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America’s Indefensible Defense Budget

President Trump, Lima, Ohio, 2019
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
President Trump after touring the Lima Army Tank Plant, Lima, Ohio, March 20, 2019

A parable, to begin: in 2016, the 136 military bands maintained by the Department of Defense, employing more than 6,500 full-time professional musicians at an annual cost of about $500 million, caught the attention of budget-cutters worried about surging federal deficits. Immediately memos flew and lobbyists descended. The Government Accountability Office, laying the groundwork for another study or three, opined, “The military services have not developed objectives and measures to assess how their bands are addressing the bands’ missions, such as inspiring patriotism.” Supporters of the 369th Infantry Regiment band noted that it had introduced jazz to Europe during World War I. How could such a history be left behind? A blues band connected effectively with Russian soldiers in Bosnia in 1996, another proponent argued, proving that bands are, “if anything, an incredibly cost-effective supplement” to the Pentagon’s then $4.5 billion public affairs budget.

When the dust cleared, funding for the bands was not cut, because the political cost entailed in reducing the number of them by, say, half would have been enormous. The resulting $250 million in annual savings, on the other hand, while a significant sum for most government agencies, would have produced the almost unnoticeable difference of three one-hundredths of one percent in the Pentagon budget.

The sheer size of the military establishment and the habit of equating spending on it with patriotism make both sound management and serious oversight of defense expenditures rare. As a democracy, we are on an unusual and risky path. For several decades, we have maintained an extraordinarily high level of defense spending with the support of both political parties and virtually all of the public. The annual debate about the next year’s military spending, underway now on Capitol Hill, no longer probes where real cuts might be made (as opposed to cuts in previously planned growth) but only asks how big the increase should be.

The political momentum that drives this annual increase, disconnected from hard thought about America’s responsibilities in a transformed world, threatens to become—or may have already become—unstoppable. The consequences are huge. At home, defense spending crowds out funds for everything else a prosperous economy and a healthy society need. Abroad, it has led us to become a country reflexively reliant on the military and one quite different from what we think ourselves to be or, I believe, wish to be.

If you have read anything about defense spending in recent years, it was probably expressed as a percentage of GDP. At roughly 3–4 percent (it was more than 40 percent in 1944, 15 percent during the Korean War, and over 10 percent in the early 1960s), it seems eminently affordable.

But this almost universally used measure is close to meaningless, except to make rough international comparisons. It makes no sense to expect that external threats will expand in parallel with a country’s economic growth. A country whose economy has grown by, for example, 30 percent has no reason to spend 30 percent more on its military. To the contrary, unless threats worsen, you would expect that, over time, defense spending as a percentage of a growing economy should decline.

Instead, the valid measure of affordability is defense spending’s share of the federal discretionary budget: that is, of all federal spending other than the mandatory allotments to entitlements and interest on the national debt. Discretionary spending is everything else the government does: pay not just for the military but for the federal judiciary and law enforcement; support infrastructure, education, and agriculture; invest in science and technology; protect the environment, wilderness, and National Parks; manage relations with the rest of the world and with international organizations overseeing everything from trade to arms control; fund the National Weather Service; police the border; explore space; develop energy resources; ensure the safety and soundness of food, drugs, communications, airline travel, consumer products, banks, the stock exchanges, and on and on.

The budget embodies the country’s core political choices: how much government its citizens want, what their priorities for it are, and how large a debt they choose to shoulder and to pass on. Defense spending now accounts for almost 60 percent of the budget: everything else is accommodated in the remaining two fifths. By this measure, defense spending looks anything but easily affordable. Nor, on its projected path of continuing growth, does it look sustainable. What would finally be too much? Two thirds of the total? Seventy percent?

