When It Comes to Defense, Money Isn’t Everything

Overspending on the Pentagon has immense opportunity costs, especially when the greatest threats to humanity are not military.

Just before Christmas, President Joe Biden signed a bill to provide the Pentagon with $858 billion in spending for the fiscal year 2023. This is an enormous sum — far higher than US spending at the peak of the Korean or Vietnam wars or the height of the Cold War. But what’s more, the $80 billion increase from the fiscal year 2022 to 2023 alone is higher than the entire military budget of every nation in the world but China.

According to the latest figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States spends about two and a half times on its military as China spends and ten times what Russia spends. Russia is no doubt spending more now in the context of its brutal invasion of Ukraine, but the spending gap remains significant, especially if one considers the hundreds of billions spent on their militaries by US allies in Europe. The same holds for Asia, where US spending is augmented by investments made by allies in Japan, Australia, Taiwan, and South Korea, among others.

Despite this wide spending disparity between the United States and its main adversaries, China and Russia, hawks in Washington are crying for more, with a goal of spending more than $1 trillion on the Pentagon and nuclear weapons spending at the Department of Energy within a few years time.

THE HAWKS ARE MISSING THE POINT

Advocates of boosting Pentagon spending don’t seem to understand that there is a point when more becomes less when it comes to defense. Throwing more money at the Pentagon now is more likely to enable price gouging and cost overruns than provide greater protection for the United States and its allies. Even more importantly, an endless flow of money to the Pentagon relieves the department of having to make choices among contending security risks. The administration’s recent National Defense Strategy (NDS) document is an object lesson in how not to make choices.

The current rush to spend more on the Pentagon also ignores the fact that the military spending binge of the past two decades has returned little in the way of increased security.

The NDS cites great power competition, regional powers like Iran and North Korea, and a continued war on terror as essential priorities that require military resources to address. Yet, it leaves intact a system that includes over 750 overseas military bases, 200,000 troops stationed abroad, and counterterror operations in at least 85 countries. And while it gives lip service to an integrated approach that includes vigorous diplomacy, the Pentagon still receives a dozen times as much funding as the Department of State.

The current rush to spend more on the Pentagon also ignores the fact that the military spending binge of the past two decades has returned little in the way of increased security. The Costs of War Project at Brown University estimates that the United States has spent over $8 trillion on its post-9/11 wars while failing to achieve the objectives of fostering peace and stability in target nations like Iraq and Afghanistan.

As for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin did it for his own reasons, as questionable as they may be, and he would have done so even if the United States were spending twice as much on its military. The war itself has exposed the weakness of Russia’s armed forces, and Ukraine has mounted an effective defense without the need to introduce US or NATO troops into the conflict. Much still needs to be done to bring the war to a conclusion and end the suffering of the Ukrainian people, but pumping up the Pentagon’s regular budget — as opposed to the emergency spending provided specifically for the defense of Ukraine — will not be a factor in ending the war.

THE OPPORTUNITY COSTS 

All of this spending on the Pentagon has immense opportunity costs at a time when the greatest threats to humanity are not military in nature. For example, preventing pandemics, addressing climate change, and reducing global inequality will do more to protect the lives and livelihoods of Americans and people around the world than developing new nuclear weapons or buying more aircraft carriers. But as long as the Pentagon receives the lion’s share of federal discretionary spending, we will not be able to invest sufficient funds in dealing with these other urgent challenges.

It’s time to rethink our priorities and put military spending in its proper place as one of many tools for providing security, not the privileged recipient of the bulk of our resources devoted to protecting the United States and its allies. A study by the Congressional Budget Office released late last year has outlined three alternative approaches that would save $1 trillion on defense over the next decade without reducing US security. The three scenarios share some common features — fewer missions, a smaller military, more reliance on allies, and limits on boots-on-the-ground US interventions like the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A more thorough review that included trimming unnecessary missions and reducing the US capacity for global intervention would save even more. It’s time to stop assuming that more is better when it comes to defense. How the money is allocated and in pursuit of what policy goals is what counts, not how much is being spent. A change in priorities is long overdue.

William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.