The High Price of Fear
California could defend itself for a fraction of the cost
Some of the most common questions people have about California independence concern the military. Wouldn’t there be a Civil War? Can we afford our own military? Wouldn’t we get invaded by Mexico?
These questions may be rooted more in fear than facts, but they do have answers. Here is what we know:
- California is not going to fight a war of independence with the U.S. If California becomes a country, it will be after a negotiated treaty or because the U.S. collapses and ceases to exist.
- Any independence negotiation between California and the U.S. would almost certainly result in a comprehensive security and status-of-forces agreement, similar to those the U.S. have with Japan and Germany.
- In the unlikely case that Californians had to be 100% responsible for our own military defense, we are uniquely well-prepared to defend ourselves, at a much lower cost.
California is one of the most naturally defensible places in North America
Why does U.S. Army have its National Training Center is in Fort Irwin, outside of Barstow, California? Because the landscape closely resembles Afghanistan. The Center even has a fake Afghan town named Ertebat Shar.
Almost all of California’s borders are either mountainous, desert or both, from the vast Mojave desert in the southwest, to the high Sierra Nevada in the east, to the rugged Cascade Range in the north. To California’s West is, of course, the world’s most vast ocean, and even our Western border has mountains: the Coastal Ranges.
California has deep-water ports
Why is the center of U.S. Naval operations in San Diego? Because of the deepwater port, a practical necessity for a successful naval defense. California has several deepwater ports up and down its coast, including the Port of San Diego, Port Hueneme, the Port of Oakland, and the Port of Humboldt.
California already runs an Army and an Air Force
We know California can run an Army and an Air Force because it already does — that’s what the California National Guard is. California currently has more than 18,000 active troops in our National Guard. These numbers would need to be larger for California to mount its own defense, but it’s a matter of scaling up what we have already, not starting from scratch.
California does not currently run a Navy; the closest thing we have is the California Naval Militia, a group of lawyers and strategists that advise the U.S. Navy. Again, in any scenario where California becomes independent and the United States still exists, it’s very unlikely that the U.S. Navy would leave California, because they don’t have good alternative deep-water ports on the West Coast.
California excels at military technology
California is a hub of innovation in military technology. As the California Governor’s Military Council puts it:
California offers the best combination of technology, industry, and academia in support of military needs, for today and the future. In addition to the Naval Postgraduate School, seven of the top 25 research universities are in California, and they all provide critical contributions to national security. America’s best-trained and most-experienced aerospace and technology workforce lives and works here and is committed to staying and supporting military requirements. It will be impossible to move that workforce and still maintain its superiority.
In other words, even if the U.S. military-industrial complex pulled out of California, the technological know-how would stay here. This also means that California is a de-facto nuclear power — we might choose not to have nuclear weapons, but we would always know how to build them.
California taxpayers vastly overpay for the military now
Pop quiz! In 2017, who spent the most money on the military?
A. The United Kingdom
Surprisingly, the answer is C: California! In 2017, according to the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database, the U.K. spent $47 billion on its military, Russia spent $66 billion, and our neighbor Mexico spent a paltry $6 billion (so no, we’re not going to get invaded by Mexico).
Whereas, based on our share of the U.S. population, California taxpayers were on the hook for at least $73 billion in military spending — $6 billion more than California’s entire education budget.
Why does the U.S. military cost so much?
The short answer is, because it’s not about defense.
The United States runs a global military empire, and that doesn’t come cheap. For example, the U.S. has some military presence in all but one of the 54 African countries, and an estimated 800 bases in 70 countries around the world.
The United States is also heavily dependent on oil. Depending how you count it, the United State spends between $81 billion and $300 billion a year just protecting oil reserves in other countries. (That’s a burden of $10-$36 billion on California taxpayers.)
A fair amount of U.S. military spending is likely waste and fraud. The Pentagon has never passed an audit and has no paper trail for $800 million of its construction projects. In 2015, the Pentagon made $6.5 trillion in “wrongful adjustments” (essentially, fudging the numbers) to make up for missing invoices and receipts.
The U.S. military isn’t going to leave out of spite
Military operations have fixed costs for their operations too: buildings, vehicles, ships, and so on. What if the U.S. military just pulled out, taking all their equipment with them? Could California rebuild from scratch?
The short answer is, this scenario makes no sense. The U.S. only rarely pulls out of countries where it has a military presence. It certainly wouldn’t leave a country on its own western border suddenly undefended, just to spite the people who live there — if an enemy invaded California, what would keep them out of Oregon, Nevada, or Arizona?
A still unlikely but somewhat more realistic scenario is if California managed to negotiate full independence with no U.S. military presence. How would we pay for the bases and military equipment? The thing to realize is that the big-ticket item in negotiations would be not military bases (or other federal property), but California’s share of the national debt. We would pay it off over time, just like the debt.
Pay billions in unnecessary taxes, or (maybe) figure out how to run a navy?
If California has an amicable breakup with the United States, that will almost certainly result in a status-of-forces agreement, putting California in a position similar to Japan and Germany. And as long as U.S. bases are located on California soil, the U.S. military will have the additional responsibility of defending California, simply as a matter of self-interest.
On the other hand, if the United States collapses, Californians would not be in a position to take any chances — look at Russia and Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, there is no realistic scenario where California taxpayers would have to pay more than we pay now. Here are some numbers for perspective:
In 2017, California taxpayers spent at least $73 billion on the military (including our share of the U.S. debt).
Nearby Canada has less people than California and ten times as much territory to defend. They spent $20 billion. (And as mentioned above, our neighbor Mexico spent less than $6 billion.)
Germany and Japan are largely defended by the U.S. military, which they help pay for. Both countries have more people than California and a similar land area. Germany and Japan spent $44 billion and $45 billion respectively.
Finland was under constant threat of invasion by the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, yet they spent less than 2% of their GDP in every year but one (1962). 2% of California’s GDP in 2017 is $55 billion. (NATO countries also theoretically have to spend at least 2% of GDP on the military, though this is arguably more of a subsidy for U.S. weapons makers than a necessity for military readiness.)
What would you choose?
If California ever becomes an independent country, we will absolutely be safe, we may have to run our own navy, and we will definitely save $18–53 billion dollars a year by no longer being entangled in military commitments around the globe.
What would you choose?