After the Korean War, defense spending dropped by 20 percent, after Vietnam by 30 percent, and after the cold war ended in 1990 those notorious softies President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell cut military manpower by 600,000 and the military budget by 26 percent. But since the September 11 attacks we have been engaged in an eighteen-year war with no fixed enemies, aims, or endpoint. Recently, congressional Democrats decided that they would no longer allow themselves to be seen as less supportive than Republicans of the military, while Republicans, once they took control of both the White House and Congress, forgot their concern for deficits. The combined result has been steep growth in the military budget.

Are we actually as threatened as our lopsided spending suggests? Or are we achieving, through a rapidly growing military, valued international aims that are otherwise unattainable? If funds were tight or we were really concerned about deficits—that is, if we were forced to make tradeoffs—could we achieve equal or better security for much less money? In short, do we need to or want to devote three fifths of the government’s discretionary funds to defense? There are no widely agreed-upon answers because the questions aren’t being asked.

Understanding the recent ups and downs of the defense budget is complicated by the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. Segregated from the budget caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, the off-budget OCO was meant to cover the costs of fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also been used to cover big expenditures that are not war costs and that move back and forth from the base budget to the OCO, confusing everyone but insiders. When he was in Congress, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney attacked it as a slush fund; others call it a gimmick. A critic has proposed retitling it the “Deferring the Cost of War to Future Generations” account. The only way to see the actual cost of maintaining and using the military is to consider the OCO and the Pentagon base budget together.

Doing so reveals that the so-called undernourished military against which Republicans railed at the close of the Obama administration was supported by the highest spending in inflation-adjusted dollars since the end of World War II. As nearly 200,000 troops came home from Iraq and Afghanistan, spending went down, but under the Trump administration, the budget soared to $700 billion in fiscal year 2018 and $716 billion this year, with a proposed leap to $750 billion for next year. In order to partially pay for these increases, the administration proposed to cut or slash spending for thirteen of the sixteen Cabinet agencies—all but the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Congress rubber-stamped the FY 2019 defense budget but rejected most of the draconian cuts proposed for everything else, thus enlarging the deficit. Legislators are unlikely to go as high as $750 billion for FY 2020, but they will almost certainly approve another large jump in defense spending, for a total increase of more than $100 billion since Trump took office.

Much of the willingness to spend so lavishly has been propelled by claims of a crisis in readiness, which the Pentagon and congressional supporters argue has been caused by the wars in the Middle East and the budget caps. Many others with the credentials to do so strongly disagree. Readiness, they point out, is in part a matter of definition. Is a unit that has missed mandated days of training but gained days of experience in combat less ready than its nondeployed counterpart?

This short-term debate aside, the underlying political dynamics are what drive the money machine year after year. The Pentagon has, by a wide margin, the best long-range planning and budgeting capability in the government. Thousands of people are involved. Even if they wanted to, Congress’s armed services committees couldn’t attempt a zero-based budget of six or seven hundred billion dollars: that is, beginning with an evaluation of asserted threats, followed by an independent assessment of the proposed strategy for meeting them and analysis of the forces and facilities needed to execute the strategy. Mostly, though, they don’t want to. They prefer to protect spending and jobs in their districts. The result is funding for weapons systems the armed forces don’t want, bases and facilities they would like to close, and bloated, inefficient back office—that is, noncombat—operations.

Tanks are a classic case. For years, the army has tried to convince Congress to stop buying new ones. They are expensive to build, maintain, exercise, and train troops to use. The army already has more than six thousand of them—far more than it needs for any conceivable future combat. More controversially, the navy remains wedded to new aircraft carriers, but at $13 billion each they are arguably more an outdated symbol of twentieth-century power than an effective weapon system for a future in which they will be increasingly vulnerable to attack by high-speed, maneuverable missiles that can be bought for a minuscule fraction of what a carrier costs.

