Republican Donald Trump criticized U.S. military support for several countries — Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany and South Korea — during a discussion on nuclear proliferation at a CNN town hall in late March, saying “we can’t afford it.” We’ll answer the question: What exactly does the U.S. provide in terms of military support to these countries?
The United States gives very little monetary military aid to those countries — about $10,000 to Saudi Arabia in fiscal year 2014. And Saudi Arabia purchased more than $2 billion of military equipment and construction services that year. The support the U.S. provides to the other countries — Japan, Germany and South Korea — comes from the cost of having U.S. military bases in those countries, and the added cost and benefit of that is difficult to quantify. We’ll go through the available numbers.
Trump, the GOP presidential front-runner, made his remarks when CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked him about his statement to the New York Times that he might support Japan and South Korea having nuclear weapons. Here’s an edited portion of that exchange:
Trump, March 29: We are supporting nations now, militarily, we are supporting nations like Saudi Arabia. … We are supporting them, militarily, and pay us a fraction, a fraction of what they should be paying us and of the cost. We are supporting Japan. Most people didn’t even know that. Most people didn’t know that we are taking care of Japan’s military needs. We’re supporting …
Trump: Excuse me, excuse me, we’re supporting Germany. We’re supporting South Korea. I order thousands of television sets because I am in the real estate business, you know, in my other life, OK.
Cooper: It has been a U.S. policy for decades to prevent Japan from getting a nuclear weapon.
Trump: That might be policy, but maybe …
Cooper: South Korea as well. …
Trump: At some point we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself, we have …
Cooper: Saudi Arabia, nuclear weapons?
Trump: Saudi Arabia, absolutely.
Cooper: You would be fine with them having nuclear weapons?
Trump: No, not nuclear weapons, but they have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.
Here’s the thing, with Japan, they have to pay us or we have to let them protect themselves. …
Anderson, when you see all of the money that our country is spending on military, we’re not spending it for ourselves; we’re protecting all of these nations all over the world. We can’t afford to do it anymore.
Cooper: But isn’t there benefit for the United States in having a secure Europe? Isn’t there benefit for the United States in having a secure Asia?
Trump: There’s a benefit, but not big enough to bankrupt and destroy the United States, because that’s what’s happening. We can’t afford it. It’s very simple.
Let’s start with the easy part: what the United States spends on foreign military aid overall, and to these countries in particular.
Total foreign aid, of all kinds, was an estimated $35.3 billion in 2014, and $5.9 billion of that was military financing with another $105.6 million for international military education and training, according to State Department figures on foreign assistance (see Table 3b). Most of the military financing (75 percent) went to Israel and Egypt. That’s followed by Iraq, Jordan and Pakistan.
The countries Trump mentioned — Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany and South Korea — didn’t receive any foreign military financing, though Saudi Arabia received $10,000 for military education and training.
Total U.S. 2014 spending was about $3.8 trillion, making foreign aid 0.9 percent of federal spending, and foreign military aid plus the military training aid 0.16 percent.
There are other categories of spending that could count as foreign military spending, but they don’t increase the numbers for the countries Trump mentioned. We contacted the National Priorities Project, which tracks federal spending, and Research Director Lindsay Koshgarian put together spreadsheets for us with numbers from the USAID Greenbook, which includes data on overseas loans and grants. Those numbers show $10.3 billion in foreign military aid in 2014, but no real difference in terms of the countries Trump mentioned (less than $10,000 went to Saudi Arabia in 2014 and, again, no money went to Japan, Germany or South Korea).
The State Department “foreign military financing” category includes money given to foreign governments to purchase U.S. weapons or training, while the USAID figure includes other categories of spending, including military construction, peacekeeping operations and counter-drug activities.
The small amount of military education and training money for Saudi Arabia has been requested by the Obama administration so that the country will be eligible for “a substantial discount on the millions of dollars of training it purchases through the Foreign Military Sales program,” according to a 2016 Congressional Research Service Report. This discount may be what Trump was referring to when he said Saudi Arabia pays “a fraction of what they should be paying us,” but we received no response from his campaign when we asked for clarification on his remarks.
The CRS report doesn’t explain how “substantial” this discount is. Department of Defense figures show sales agreements for military equipment and construction services totaled an estimated $3.9 billion from Saudi Arabia in 2014, with more than $2 billion of those sales actually delivered that fiscal year. There are also Saudi-funded training and advisory roles for U.S. personnel, aimed at improving anti-terrorism activities, says CRS.
