One month into the war in Ukraine, the US finds itself on better international footing than it has in some time. Russia’s military is performing poorly, so much so that US intelligence analysts are revisiting their previous assumptions regarding Russia’s capabilities, and the West is more united than it has been in many years, with allies committing to increase their support of the NATO alliance. At the same time, the US faces a multitude of diplomatic, health, and climate threats. From the need to negotiate solutions to future crises in cyber warfare and space, to the necessity to address growing radicalism at home, not to mention ongoing pandemic-related instability. Why, then, is it so easy for the US to green light massive increases in legacy military spending, and so hard to pay for anything else?
Some answers are clear.
After the Cold War, a defense industry faced with major cuts rallied to stay in motion. That industry grew over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reaching a fever pitch. Today, weapons systems are built strategically in as many states as possible — the F-35’s supply chain resides in 45. And in 2021, over $117 billion enabled hundreds of lobbyists to spend their days making sure the industry keeps chugging along.
Our cultural inertia is similarly strong. Research has identified a link between toxic honor beliefs (insert obligatory Will Smith reference here) and a propensity toward military solutions among men and women alike. And the role of fear, on full display 24-hours-a-day in America during the war in Ukraine, is not to be discounted.
WHERE’S THE OVERSIGHT?
A lack of clear oversight, however, is the most glaring problem in budget-making today. Just weeks into the war in Ukraine, even traditionally skeptical members of Congress had been convinced that the answer must be found in the US’ coffers. Speaking at an American Enterprise Institute forum, Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) said the president’s budget request would “be bigger than we thought.” The invasion “made [the budget] more expensive; made it more complicated.”
And Smith was not wrong. Under the Trump administration, the Pentagon budget rose to one of the highest levels in constant dollars since World War II, but the Biden administration’s $813 billion ask eclipsed those figures. It was $28 billion more, in fact, than Trump projected he might ask for himself. The increase was ostensibly because the war in Ukraine had “changed things,” but this reasoning doesn’t hold up.
If there was a moment to interrogate the future of war, at least where Russia is concerned, this is it, and low dollar investments are shining. Efforts to blunt the impact of Putin’s cyber and information aggression are paying off. Unity is paying off. Cool heads are paying off. And diplomacy is more important than ever. Yet, the State Department’s budget remains woefully small.
There is already ample evidence that too much money and too little discipline is creating more problems than it solves. Doubling down on military solutions absent clear guidance and responsible budgeting would not only be provocative, it would be a grave mistake.
While Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) and others have called for more spending “as an act of deterrence,” they’ve failed to explain why current levels of spending aren’t enough. More or better US conventional weapons would certainly not be a factor in deterrence — Putin’s conventional military is far outmatched, as we knew. Russia, after all, spends just 10% the amount of the US on its military. Rather than depend on his military might, Putin has moved into Ukraine under the cover of just one weapon: nuclear. This means that nuclear deterrence is also working. The problem is that it’s working for Russia, and against the West. While the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was already in a crisis state, this will make things worse. Investing in more or different nuclear weapons here in the US would only play into the dangerous assumptions we hope others, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea will not make. The stakes in finding a diplomatic solution to this problem are no less than the end of the world.
Biden himself has emphasized the economic, technological, and political nature of many of the greatest threats faced by the US today. His National Defense Strategy (NDS), the full version of which was transmitted to Congress last week, places an emphasis on deterrence and resilience, in stark contrast to the 2018 NDS, which would have the US prepare to address nearly any conflict that might arise. Yet, Republicans in Congress have called for a 5% increase in spending above the rate of inflation, and Democrats have already conceded that the budget will be high. The only question, it seems, is how high. After all, it’s an election year.
Call it for what it is. The vast majority of members are unwilling or unable to engage seriously in the business of oversight of our nation’s warfighting capabilities. Jobs are one reason for congressional inaction, but not a sufficient one. Evidence shows that the defense industry is a poor engine for growth. For every $1 billion spent, the Defense Department creates only 8,500 jobs — rather, in 2019, more than half of the record-high Pentagon budget went to defense contractors. Alternatively, burgeoning evidence shows that many existing jobs might transition to the green economy with little incident, and polls show that 56% of US adults support cutting Pentagon spending and reinvesting those funds.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF INACTION
The weight of congressional inaction on defense is no more visible than in the budget process itself: That is, whether and when the Defense Department can count on a budget at all. In recent years, the Pentagon has skated along, instead, on continuing resolutions (CRs). These continuations of past spending make it near-impossible to plan for the future, rendering estimates for new systems worthless (and more expensive) while the Pentagon waits. Despite lawmakers’ vocal support for the Pentagon, congressional spending increases paired with CRs are the height of irresponsibility, encouraging waste, expensive delays, and end-of-year spending sprees.
If lawmakers are serious about Americans’ safety and security, they’ll take their cues from the Pentagon. Stop treating arbitrary dollar plus-ups as the solution to conflict and fear. Stop adding weapons the Pentagon says it does not need. Start doing some of the obvious things the Pentagon actually wants, like Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), military healthcare reform, and real acquisition reform.
And start asking real questions.
There is already ample evidence that too much money and too little discipline is creating more problems than it solves. And that lack of discipline has rubbed off on the Pentagon’s strategy. Representative Seth Moulton (D-MA) called it “absurd to be talking about toplines and not talking about what’s in the budget.” He’s right.
Doubling down on military solutions absent clear guidance and responsible budgeting would not only be provocative, it would be a grave mistake.