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The Pentagon budget is already out of control: Some in Congress want to make it worse

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If endorsed by the full Congress, this week’s vote by the House Armed Services Committee to add $23.9 billion to the Biden administration’s Pentagon budget proposal will compound the problem of overspending on the department while diverting funds from more urgent security priorities. The main beneficiaries of this approach will be major weapons contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, which already receive tens of billions of taxpayer dollars annually, often for weapons we don’t need at prices we can’t afford, as well as for excessive executive salaries that add up to hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

This year’s Biden administration proposal for the Pentagon and related work like nuclear warhead development at the Department of Energy came in at more than $750 billion, a near record for post-World War II spending that is substantially higher than spending at the peak of the Korean and Vietnam wars or the Reagan buildup of the 1980s. It’s roughly three times what China spends on its military, and 10 times what Russia spends. 

Throwing more money at the Pentagon – the only major government agency that has never passed an audit – is a fool’s errand. We don’t need more Pentagon spending; we need smarter Pentagon spending, including a recognition that many of the greatest risks to our lives and livelihoods are not military in nature and do not require additional resources for the Department of Defense. Instead of recognizing this reality, the House Armed Services Committee is recommending doubling down on programs like the troubled F-35 combat aircraft, which analyses by the Project on Government Oversight have shown may never be fully ready for combat, even as the costs of keeping the aircraft flying are unsustainable. 

Even before these additions, the base Pentagon authorization bill endorses sharp increases in spending on systems like a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and a new sea-launched cruise missile that will increase the risk of a nuclear war. The new ICBM alone is slated to cost $264 billion over its lifetime.

The long-term plan advocated by Pentagon spending boosters like Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) – 5 percent real growth for as far as the eye can see – would have enormous budgetary impacts. As Andrew Lautz of the National Taxpayer’s Union has written, going down this path would add $1.2 trillion to Pentagon spending beyond current plans over the next decade. That’s money far better spent on efforts to curb climate change, prevent future pandemics and reduce racial and economic inequality. And spending $1.2 trillion on health care, green energy, infrastructure and education would generate a net increase of hundreds of thousands of jobs compared to spending it on military programs — jobs in areas of genuine national need.

It is particularly noteworthy that many members of Congress who would increase Pentagon spending even as the United States is ending its military presence in Afghanistan and moving (hopefully) towards scaling down its other post-9/11 “forever wars.” The rationale given for doing so is the alleged military threat posed by China. But not only do the U.S. and its allies vastly outspend Beijing on their militaries, but the U.S. has a far more capable navy and an active nuclear stockpile 13 times as large as China’s. More importantly, cooperation between the U.S. and China on tackling existential risks like climate change and pandemics is far more important than spinning out warfighting scenarios for a conflict that should never be fought.

The bottom line is that a war between two nuclear-armed powers like the U.S. and China would be an unprecedented catastrophe that is to be avoided at all costs. Doing so calls for more diplomacy and balanced economic relations, not a costly and dangerous new arms race. There is plenty of room to oppose negative Chinese behavior like its crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and its harsh repression of its Uyghur population without stumbling into war.

The end of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan should prompt reflection on U.S. security policy writ large and spur a fundamental change in U.S. global strategy. As noted by the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, the first steps in that direction should include a reduction in the size of the U.S. armed forces and U.S. global military footprint in line with a policy of restraint that prioritizes diplomacy over military force; a more realistic view of the challenges posed by China and Russia; a rolling back of the Pentagon’s plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons; and a reduction in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. 

We need a new national conversation about what will truly make America and the world a safer place, not a mindless surge of new spending on the Pentagon.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

Tags China Defense Department Defense spending James Inhofe Mike Rogers Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Pentagon Presidency of Joe Biden United States Department of Defense

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