Ironically, the DOD’s best-in-class budgeting strengths are accompanied by worst-in-government financial management that is unable to track the torrent of funds the planners and budgeters produce. In 1990 Congress mandated that every department of government produce an auditable financial statement by 1992. The Pentagon finally managed to do so twenty-six years late, but the $400 million audit released last year revealed a nonfunctional accounting system, systemic weaknesses in cybersecurity, and such pervasive deficiencies that nearly every Pentagon agency can neither track nor accurately account for its spending.

Like readiness, waste is often in the eye of the beholder. There is no doubt, however, that the Pentagon’s overhead is rife with it. An international comparison of defense performance by the consulting firm McKinsey in 2010 rated the United States’ “tooth to tail ratio”—the number of personnel needed to support each combat soldier—next to last among the thirty countries included in the study. Five years later, the Pentagon released a study by its own Defense Business Board of these operations, including human resources, property management, accounting, logistics, and the like, which concluded, “We can see a clear path to saving over $125 billion in the next five years.” The Washington Post later reported that although the savings could have been used to fund combat-related needs, Pentagon leaders buried the results because they were so worried that by “spotlighting so much waste, the study would undermine their repeated public assertions…[of being] starved of funds.” The underlying data were made secret, and the conclusions removed from public view.* Many experts believe that the $25 billion per year in achievable savings is a substantial underestimate.

Arguably the worst consequence of spending on legacy weapons systems, unneeded facilities, and over-staffed, inefficient bureaucracies is what isn’t done with that money. The revolution in cybertechnology means that the militaries of the future will use swarms of cheap, unmanned weapons, targeted and controlled using networked satellites and artificial intelligence, rather than small numbers of very high-cost, manned weapons systems like the new F-35 fighter, at $90 million per plane. The US is not in the lead in making this vital transition. It will mean highly disruptive change, and there are all too many people in today’s long, slow weapons procurement chain who are highly motivated to block it.

Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower; drawing by David Levine

With what former defense secretary Robert Gates termed a “gargantuan, labyrinthine bureaucracy” in the Pentagon, manufacturers and subcontractors for each weapons system carefully distributed across congressional districts and backed by aggressive lobbyists, members of Congress determined to protect constituents’ jobs, and military leaders loyal to the weapons systems they trained on and commanded, it is no surprise that the defense establishment has become extravagant, wasteful, and less agile, innovative, and forward-looking than it should be.

The last ingredient in this political mix is, of course, the White House. After last year’s budget deal, Trump captured the unfortunate national mood when he tweeted, “We love and need our Military and gave them everything—and more.” This year, defending his failure to serve in Vietnam, he boasted that with his $750 billion budget, “I think I make up for that right now…. I think I’m making up for it rapidly.” Trump is not the first president to want to leave his mark on something new and bigger for defense spending. As in everything else, he is simply the least interested in the substance of his policies and the most transparently self-serving.

If the United States faced acute threats, allocating 60 percent of the government’s unrestricted funds to defense might be necessary. We do not, but we still spend more on defense than the next eight largest spenders combined—China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, Britain, Germany, and Japan—and four of those countries are treaty allies. The disproportion has held for decades.

If threats do not justify this level of military commitment, what does explain it? Is it our choice to pursue a position of global leadership based on military strength, which has ensured the security of numerous friends and allies and created and sustained a peaceful world order since the end of World War II? This is much harder to judge. Administrations produce a National Security Strategy, a National Defense Strategy, and a National Military Strategy. They all say that conditions are dangerous, volatile, disorderly, unpredictable, and generally getting worse. Most recently, they cite the return of great power threats from Russia and China. Much of this is true. But a strategy is a means to reach a goal, and what none of these documents does—what the country as a whole hasn’t done—is to reset its goals for a profoundly altered world.

Five profound transformations, each nearly revolutionary in scope, have been packed into the short thirty years since the end of the cold war: globalization, the war on terror, the advent of digital technology, China’s growth explosion, and the emergence of populism and the weakening of democracy worldwide. Taken together, they have reshaped the world that America faces. Yet until the Trump administration, US foreign policy changed little from the goals and practices it followed for the previous seventy years. The past two years have certainly introduced change, but nothing remotely like a coherent approach to new conditions.

