PRO - It's time to put the needs of the people over the Pentagon
By Robert Weissman
Pentagon spending is, literally, out of control — and it is making America weaker, not stronger. It's time — past time — for a fundamental reorientation of the federal government's spending, with Pentagon spending slimmed and the resultant savings reallocated to address domestic and humanitarian priorities.
The almost three-quarters of a billion dollars in the annual Pentagon budget doesn't reflect any reasonable assessment of national security threats, common sense priority setting or any kind of honest reckoning with the costs and benefits of an additional billion dollars for war fighting. The result is that we are wasting hundreds of billions of dollars, fueling endless war and diverting money from other vital needs.
The Pentagon eats up more of the federal government's discretionary budget — $738 billion for the current fiscal year — than all other discretionary spending combined. Think about that for a moment: The Pentagon has been gifted more resources than our diplomatic and peace-building agencies, more than the Environmental Protection Agency, more than our education and housing programs and more than we spend on scientific research combined.
At the same time, the Pentagon is unable to pass an audit. For 2020, the Pentagon received a $20 billion budget boost despite being unable to explain how it spent the outlandish amount it received in 2019.
The endless sums thrown at the Pentagon aren't commensurate with any threat we face. The U.S. spends more on its military than the next seven top-spending countries combined.
Even worse, bottomless Pentagon spending is intertwined with the endless wars that have left us and the world less safe. Military and political figures of all political persuasions agree with this basic assessment. The Afghanistan Papers recently published by The Washington Post show that — despite public proclamations to the contrary — top political and military officials have recognized all along that the war in Afghanistan was an unwinnable disaster.
We have spent and continue to spend unfathomable sums on endless war. Researchers at Brown University put the total at $6.4 trillion, including the cost of caring for injured veterans. The wars have killed more than 800,000 people directly and many more indirectly — all while failing in their mission and leaving us less safe.
Our country can no longer tolerate bottomless Pentagon spending and endless war. We need to pull back from constant and ever-expanding war-fighting and instead invest much more energy (and resources) in diplomatic measures to reduce international conflict.
We need to focus on the great international challenges that create instability but are not amenable to military solutions: poverty, newly emergent diseases, wealth inequality and, above all, the climate crisis.
And we need to reallocate hundreds of billions every year away from the Pentagon to address problems at home that parallel those global challenges: ensuring health care for all, addressing economic inequality and transforming our economy to rely on efficiency and renewable energy in order to avert climate catastrophe.
There are plenty of opportunities for massive cuts — on the order of $200 billion a year or more — in Pentagon spending without damaging national security:
We can save $70 billion or more a year by eliminating a Pentagon slush fund, known as the "Overseas Contingency Operations account," that is being used for programs that have no connections to emergencies or contingencies.
We can save more than $40 billion a year by ending reliance on expensive private contractors to do work that more affordable government employees should do, and by eliminating wasteful contracting strategies that skyrocket costs in the final month of a fiscal year.
There is a long list of super expensive weapons, like the F-35, that should be eliminated, cut back, or replaced with more cost-effective alternatives.
Cutting the number of troops in Afghanistan — or pulling them out altogether — would save tens of billions annually.
For far too long, Pentagon spending has been immune from the kind of scrutiny and common-sense analysis applied to other forms of government spending: Is the money properly accounted for? Are private actors profiteering at public expense? Does the spending address legitimate national priorities? Should we spend another dollar on this program at the expense of alternatives? Is this program achieving its objectives?
When you ask those questions about Pentagon spending, the answers all point in one direction: We are spending too much — far too much — on weapons and war, and on price-gouging and profiteering private contractors. And that spending is starving us of the monies we need to address key priorities, from education to climate. It's time to reallocate hundreds of billions of Pentagon spending and put people ahead the Pentagon.
CON - Investment needed to protect our global interests
By Giselle Donnelly
One of President Trump's longest-standing political promises has been to rebuild U.S. military strength. The White House boasts of "historic strides" in this effort, and Trump's tweet celebrating the passage of this year's defense appropriations bill boasted of "new planes, ships, missiles, rockets and equipment of every kind, and all made right here in the USA."
Alas, the president's claim is more hat than cattle. While the Pentagon's annual "topline" has crept past the $700 billion mark, it remains the case that about 10% of that amount is in the "Overseas Contingency Operations" account that mostly goes to pay for the continued costs of military deployments in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is a haphazard approach to managing the budget that forestalls longer-term planning.
Indeed, the truer measures of national purpose — calculating defense spending as a slice of gross domestic product or of federal spending — reveal that national security continues to diminish as an American priority. Under Trump, the Pentagon budget has dipped to its pre-9/11 low of less than 3% of GDP and 15% of overall federal spending, dwarfed by mandatory and "entitlement" spending (about 62% of federal outlays and 13% of GDP). Servicing the national debt, the most "mandatory" spending of all, accounts for an additional 7% of government expenditures.
Thus the armed services, as they prepare for their upcoming budget requests, are weighing substantial program cuts. Consider the Navy, which Trump promised to expand to 355 warships — it's now about 300, depending on what the definition of "ship" is — by the end of the decade. Recently, the respected trade publication Defense News reported that the sea service is likely to axe five of 12 planned purchases of its current line of destroyers over the next five years, as well as delaying starts on attack submarine and frigate builds while decommissioning four of its 22 aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers and canceling life-extension refits for others. According to Navy planners, the size of the fleet is likely to drop to 287 ships.
As has been the case since the end of the Cold War, these sorts of reductions are being framed as investments in new technologies and a preference for quality over quantity. And, considering the constantly stagnating pace of U.S. military modernization and the increase in adversary, particularly Chinese, military power, there is a logic in that argument.
Yet the one great — though still unlearned — lesson of the past generation has been the shortfall in capacity rather than capability. In the South China Sea, for example, the problem is not that Chinese ships and other weaponry is superior to that of the United States and its allies, it's that they're there and we're not.
The shifting balance of global military power is, however, less a product of inadequate spending or lagging technological innovation as it is a failure of strategic imagination. American planning remains, as it was against the Soviet Union, driven by the assessment of threats rather than an appreciation of geopolitical interests; we know our adversaries but not ourselves. We have forgotten the fundamental insight of the Truman administration that "domination of the potential power of Eurasia" by a hostile power or coalition "would be strategically and politically unacceptable to the United States." We can't remember what our purpose is, what victory means.
Consequently we have been constantly content to redefine our military planning downward. Where we once strove to build to a global, "multiple-and-simultaneous" campaign standard — as early as 1940, Congress passed a "Two-Ocean Navy Act" — we now hope to field a one-war force. But this hope is no method for a global power, let alone a nation that not so long ago considered itself "history's sole superpower." The proper question to ask about defense spending is not, "How much is enough?" but rather, "What is sufficient to defend our global interests?"
Those interests have long been defined, both by the nature of international politics and the nature of our American experiment. As both an Atlantic- and Pacific-facing nation, we seek a favorable balance of power across Eurasia. As a trading people, we seek secure access to the commercial "commons" of the seas, skies, space and, nowadays, communications networks. As a free people, we seek to further the natural political rights of humanity — a "balance of power that favors freedom."
This may — indeed, it will — cost us more than 3 cents of our national dollar. It is the principal purpose of our federal government, not a tertiary purpose. And our failure to pay the cost is, as the headlines daily remind us, a false economy.
Finally, the value of our security, measured in prosperity but most of all by liberty, is incalculable.
Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen. Public Citizen is a member of the People Over Pentagon coalition. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
Giselle Donnelly is a resident fellow in defense and national security at the American Enterprise Institute. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.