The idea is that more is always better when funding the military and associated endeavors.
The arms business will benefit significantly from the new spending boom. If the past is any indication, more than half of the $858 billion will go to private businesses. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman will get between $150 billion and $200 billion in contracts from the Pentagon. They will also pay their CEOs an average of almost $20 million a year, and they will buy back billions of shares to raise their stock value.
Such “investments” are made to fill the pockets of arms company executives and stockholders. They contribute little to nothing to the defense of this nation or its friends.
Spending Too Much Isn’t in Line with the Pentagon’s Strategy
The National Defense Strategy, which the Pentagon had been waiting for for a long time and then released at the end of last year, is an excellent example of how not to choose between essential goals. According to data collected by the Brown University Costs of War project, it calls for preparing to win wars against Russia or China, taking military action against Iran or North Korea, and continuing to fight a global war on terror that requires stationing 200,000 troops abroad and fighting terrorism in at least 85 countries.
Even though a lot of people in Washington and the media were against it, President Biden deserves credit for putting an end to America’s 20-year disaster in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, there were errors in the military’s withdrawal from that nation. Still, they are small compared to the war’s huge financial and human costs and the fact that it will fail if it goes on forever.
But it’s important to remember that the end of the war didn’t mean the end of this country’s endless wars. Biden emphasized this argument in his address to announce the US departure from Afghanistan. He claimed that the terrorist threat had spread beyond Afghanistan. Because of this, we are moving our resources and changing our anti-terrorism strategy to deal with the much bigger problems in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
As promised by Biden, US military operations in Somalia, Syria, and Iraq continue. In the meantime, the administration’s African policy is still heavily focused on military aid and training at the expense of non-military aid to countries with problems like corruption, human rights abuses, and damage from climate change and terrorist attacks.
In light of this, it’s funny that the Pentagon’s budget, which was made by this administration and then boosted by Congress, has nothing to do with the department’s policies. The most obvious ones are keeping an army of more than 450,000 active-duty soldiers that wouldn’t help much in a war with China and spending $13 billion on aircraft carriers that are vulnerable to modern high-speed missiles. These expensive F-35 fighter jets would be ineffective in a battle between great powers, as would having too many nuclear weapons, which are more likely to start an arms race than end it, and too many atomic weapons, which would only increase the risk of a nuclear war.
Congress only makes the issue worse.
By giving the Pentagon $45 billion more than it asked for, Congress has made the vast problems with its strategy even worse. Of course, a lot of it went to projects in the districts of critical lawmakers that were paid for with pork barrels. That covers financing for more combat ships and F-35s, among other things. To make matters worse, Congress stopped the Pentagon from retiring outdated vessels and aircraft, which would have freed up money for advances in critical fields like artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. The Pentagon and Congress worked together on a “both/and” strategy rather than an “either/or” process involving some problematic (and not so tricky) decisions. This strategy will only drive rapidly rising military budgets without dramatically increasing defense spending.
Ironically, the Trumpist Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives could stop Congress from always wanting to spend more on the Pentagon. A few weeks ago, its members asked the government to stop spending, especially on the military budget. It’s too soon to say whether or not such a freeze will pass or, if it does, whether it will even include Pentagon expenditures. You won’t be shocked that a sizable loophole was made for the Pentagon in 2012, the last time Congress tried to enforce spending restrictions to decrease the debt. The war budget, called the Overseas Contingency Operations account, was used to pay for projects that had nothing to do with the country’s current wars because there were no rules.
As a result of the recent chaos in the House of Representatives, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the arms industry is already working more closely with the Republicans, who are most likely to lead the House Armed Services Committee and the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. And keep in mind that Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the next chairman of the Defense Appropriations Committee, came in right behind Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who will be the head of the House Armed Services Committee, receiving almost $390,000. As a result of the high concentration of missile manufacturers in Huntsville, Rogers’ home state, also known as “Rocket City,” he will try to direct more money to companies with significant operations there, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. In Riverside, California, Calvert’s district is roughly one hour from Los Angeles. In the fiscal year 2021, the most recent year for which complete numbers are available, the Pentagon earned more than $10 billion in Pentagon contracts.
That is not to argue that critical Democrats have been forgotten about. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington who used to be the head of the House Armed Services Committee, got more than $276,000 from the sector during that time. But switching from Smith to Rogers will certainly help the arms business reach its goals. Smith voted against giving the Pentagon more money than it asked for in 2022. Conversely, Rogers was a big supporter of giving the Pentagon what could be called too much money. Smith also questioned the size and cost of “modernizing” the US nuclear arsenal. More importantly, he said that preparing to “win” a war with China was useless and should be replaced with a deterrence policy. As he stated:
I don’t think it’s right for our military strategy to be based on the idea that we have to be able to beat China in a full-scale war. It’s not how things will turn out. We’re all doomed if we start a full-scale war with China. Therefore, we should concentrate on taking the essential precautions to avoid that. We should abandon the notion that we must defeat China in an Asian conflict. From a national security and military point of view, we must be strong enough to stop China from doing what it does worst.
