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122nd Fighter Wing A-10 aircraft take part in Northern Strike 19

After the Apocalypse: Defense Spending

After the Apocalypse is a series of policy recommendations for the new Biden administration.

Words: Mandy Smithberger, Mackenzie Eaglen, and William D. Hartung
Pictures: US Department of Defense

From an ongoing pandemic to deadly winter storms to rising poverty, Americans are facing myriad threats to their everyday security. At the same time, US military spending is at record levels, costing billions of dollars each year. And since the Pentagon has never passed an audit, it’s unclear where all that money is going.

In the midst of heightened non-military security challenges, should the Biden administration approach defense spending differently – and if so, how? As part of our “After the Apocalypse” series — a set of policy recommendations to help guide us out of a time that has frequently felt like the end of the world, Inkstick asked Mandy Smithberger, Mackenzie Eaglen, and William Hartung for their rapid-fire recommendations.

Mandy Smithberger, Director of Straus Military Reform Project, Project on Government Oversight 

  1. Bring real discipline to Pentagon spending: The Budget Control Act and the introduction of spending caps should have forced the Pentagon to prioritize. Instead, Pentagon leaders and Congress relied on off-budget accounts like the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account to circumvent those caps, and continued to pursue fragile, expensive weapons systems. The consequences of that spending are clear: more money isn’t making us safer. As long as the Pentagon has a blank check, it will continue to pursue costly, unproven technology and a dangerous arms race. Building a stronger and more cost-effective military starts with lowering the topline and sticking to it. The Pentagon can choose from billions of dollars in cost-reduction options to reduce spending without compromising national security.
  2. Give our threat assessment a reality check: The biggest immediate danger to our security right now is COVID-19, and its economic impact on our country. Our democracy isn’t looking so hot right now, either. Addressing both of those challenges can’t and shouldn’t be led by the Pentagon. Additionally, more conventional military challenges are best managed with the Pentagon working in partnership with other federal agencies, not calling the shots.
  3. Slam the revolving door shut: The corrupting influence of senior Pentagon officials coming from and going into industry is what feeds a system of excessive spending and endless wars. Decisions about where to go to war, what to buy, and future threat analysis should not be influenced by the personal financial interests of decision makers, former and future employers, or clients. President Biden’s ethics executive order is a good start, but Congress should codify restrictions outlined in the Department of Defense Ethics and Anti-Corruption Act introduced last Congress to reduce the influence of the military-industrial complex on Pentagon missions and spending decisions.


Mackenzie Eaglen, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) 

  1. Strike a two-year budget deal: One of the first objectives of the Biden administration must be to provide a stable, predictable, on-time and adequate federal budget every year. The damage caused by delayed budgets cannot be overstated — continuing resolutions or spending freezes and delayed appropriations create inefficiencies and management issues across the federal government. The burden on the Defense Department is particularly severe given the vast purchases of necessary equipment, services, and IT annually to support the US military. In order to address this challenge, the Biden administration should be prepared to work with Congress to prepare a two-year budget deal that begins to buy back damages caused by the Budget Control Act for the Department of Defense, and across the executive branch. Such a deal should set defense and non-defense discretionary spending increases at parity, allowing spending bills for fiscal years 2022 and 2023 to move on time.
  2. Restore readiness: The Biden administration must be prepared to immediately address the existing consequences of unpredictable and insufficient funding. For the Department of Defense, it will be essential for the administration to fix readiness shortfalls across the military services, exacerbated by high demand for forces around the world. For example, a recent report found that over the past seven years, more than 6,000 training and non-combat military aviation mishaps resulted in the loss of 224 lives and 186 aircraft, at a cost $11.6 billion. The commissioners identified consistent funding as one of the minimum requirements to begin reversing these awful trends.
  3. Face reality: The new administration must contend with high unemployment rates, a strained economy and a health crisis that both demands and deserves the ambitious action it is due. However, in meeting this moment, the administration must avoid the dangerous temptation to look for an easy way out when none exists. Cutting defense spending, for example,will make only a dent in any national debt reduction effort that follows this period of high stimulus spending but will have long-lasting effects on servicemembers and their families—just as sequestration did the last decade, which dramatically reduced military readiness and led to tragic outcomes. Advancing the safety and security of the United States via a responsible and considered federal budget should cost what it costs. In the words of former Sec. of Defense Jim Mattis: “America can afford survival.”


William D. Hartung, Director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, Co-director of the Center’s Sustainable Defense Task Force

  1. Lower the Pentagon’s top line: Our greatest security challenges — the pandemic, the climate crisis, and racial and economic injustice – are not military in nature and spending more on the Pentagon will do nothing to help solve them.  Meanwhile, our post-9/11 wars have cost over $6.4 trillion with hundreds of thousands of lives lost on all sides, without making America or the world safer.  And at nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars per year, Pentagon spending far exceeds the peak levels of the Korean and Vietnam Wars or the Reagan buildup of the 1980s. A thorough rethinking of our defense strategy could save at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade while making America and the world safer.  Cutting the Pentagon’s top line by 10 to 15% in parallel with the development of a new, more restrained strategy that focuses on the most urgent risks to our security would be a critical first step in the right direction.
  2.  Cancel the new ICBM: The Pentagon is in the midst of buying a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, land-based missiles and nuclear warheads at a cost of up to $2 trillion over the next three decades.  These expenditures are dangerous and unnecessary. The most egregious new expenditures are for a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). As former secretary of defense William Perry has noted, ICBMs are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because a president would have to decide to use them within a matter of minutes upon warning of attack, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war. The Biden administration should defund the new ICBM and conduct a thorough review of the Pentagon’s entire nuclear modernization plan. 
  3. Reduce military aid and rein in arms transfers: US policies on arms transfers and military aid need to be revised to emphasize human rights and long-term security over short-term political and economic considerations. The Biden administration should reduce military assistance to repressive regimes like the Sisi regime in Egypt; stop arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of their central roles in sustaining devastating wars in Yemen and Libya; and pause and review all pending arms sales contracts and deliveries in order to consider risks of human rights abuses, civilian harm, corruption and misalignment with US foreign policy objectives.


Check out more in the series:

After the Apocalypse: Cybersecurity

After the Apocalypse: Iran

After the Apocalypse: Climate Crisis

After the Apocalypse: US Grand Strategy 

After the Apocalypse: China

After the Apocalypse: US Nuclear Policy

Mandy Smithberger, Mackenzie Eaglen, and William D. Hartung

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