We could go back a decade and still see very little in direct U.S. military aid to these countries. To give a broader view, Koshgarian calculated military aid from 2005 to 2014, but even this total, she says, is “barely even pennies” in terms of the federal budget. All told over that decade, Germany, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia received $2.7 million, with most of it consisting of Defense Department funding for Germany for “Drug Interdiction and Counter-Drug Activities.”
Michael P. Noonan, director of research and director of the Program on National Security for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, also pointed out that “all of those countries are big buyers of U.S. military equipment.” Military equipment and construction services sales delivered in 2014 totaled $526.8 million for Japan, $641 million for South Korea and $163.7 million for Germany.
As Noonan says, in terms of military aid or financing to these countries, “We’re talking a minuscule amount of money.”
Where the U.S. really supports Japan, Germany and South Korea is in having U.S. military bases in those countries, but quantifying the extra cost for the U.S. to keep troops there, as opposed to on bases in the United States, is difficult — not to mention the difficulty in putting a price tag on a benefit to the host country versus a benefit to the United States.
Keeping Troops Abroad
A 2013 Senate Committee on Armed Services report put the cost of supporting the U.S. military presence abroad at more than $10 billion a year, 70 percent — or nearly $7 billion — of which, the report said, was spent in Germany, the Republic of Korea and Japan.
Strategically, the report said, this made sense.
Senate Armed Services Committee report, April 15, 2013: The fact that such a high percentage of our overseas spending involves those three countries is not surprising. Germany is among our most important partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance President Obama has rightly called “indispensable to global security and prosperity.” The U.S.-Japan alliance is, and will continue to be, a cornerstone of our engagement in the Asia Pacific region. And our alliance with the Republic of Korea is central to both our strategic interests in the Asia Pacific and our ability to deal with the unpredictable and frequently aggressive behavior of the North Korean regime.
To add some context to the cost of the overseas military presence, the Department of Defense’s total base budget, which excludes funding for combat activities, for fiscal 2014 was $502 billion.
There are about 49,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, 28,000 in South Korea and 38,000 in Germany. These countries make contributions toward the cost of keeping U.S. military bases there, with Japan contributing $2 billion in 2012 and South Korea giving $765 million. The Senate Committee on Armed Services report concluded that the contributions from those two countries, which were agreed upon by the U.S., hadn’t kept pace with the growth of costs for the United States. (In terms of Germany, the report faulted the U.S. for not seeking cash payments for the return of facilities to Germany, and instead accepting in-kind contributions.)
But if those troops — or not as many of them — weren’t stationed in these countries, they would be stationed somewhere else. So, what is the extra cost the U.S. faces to keep those troops abroad? A 2013 RAND Corporation report, commissioned by the Department of Defense, put the additional cost per personnel per year at $10,000 to $40,000, a figure that varied depending on the country and branch of service.
RAND called the financial and in-kind support from host nations “substantial,” but not enough to offset the higher cost of basing forces overseas. It said the “fixed costs per base do not appear to be systematically higher overseas, with the exception of the Air Force bases, compared with facilities in the United States,” but the “variable costs per person” were higher overseas. That’s due to “higher allowances related to the cost of living, higher permanent-change-of-station move costs, and the need to provide schools more comprehensively.”
Whether $10,000 to $40,000 per personnel per year is expensive or cheap is a matter of opinion. Michael E. O’Hanlon, co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, told us it’s a reasonable cost, considering the benefits to the U.S. of having troops and bases abroad. “It’s not that expensive to have these forces oversees and most of the additional costs are being paid” by the U.S. allies, O’Hanlon said.
The RAND numbers are estimates, and the report describes the difficulty in making such calculations. It says the data “suggest” that Japan, South Korea and Germany “are among the biggest contributors” of host-nation support to the U.S., but even the direct contributions, which Japan makes, “can be difficult to quantify and value.” Indirect contributions, from countries like Germany, “can be even more difficult to quantify and value,” including “forgone rent and lease payments and waivers of taxes, fees, and damage claims.”
