What Price “Defense”?
Late last month, President Biden signed a bill that clears the way for $858 billion in Pentagon spending and nuclear weapons work at the Department of Energy in 2023. That’s far more than Washington anted up for military purposes at the height of the Korean or Vietnam wars or even during the peak years of the Cold War. In fact, the $80 billion increase from the 2022 Pentagon budget is in itself more than the military budgets of any country other than China. Meanwhile, a full accounting of all spending justified in the name of national security, including for homeland security, veterans’ care, and more, will certainly exceed $1.4 trillion. And mind you, those figures don’t even include the more than $50 billion in military aid Washington has already dispatched to Ukraine, as well as to frontline NATO allies, in response to the Russian invasion of that country.
The assumption is that when it comes to spending on the military and related activities, more is always better.
There’s certainly no question that one group will benefit in a major way from the new spending surge: the weapons industry. If recent experience is any guide, more than half of that $858 billion will likely go to private firms. The top five contractors alone — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman — will split between $150 billion and $200 billion in Pentagon contracts. Meanwhile, they’ll pay their CEOs, on average, more than $20 million a year and engage in billions of dollars in stock buybacks designed to boost their share prices.
Such “investments” are perfectly designed to line the pockets of arms-industry executives and their shareholders. However, they do little or nothing to help defend this country or its allies.
Excessive Spending Doesn’t Align with the Pentagon’s Own Strategy
The Pentagon’s long-awaited National Defense Strategy, released late last year, is an object lesson in how not to make choices among competing priorities. It calls for preparing to win wars against Russia or China, engage in military action against Iran or North Korea, and continue to wage a Global War on Terror that involves stationing 200,000 troops overseas, while taking part in counterterror operations in at least 85 countries, according to figures compiled by the Brown University Costs of War project.
President Biden deserves credit for ending America’s 20-year fiasco in Afghanistan, despite opposition from significant portions of the Washington and media establishments. Unsurprisingly enough, mistakes were made in executing the military withdrawal from that country, but they pale in comparison to the immense economic costs and human consequences of that war and the certainty of ongoing failure, had it been allowed to continue indefinitely.
Still, it’s important to note that its ending by no means marked the end of the era of this country’s forever wars. Biden himself underscored this point in his speech announcing the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. “Today,” he said, “the terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan. So, we are repositioning our resources and adapting our counterterrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now significantly higher: in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.”
In keeping with Biden’s pledge, U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia remains ongoing. Meanwhile, the administration continues to focus its Africa policy on military aid and training to the detriment of non-military support for nations facing the challenges not just of terrorist attacks, but of corruption, human rights abuses, and the devastation of climate change.
Consider it ironic, then, that a Pentagon budget crafted by this administration and expanded upon by Congress isn’t even faintly aligned with that department’s own strategy. Buying $13 billion aircraft carriers vulnerable to modern high-speed missiles; buying staggeringly expensive F-35 fighter jets unlikely to be usable in a great-power conflict; purchasing excess nuclear weapons more likely to spur than reduce an arms race, while only increasing the risk of a catastrophic nuclear conflict; and maintaining an Army of more than 450,000 active-duty troops that would be essentially irrelevant in a conflict with China are only the most obvious examples of how bureaucratic inertia, parochial politics, and corporate money-making outweigh anything faintly resembling strategic concerns in the budgeting process.
Congress Only Compounds the Problem
Congress has only contributed to the already staggering problems inherent in the Pentagon’s approach by adding $45 billion to that department’s over-the-top funding request. Much of it was, of course, for pork-barrel projects located in the districts of key representatives. That includes funding for extra combat ships and even more F-35s. To add insult to injury, Congress also prevented the Pentagon from shedding older ships and aircraft and so freeing up funds for investments in crucial areas like cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. Instead of an either/or approach involving some tough (and not-so-tough) choices, the Pentagon and Congress have collaborated on a both/and approach that will only continue to fuel skyrocketing military budgets without providing significantly more in the way of defense.
