total expenditure the same and you'd end up with just 2% of US emissions coming from the military and radical cuts in total government energy usage. All while either saving or freeing up billions of dollars.

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