Expect no such nuance from Rogers, one of Congress’ most vocal and tenacious hawks.
The most powerful way for the weapons industry to get its way is through the infamous “revolving door” between the government and the industry. More than 1,700 Pentagon personnel left the government to work for the arms business between 2014 and 2019, according to a 2021 report by the Government Accountability Office. And keep in mind that the estimate was conservative because it only included workers going to the top 14 armament manufacturers.
When they work for these companies, former Pentagon and military officials are uniquely positioned to change the system in their new employers’ favor. To give their businesses an advantage (or two) in the race for Defense Department money, they can use their relationships with previous colleagues in government and their understanding of the procurement process. According to Brass Parachutes, a special report on that process from the Project on Government Oversight, “the revolving door between senior Pentagon officials and officers and defense contractors may be costing American taxpayers billions without transparency and more effective protections of the public interest.”
It would take coordinated public pressure of the kind that has never before been seen to counter such a correlation of political forces. But groups like the Poor People’s Campaign and #PeopleOverPentagon (a network of arms-control, good-government, environmental, and immigration-reform groups) are trying to tell the public what the actual costs of this kind of excessive military spending are for the rest of us. Additionally, they are building a legislative constituency that may one day be powerful enough to start reining in some of the worst overspending on militarization. Unfortunately, time is running out because the Pentagon’s central budget is expected to reach a new high of $1 trillion.
A novel strategy?
Cost overruns, price gouging by contractors, and paying for useless weapons programs cause the Pentagon to spend a lot of money. But if the US wanted to make significant cuts to its ridiculously high spending, it would need the plan to start reducing the size of its armed forces. Before the end of last year, the Congressional Budget Office presented three scenarios that could reduce its size by 10-15% without jeopardizing the nation’s security interests. With such minor changes, $1 trillion in savings over ten years are possible. The majority of those recommendations would still be valid even if that study would need to be updated to account for the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But much more significant savings might be possible if the military approach to fighting international terrorism, which has been a disaster since September 11, 2001, was rethought. This approach is costly and shockingly ineffective. The Costs of War Project did a thorough study and found that since 9/11, our country has spent more than $8 trillion on its terrible wars, mostly called “counterterrorism operations.” A lot could cut down the size of the American military presence if counterterrorism efforts were rethought to focus on diplomacy, economic aid to countries in trouble, and promoting good governance and anticorruption efforts to fight the things that make terror groups grow in the first place. Additionally, it might lead to an equivalent decrease in the size of the Army and the Marines.
The Pentagon’s three-decade plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and submarines at a cost of up to $2 trillion would also be unnecessary under a deterrence-only nuclear strategy like the one proposed by the group Global Zero. At the very least, hundreds of billions of dollars would be conserved.
Then there is Washington’s growing concern over a potential conflict with China over Taiwan. Despite what the Pentagon says, China’s most significant threats are not military but political and economic. Instead of making war threats or starting a war, the issue of Taiwan should be settled diplomatically. A significant US buildup in the Pacific would be risky and wasteful. It would take resources away from more critical problems and make it harder for the US and China to work together to fight climate change, which poses an existential threat.
Dan Grazier has shown who benefits and who loses from such a militant approach to US-China ties in a report for the Project on Government Oversight. He states the scenario as follows:
As Chinese and American leaders compete for power and military strength in the western Pacific, the chance of an unintended escalation rises. Even though the timing of the arms race is good for the defense industry, the reckless spending needed to pay for this new race is a threat to both countries’ economies. U.S. military spending is rising just as the end of the War on Terror could mean significant cuts.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was horrible, but it also showed the military’s shocking flaws. This suggests that Russia won’t be able to threaten NATO shortly. However, suppose such a threat increases in the following decades. In that case, European nations should take the initiative in combating it, given that they already collectively spend three times as much on their militaries as Russia does and have economies that collectively lag behind Russia’s. Even recent promises by central European countries to increase their military spending by a lot are not included in these numbers.
In the end, a better defense strategy for the United States will require progress on two fronts. First, it’s essential to eliminate the idea that the best thing for the American people is to try to have complete military control over the whole world. Second, the Pentagon and its business partners need to loosen their grip on the budgeting process.
If creating a better world for future generations is achievable, it will take a long time to change the public’s perception of what will make America and this planet safer. Nevertheless, the work will be well worth it. Because of outsourcing, automation, and the fact that fewer and fewer basic weapon systems are being made, the number of jobs in the arms industry has been going down for decades. Add to that the growing preference for highly compensated engineers over production workers who are members of unions. Such a drop should make way for a different kind of economic future, one in which our tax dollars aren’t spent on the military indefinitely but instead go toward green infrastructure projects and the development and deployment of efficient alternative energy sources that will reduce global warming and stop climate change from becoming catastrophic. A new strategy for energy production might, among other things, generate 40% more jobs per dollar invested than pouring more money into the military-industrial complex.
It’s uncertain whether these changes will occur in this country. Think about the work needed to put them into action and keep the earth livable for future generations. Overspending on the military will push humanity farther into a hole that will get harder to climb out of in a relatively short time.