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How Americans Should Perceive "Military Aid" to Ukraine

Some Americans have voiced concern about the billions of dollars in weapons going to Ukraine, but their beef isn't really about the money.

M777 howitzer fires a 155mm round, with the option of a GPS guided round accurate to 40km or nearly the distance from downtown Trenton to centre city Philadelphia. Along with GLMRS rocket artillery, M777 have contributed greatly to Ukraine's efficacy on the battlefield since the summer of 2022. (Photo Credit: Daily Express, UK)

While visiting the States over the holidays, I heard quite a few people express concern ( in tones of polite opposition) about the amount of aid the US is giving to Ukraine. On the surface, $25-billion is a big number, but it's a common misconception that the US is sending money to Ukraine to buy and maintain weapons. The dollar amounts reflect valuations the Pentagon puts on hardware and munitions that the US is sending over; very little in military aid is send as money. In the larger picture, what's really happening is more like Ukrainians fulfilling the mission for which the Pentagon developed and bought these weapons over the years and decades; rescuing them from motor pools and stockpiles and letting them fulfill their purpose.

Stating it thus might seem like a convenient twist in perception coming from an American involved in the war effort for Ukrainian liberty and independence, but I'm hopeful that if you give me a few minutes I can walk you through the logic. In the least, you may come away understanding the US military budget a little better.

The US Department of Defense Budget is only a little bit "Defense"

The massive US Department of Defense budget really is only a small part about the “defense” of our sizeable slice of land on the North American continent. What the Pentagon mostly does is project power and influence globally, and it does so to a far greater degree than any nation has ever done. You can make the argument that by taking the fight to foreign shores, we’re keeping the homeland safe, but that ignores the fact that the only other nations with true “Blue-water” navies and expeditionary forces are among our closest allies.

The UK (along with its northern European neighbours in the Joint Expeditionary Force) and France are really the only other nations that could presently mount a land invasion of the US, and you can imagine how ineffective those efforts would be. Yes, China is building itself up to be a global military power sooner rather than later, but it’s still important to note that they’ve not yet reached the expeditionary capacity of the French military. Like Italy, India, and Russia, China’s power projection is limited to their region. Looking at the more pertinent case of the Russian Federation vs the US, their navy has long been in decline and we’re now more than aware that their ability to take the fight elsewhere is extremely limited. The threat to the US homeland is one of nuclear strikes, cyber attacks, and terrorism and not one of conventional armies landing on the Delmarva Peninsula or sailing up the Chesapeake to take DC. The US doesn't need its massive conventional fighting force to defend the homeland.

That’s not to say the US military doesn’t serve a critical mission, or that projecting power isn’t valuable to the US and the existing world order. It is. (I'd argue the preservation of a monopolar world is better for world peace and prosperity than what we had prior to 1990.) The point here is that the US has a lot of world-leading weapons that we developed specifically to project power, and not to defend our borders from military invasion. Our M-1 Abrams tanks, M-777 howitzers, and even our A-10 Warthogs, to name just a few, were all developed to be used in a hypothetical land war in Europe, presumably against an invading Russian army. That's exactly what we have today in Ukraine. This kind of war is why we've spent the billions on designing and procuring these weapons over the last several decades, it's just no longer a hypothetical situation.

Is the distinction between defending NATO and a genuine non-NATO ally meaningful?

I'll accept that the distinction between an invasion of Ukraine is different from an invasion of NATO nations like Poland or Latvia, but the difference really is one on paper and not in principle. Since the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia and the more immediately concerning invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the US and UK particularly have worked closely building diplomatic, cultural, and defense ties with Ukraine. Gaining inclusion within "the West" -- both culturally and economically -- has been the primary foreign policy position of Ukraine since 2014. They're committed to a west-facing future.

It's almost impossible to look into the future and not see Ukraine as the most vital US ally in Eastern Europe, much more so than, say, Turkey. So failing to assure Ukrainian independence would be even more short-sighted than allowing Stalin to blockade West Berlin and engulf it into the Soviet sphere in 1948-49. How different the world would have been in the subsequent decades had the US and Britain wavered back then.

But are we over-extended and burdening taxpayers?

So the weapons we're sending to Ukraine match-up exactly with both the geopolitical interests of the United States and with the purpose for which those weapon were developed and procured in such large numbers. That doesn't diminish, you might argue, the expense on the US taxpayer who must be under extraordinary duress in these current economic conditions, right? Not really.

The weapons that have been sent were bought years and years ago, and were parts of budgets in which they were tiny details. Replacing them is the concern of future budgets, but we basically have been giving out stuff we already had and weren't using. If the concern I've heard recently was really about the money, then the voices should have been voices of opposition to US military spending for, well, the entirety of our adult lives. How can you complain about utilizing weapons we presumably paid for years ago to be used eventually, rather than complaining about buying them years ago? It makes no sense.

In recent years, the federal government budgeted aroud $750-billion in Pentagon spending. Of this, weapons procurement is about 20%, which is notably less than "personnel" (24%) and base operations and maintenance (40%). Does it really make sense to have over 500 military installations worldwide, including in every state no matter how geographically purposeful that base is? That's more of a political decision than a strategic or fiscally responsible one. If a representative in Congress wants to trim the federal budget, she's not going to make a dent by keeping weapons in storage and collecting dust. She's going to make a bigger dent by, for example, by consolidating some of the seven army bases in Georgia.

​Yes, the US has contributed more aid (military and otherwise), but the US is also a far larger economy than any other nation (including China) and has a much larger arsenal. Relative to the size of the economy, US aid to Ukraine ranks a modest 29th in the world, behind Canada, the UK, and almost all the EU member states. (Source: Kiel Institute, on date from January through November 2022.) We do need to recognise, though, that the US is invested all around the world more so than any other nation, and so total foreign commitments for the US would be greater than just Ukraine. That is, while Estonia and Latvia have been the greatest supporters of Ukraine relative to their size, it's unlikely that either could do much to support Taiwan, South Korea, or Saudi Arabia if they were invaded. I'm not sure, though, that these potential commitments explain the six-fold difference between Estonian commitments to Ukraine and those of the US. There's probably a legitimate argument that based on comparative expenditures, the US could be doing more.

Historically, the budget categories of weapons procurement and operations were of a similar size, each being about a quarter of the Pentagon's budget fifty years ago, but weapons procurement has been in decline. What's also in decline in that fifty-year period is military spending. As a function of the size of the economy (GDP), military spending today is about two-thirds of what it was fifty years ago. In that five-decade sample, spending peaked under deficit-spender-in-chief Ronald Reagan, and bottomed during the Clinton administration. (I take a poke at Reagan not because I disagree with his defense spending so much as his promulgating one thing (reducing the budget deficit) and doing quite the opposite.)

So, anyone pointing to the deployment of weapons to Ukraine as a budgetary concern that is burdening modern taxpayers, isn't aware or isn't being honest about fact that Americans today are paying less for weapons than just about any other time in any of our adult lives. I suspect those making a stink either aren't really thinking this through or they're simply trying to score political points by being anti-establishment and appearing fiscally responsible, when really they're not. Those weapons that have been going to Ukraine are weapons we already bought and were previously under-utilized. They were also designed and developed precisely for the kind of war Russia started in Europe a year ago.

Add atop of all that the fact that the US and NATO aren't deploying troops into the combat zone, and the tremendous expense that doing so was in the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan (about $9-billion per month in Iraq alone, I believe), and $3-billion per month spent arming Ukrainians looks like a real bargain to me. The more wasteful option here really seems to be not sending the weapons for the very purpose that we've had them all these decades: beating back a Russia invasion of Europe.

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