Ironically, one potential counterweight to Congress’s never-ending urge to spend yet more on the Pentagon may be the Trumpist Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives. Its members recently called for a freeze in government spending, including on the military budget. At the moment, it’s too early to tell whether such a freeze has any prospect of passing or, if it does, whether it will even include Pentagon spending. In 2012, the last time Congress attempted to impose budget caps to reduce the deficit, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that a giant loophole was created for the Pentagon. The war budget, officially known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, was not subjected to limits of any sort and so was used to pay for all sorts of pet projects that had nothing to do with this country’s wars of that moment.
Nor should it surprise you that, in response to the recent chaos in the House of Representatives, the arms industry has already expanded its collaboration with the Republicans who are likely to head the House Armed Services Committee and the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee. And mind you, incoming House Armed Services Committee chief Mike Rogers (R-AL) received over $444,000 from weapons-making companies in the most recent election cycle, while Ken Calvert (R-CA), the new head of the Defense Appropriations Committee, followed close behind at $390,000. Rogers’s home state includes Huntsville, known as “Rocket City” because of its dense concentration of missile producers, and he’ll undoubtedly try to steer additional funds to firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin that have major facilities there. As for Calvert, his Riverside California district is just an hour from Los Angeles, which received more than $10 billion in Pentagon contracts in fiscal year 2021, the latest year for which full statistics are available.
That’s not to say that key Democrats have been left out in the cold either. Former House Armed Services Committee chair Adam Smith (D-WA) received more than $276,000 from the industry over the same period. But the move from Smith to Rogers will no doubt be a step forward for the weapons industry’s agenda. In 2022, Smith voted against adding more funding than the Pentagon requested to its budget, while Rogers has been a central advocate of what might be called extreme funding for that institution. Smith also raised questions about the cost and magnitude of the “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and, even more important, suggested that preparing to “win” a war against China was a fool’s errand and should be replaced by a strategy of deterrence. As he put it:
“I think building our defense policy around the idea that we have to be able to beat China in an all-out war is wrong. It’s not the way it’s going to play out. If we get into an all-out war with China, we’re all screwed anyway. So we better focus on the steps that are necessary to prevent that. We should get off of this idea that we have to win a war in Asia with China. What we have to do from a national security perspective, from a military perspective, is we have to be strong enough to deter the worst of China’s behavior.”
Expect no such nuances from Rogers, one of the loudest and most persistent hawks in Congress.
Beyond campaign contributions, the industry’s strongest tool of influence is the infamous revolving door between government and the weapons sector. A 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office found that, between 2014 and 2019, more than 1,700 Pentagon officials left the government to work for the arms industry. And mind you, that was a conservative estimate, since it only covered personnel going to the top 14 weapons makers.
Former Pentagon and military officials working for such corporations are uniquely placed to manipulate the system in favor of their new employers. They can wield both their connections with former colleagues in government and their knowledge of the procurement process to give their companies a leg (or two) up in the competition for Defense Department funding. As the Project on Government Oversight has noted in Brass Parachutes, a memorable report on that process: “Without transparency and more effective protections of the public interest, the revolving door between senior Pentagon officials and officers and defense contractors may be costing American taxpayers billions.”
Pushing back against such a correlation of political forces would require concerted public pressure of a kind as yet unseen. But outfits like the Poor People’s Campaign and #People Over Pentagon (a network of arms-control, good-government, environmental, and immigration-reform groups) are trying to educate the public on what such runaway military outlays really cost the rest of us. They are also cultivating a Congressional constituency that may someday even be strong enough to begin curbing the worst excesses of such militarized overspending. Unfortunately, time is of the essence as the Pentagon’s main budget soars toward an unprecedented $1 trillion.
A New Approach?
The Pentagon wastes immense sums of money thanks to cost overruns, price gouging by contractors, and spending on unnecessary weapons programs. Any major savings from its wildly bloated budget, however, would undoubtedly also involve a strategy that focused on beginning to reduce the size of the U.S. armed forces. Late last year the Congressional Budget Office outlined three scenarios that could result in cuts of 10%-15% in its size without in any way undermining the country’s security interests. The potential savings from such relatively modest moves: $1 trillion over 10 years. Although that analysis would need to be revised to reflect the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most of its recommendations would still hold.
