The B-2 Spirit bomber made for the Air Force costs about $2 billion each.
One F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will set you back about $72 million each.
The Abrams Tank? It’s a bargain at about $9 million a pop.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Gerald Ford is the most expensive warship ever built by any nation at $13 billion.
The U.S. spends more than any other nation in the world on defense, even though some other nations, such as India and China, have larger militaries. North Korea is almost a match for the U.S. in terms of manpower at 1,300,000 troops but spends far less.
So why does the U.S. spend so much on individual weapons versus other nations that rely more on sheer manpower?
Because of the lessons of past wars. As much as we complain about the cost of producing such expensive weaponry the simple truth is that you really can save blood by expending treasure. Here are some examples of how trying to save money has cost us lives.
The U.S. began WWII with one of the world’s most powerful navies, on paper. In reality, though the battleships that comprised the fighting core of the U.S. Navy were relics of WWI or built shortly after that war had ended. Proposals to build a much larger fleet in terms of sheer numbers, tonnage, and gun size were scrapped as too expensive. The U.S., U.K., and Japan had entered into a treaty to prevent an expensive naval arms race in the Pacific, which Japan ignored and cheated on, while the U.S. and U.K. kept to the terms.
Our battleship fleet engaged in daytime gunnery exercises exclusively, because during the night it was hard to see where the shells would land and you needed scout plains in the air dropping flares over your target. Therefore, it was cheaper to just conduct the exercises during the day. The Pacific Fleet kept to a regular routine of training that saw it return to port on the weekends. And because of the enormous quantity of fuel and shells expended by some 20 battleships, training was infrequent.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor it caught the U.S. Navy and Army Air corps all but totally unprepared. The cost was staggering. All nine battleships of the Pacific Fleet were either sunk or badly damaged, 2,300 American servicemembers were killed, and 169 aircraft were destroyed. When those damaged battleships did return to service they were deemed too slow and weakly armored to survive in combat against carrier aircraft and were mostly relegated to shore bombardments and convoy duty. With money no longer a concern, the U.S. built 10 new modern battleships of vastly greater speed, length, weight, and gun size. And in the next four years of raging battles across the Pacific, it never lost another battleship.
The U.S. Army began WWII with just 400 tanks. They were the badly under-gunned, under-armored, and inexpensive M2 light tanks. By 1941 the U.S. had seen German Panzers cut right through the tanks of Great Britain and France and had come up with a hurry-up modification of the M3 Medium tank it had made for the British Army. This tank became the M4 Sherman. But the idea of making weapons as cheaply as possible, versus as good as possible, was baked into the Sherman’s design. While German tanks could fire on the move, the Sherman had to stop to stabilize its gunsight. Its size and weight were not determined on the basis of crew protection but on the limitations of railroad cars used for shipping and existing bridging equipment for transporting cargo over rivers. The Sherman would use a gasoline-powered, off-the-shelf aircraft engine rather than a diesel engine which would have produced more torque. Finally, the 75mm gun on the Sherman was made to be long-lasting. As a result, it had a low muzzle velocity to save wear and tear on the barrel.
When the Sherman proved to be adequate against the mostly light tanks employed by Rommel’s Africa Corps, it was sent to Europe where it met much larger and more advanced German tanks. And a great slaughter ensued. The low-velocity gun of the Sherman could not penetrate the armor of German tanks, while rounds fired by most German Panzers would punch an entry and exit hole in a Sherman. The gasoline in the Sherman was more flammable than diesel fuel with the expected result. U.S. tank crews were incinerated inside their vehicles when hit. The crews called the Sherman “The Ronson,” after a cigarette lighter that claimed to “Light the first time, every time.”
To give you an idea of just how bad it really was, the 3rd Armored Division landed at Normandy with 232 Sherman tanks. In less than a year it had lost 648 tanks and repaired and put back into action 700 Shermans that had been hit and knocked out of action. That is a casualty rate of nearly 600 percent and was unmatched by any other kind of combat unit in WWII. In order to keep casualties down among crews and tanks, new tactics had to be adopted. Shermans would be used as bait to draw out the Panzers and then quickly retreat to call down artillery and tactical air support to deal with the German tanks.
At the start of the war, between the Navy’s Grumman Wildcat and the Army Air Corps P-40 Warhawk, the U.S. had reasonably good aircraft. The problem was that they weren’t using the best fuel for their engines, due to its high cost. This robbed them of speed and high altitude performance. When WWII began, the U.S. produced just 40,000 gallons a month of 100 octane gas and most of it was being used by civilians in racing boats and airplanes. In the opening months of WWII, while waiting for the production of high octane gasoline to catch up to military demand, there were many lopsided air battles fought against the Germans and Japanese wherein U.S. aircraft did not fare very well. Within a year, though, enough high octane gasoline was available to supply planes like the Mustang, Corsair, Thunderbolt, and later the Hellcat leading to them realizing their full potential. Then it was Japanese and German pilots who were shot down in droves.
Looking forward, the Biden Administration will find itself between the members of its own party seeking deep cuts to defense and the Republicans who will say that increased funding will be needed to counter the current threat posed by an expansionist China. Nevertheless, we need to remember that the U.S. outspends the rest of the world on the quality of its weapons rather than the quantity. And the need to do that speaks to us from the graves of thousands of U.S. servicemembers who perished because the U.S. went for “cheap” over “really good.”