Admirers and detractors of the American imperium are sure to agree on one fact: The US military is fantastically expensive, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the total military spending on the planet. After peaking in 2011 at roughly $750 billion and then dipping for half a decade, the Pentagon’s budget is now cresting $800 billion. This is a spectacular amount of money. It follows that whatever weaknesses the US military might exhibit aren’t the result of a lack of resources.

This common thinking is wrong. In fact, the American armed forces are severely undercapitalized. The US military simply doesn’t have enough “stuff” (that is, capital) to maintain itself, and the problem is getting worse, not better.

The undercapitalization problem isn’t really a secret, though it’s rarely discussed in those exact terms. It’s common knowledge that the Navy has trouble maintaining its ships, and is often forced to cannibalize less important systems on its vessels to get spare parts for more critical one. A Government Accounting Office audit found that between 2012 and 2018, the Navy completed only 30 percent of required maintenance on schedule. The GAO also noted that a large share of military aircraft are unusable owing to shortages of spare parts: For instance, just 15 percent of Marine F-35Bs are mission-capable at any given moment, due to delayed maintenance.

“There aren’t enough people in any branch of the armed services.”