Far greater savings would be possible, however, if the staggeringly costly, remarkably counterproductive militarized approach to fighting global terrorism (set so deeply and disastrously in place since September 11, 2001) was reconceived. This country’s calamitous post-9/11 wars, largely justified as counterterror operations, have already cost us more than $8 trillion and counting, according to a detailed analysis by the Costs of War Project. Redefining such counterterror efforts to emphasize diplomacy and economic assistance to embattled countries, as well as the encouragement of good governance and anticorruption efforts to counteract the conditions that allow terror groups to spread in the first place, could lead to a major reduction in the American global military footprint. It could also result in a corresponding reduction in the size of the Army and the Marines.
Similarly, a deterrence-only nuclear strategy like the one outlined by the organization Global Zero would preempt the need for the Pentagon’s three-decades-long plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and submarines at a cost of up to $2 trillion. At a minimum, hundreds of billions of dollars would be saved in the process.
And then there’s Washington’s increasing focus on a possible future war with China over Taiwan. Contrary to the Pentagon’s rhetoric, the main challenges from China are political and economic, not military. The status of Taiwan should be resolved diplomatically rather than via threats of war or, of course, war itself. A major U.S. buildup in the Pacific would be both dangerous and wasteful, draining resources from other urgent priorities and undermining the ability of the U.S. and China to cooperate in addressing the existential threat of climate change.
In a report for the Project on Government Oversight, Dan Grazier has underscored just who wins and who loses from such a hawkish approach to U.S.-China relations. He summarizes the situation this way:
“As U.S. and Chinese leaders attempt to jockey for position in the western Pacific region for influence and military advantage, chances of an accidental escalation increase. Both countries also risk destabilizing their economies with the reckless spending necessary to fund this new arms race, although the timing of just such a race is perfect for the defense industry. The U.S. is increasing military spending just at the moment the end of the War on Terror threatened drastic cuts.”
When it comes to Russia, as unconscionable as its invasion of Ukraine has been, it’s also exposed the striking weaknesses of its military, suggesting that it will be in no position to threaten NATO in any easily imaginable future. If, however, such a threat were to grow in the decades to come, European powers should take the lead in addressing it, given that they already cumulatively spend three times what Russia does on their militaries and have economies that, again cumulatively, leave Russia’s in the dust. And such statistics don’t even reflect recent pledges by major European powers to sharply increase their military budgets.
Forging a more sensible American defense strategy will, in the end, require progress on two fronts. First, the myth that the quest for total global military dominance best serves the interests of the American people needs to be punctured. Second, the stranglehold of the Pentagon and its corporate allies on the budget process needs to be loosened in some significant fashion.
Changing the public’s view of what will make America and this planet safer is certainly a long-term undertaking, but well worth the effort, if building a better world for future generations is ever to be possible. On the economic front, jobs in the arms industry have been declining for decades thanks to outsourcing, automation, and the production of ever fewer units of basic weapons systems. Add to that an increasing reliance on highly paid engineers rather than unionized production workers. Such a decline should create an opening for a different kind of economic future in which our tax dollars don’t flow endlessly down the military drain, but instead into environmentally friendly infrastructure projects and the creation and installation of effective alternative energy sources that will slow the heating of this planet and fend off a complete climate catastrophe. Among other things, a new approach to energy production could create 40% more jobs per dollar spent than plowing ever more money into the military-industrial complex.
Whether any of these changes will occur in this America is certainly an open question. Still, consider the effort to implement them essential to sustaining a livable planet for the generations to come. Overspending on the military will only dig humanity deeper into a hole that will be ever more difficult to get out of in the relatively short time available to us.
Copyright 2023 William D. Hartung
William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author most recently of “Pathways to Pentagon Spending Reductions: Removing the Obstacles.”
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