There are benefits and risks to keeping U.S. troops abroad, as the RAND report outlined. Among the benefits: improved operational response; deterrence to U.S. adversaries; assurance to allies, which influences allies’ strategic decisions; and improved knowledge of cultural differences and foreign military operations. The risks include being vulnerable to attack from hostile actors in the region, facing some uncertainty to accessing military facilities in a time of conflict and paying higher costs.
“These countries are giving up some of their sovereignty by allowing U.S. troops to be there,” Noonan told us. There is “a bit of a deterrence value to having U.S. troops there,” but the U.S. also uses those troops in the region, outside the base countries, where the U.S. has security concerns. “It’s not just providing security to those countries, it’s providing troops and equipment to do other things in the region.”
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate what the U.S. spends defending or supporting these countries from what the U.S. spends for its own interests — particularly given that those two factors are entwined.
“We of course do have far and away the most capable military in the world,” O’Hanlon said. “Certainly [it’s the] U.S. that would be defending those countries and not the other way around.” But that “shouldn’t be seen as an act of charity.” The U.S. decided after two world wars that it would be a better strategy to have a military presence in those countries to prevent conflicts, rather than sending troops in later.
Some of these countries do have vulnerabilities in terms of common defense, says O’Hanlon. “We spend a lot more than these countries do [on defense] as a percent of our GDP in most cases.” For 2015, Germany and Japan spent 1.2 percent and 1 percent of GDP, respectively, compared with the United States, which spent 3.3 percent of its GDP on the military, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But South Korea spent 2.6 percent, close to the United States’ spending, and Saudi Arabia spent 13.7 percent.
There’s also history behind Japan’s low amount of military spending — a history that illustrates how supporting another country militarily can be a strategic move on the part of the United States. “Now, for 50 years, we were very happy that Japan has this firm ceiling on military spending,” O’Hanlon said, noting that it would wrong to “lose sight of this history.”
After World War II, the U.S. helped write the country’s constitution, which says that military forces for war “will never be maintained,” as a 2016 Congressional Research Service report explains. After the Korean War started, the U.S. encouraged and Japan created a military force called the Self-Defense Forces, interpreting the constitution to allow for self-defense.
The one-sided nature of the U.S.-created agreement has been changing. The CRS report describes the Japan-U.S. agreement as “fundamentally asymmetric” as originally constructed, with the U.S. having use of more than 80 military facilities in Japan in exchange for guaranteeing Japan’s security. “[B]ut this partnership has shifted toward more equality,” the CRS report said.
“Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a strong supporter of the alliance and has had notable success on his ambitious agenda to increase the capability and flexibility of Japan’s military,” the report said. For instance, Abe successfully pushed new laws, which took effect in March, that allow Japan to defend U.S. forces, and those of other allies, if they are attacked. Stars and Stripes said the new legislation “broadens Japan’s ability to work with the United States and other militaries to its greatest extent since World War II. ”
The U.S. military is planning troop realignments and base restructurings, with plans for about 9,000 Marines to move from Okinawa to Guam, Hawaii and, on a rotational basis, Australia. Japan agreed to pay $3.1 billion, 36 percent of the total cost, for the development of the facilities in Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to allow Japan to use the facilities for training.
An April 6 Wall Street Journal editorial mentioned that contribution, as well as billions of dollars that both Japan and South Korea are contributing to U.S. military construction projects in those countries. “Americans should understand that these countries are not free riders and forward deployments in Asia are crucial to U.S. security,” the editorial said, responding to Trump’s criticisms of the U.S. military presence in Japan and South Korea.
The 2013 RAND report said that the United States’ ability to respond to national and global security threats, as well as the desire to keep international commitments and maintain relationships with allies, required “at least some forces in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia — but how much in each is less clear.”
Trump is entitled to his opinion that the U.S. “can’t afford” military spending in Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany and South Korea. But the facts are that military spending in these countries is a relatively small percentage of total U.S. military spending and provides strategic benefits that cannot be quantified.
Update, April 20: Seth Binder, program manager and research associate for the Center for International Policy’s Security Assistance Monitor, contacted us to say his group calculates a higher total for foreign military assistance than we cite here. The nearly $16 billion total for fiscal year 2014 includes other categories of Defense Department spending, such as funding for foreign military personnel to attend U.S. service academies. Saudi Arabia received $72,000 and South Korea received $520,550 under that program in 2014. Still, the total amount for the four countries Trump mentioned was small: $831,878 in 2014.