Economically, politically, and militarily, globalization and digital technologies make national security within fixed borders harder to achieve and to maintain. The world that lies ahead of us is unequivocally one in which more and more of the greatest challenges—cyber regulation, arms control, nonproliferation, financial stability and trade, climate change, health and the environment, crime and the rule of law—can only be dealt with multilaterally. Yet since the end of the cold war, the US has rejected most of the international agreements the rest of the world has approved, including the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Antipersonnel Landmine Ban, and the International Criminal Court. It has refused to ratify treaties protecting genetic resources, restricting trade in conventional arms, banning cluster bombs, and protecting persons with disabilities. In just two years under President Trump, it has rejected the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and withdrawn from the Paris Accord on climate, the INF Treaty on intermediate-range missiles, the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO, the Iran nuclear deal, and NAFTA (which was renegotiated).

During this nearly thirty years of sweeping diplomatic withdrawal, America has been engaged in conflict for all but a few months. It has undertaken nine large-scale military actions, including three of the five major wars it has fought since 1945. Of these, the brief Gulf War of 1990–1991 was a clear success. The war of choice in Iraq was a catastrophic mistake. The now eighteen-year-long war in Afghanistan will almost certainly end in failure—if we can ever bring ourselves to let it end. Afghanistan is the longest war in American history and, with Iraq, the most expensive (in real dollars). We have spent more on reconstruction there than we did on the Marshall Plan (again, in inflation-adjusted dollars), with almost nothing to show for it.

It has become increasingly clear that the largely intrastate conflicts in which the US has embroiled itself, fighting small groups of shifting, local opponents rather than national armies, have not been the kind of conventional interstate wars for which its weapons systems and doctrine were designed. Every approach the US has tried—regime change, nation-building, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, redlines, responsibility to protect—alone or in concert with others, has failed to achieve the desired results.

Part of the reason is that during this period, administrations of both political parties have allowed support for the government’s diplomatic arm—the State Department, the Foreign Service, and USAID—to wither to the point that long-standing weaknesses have become serious underperformance. The problems lie both in lack of respect for the function and in inadequate funding. The tools of diplomacy—negotiation, international cooperation, the creation and nurturing of institutions, and the making of international law—have been disparaged as too slow and too ineffective. Unqualified campaign contributors are appointed to important diplomatic posts. Congress responds to the problems it sees by cutting budgets further, creating more problems. The lack of resources often means that the military is called on to carry out humanitarian and governance tasks for which it is not well suited, because that’s where the money and manpower are.

For many years, the United States has increasingly relied on military strength to achieve its foreign policy aims. In doing so, it has paid too little heed to the issues that military power cannot solve, to the need for diplomatic capabilities at least as strong as military ones and, in particular, to the necessity of multilateral problem-solving—as slow and frustrating as it often is—to address current threats. Sadly, it took a rash and unbelievably unwise decision by the president to throw away the Iran nuclear deal for members of Congress and the public to begin to appreciate what tough, patient diplomacy can achieve.

We are now at the point of allocating too large a portion of the federal budget to defense as compared to domestic needs, tolerating too much spending that doesn’t buy useful capability, accumulating too much federal debt, and yet not acquiring a forward-looking, twenty-first-century military built around new cyber and space technologies. We have become complacent and strategically flabby about adapting to a profoundly altered world. Major change will require a quality of leadership we haven’t seen in a long time, from men and women in the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon who are respected for their knowledge and national security experience and who are willing to pay a political price for what must be done. Even then the process will be tough, slow, and painful, but it is surely overdue.

—June 19, 2019

  1. *

    Craig Whitlock and Bob Woodward, “Pentagon Buries Evidence of $125 billion in Bureaucratic Waste.” The Washington Post, December 5, 2016.