Spending more and more for less and less at the Pentagon

In March, the Biden administration submitted a budget to Congress that, if enacted, would give the Pentagon more funding than it has ever received. And yet, defense hawks are still not happy about it.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee, are calling for an increase of $50 billion more — almost as much as the State Department’s entire budget. And if we don’t do it, “[w]e will not be able to defend our nation,” according to Rogers and Inhofe.

Experts from think tanks with sizable funding from defense contractors are also flooding the market with articles clamoring for more Pentagon spending. Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), for example, argues that we should spend hundreds of billions of dollars more on defense. Nowhere in the piece is it noted that the chairman of AEI’s board of directors, Daniel A. D’Anielo, is a co-founder of The Carlyle Group, a private equity firm that invests heavily in the defense industry. D’Anielo has donated at least $20 million to AEI. 

Implicit in these calls for more taxpayer dollars going to the Pentagon is the notion that more spending equals more security. But history tells a different story. While taxpayers have been asked to give the Pentagon more and more, they’ve been getting less and less security in return. 

President Biden’s budget request for 2023 would give the Pentagon more money, by far, than at any time during the heights of the Korean War, Vietnam War or the Cold War, even when accounting for inflation. In fact, the Pentagon would receive more money in 2023 than it has at any time since World War II, with the exception of 2009 and 2010, when more than 100,000 U.S. troops were on the ground in the Iraq and Afghanistan surges.

Despite this near historically high level of Pentagon spending, the military has been shrinking. Consider just a comparison between today’s military and the vaunted U.S. force at the height of the Reagan-era build-up, which cost around $100 billion less to taxpayers than Biden’s Pentagon budget request will cost taxpayers in 2023:

In 1985 there were 571 ships in the U.S. Navy. In 2022 there are 298

In 1985 there were 10,458 planes in the Air Force. In 2022 there are 5,217.

In 1985 there were over 2.1 million active-duty military personnel. In 2022 there are just under 1.4 million.

Some might argue that while quantities of military equipment are down, quality has gone up. But it’s precisely the most advanced weapons programs that have proven to be the biggest budget blunders. 

In the Navy, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, once vaunted as something of a “Swiss army knife” that could accomplish several Navy missions, is now coming to a screeching halt. After myriad performance problems and cost overruns, the Navy is planning to cut its losses on this boondoggle, decommissioning up to nine LCSs in 2023, the oldest of which has been in service a mere seven years. The Navy’s new aircraft carriers now cost billions of dollars more per ship than originally planned. In the Air Force, the largest weapons program in world history, the F-35, is similarly being curtailed after a laundry list of performance failures and cost-overruns. And just about every major Army program in the last two decades has been rife with wasteful spending. 

All of this points to what should be the most pressing question when discussing the defense budget: Why are taxpayers being asked, year after year, to spend more and more on the Pentagon while getting less and less for their money?

There are myriad explanations for why, not the least of which is an unrestrained military strategy that has brought U.S. military bases to nearly half the countries in the world. This military overreach pumps up the budget and makes engagement in ill-advised wars more likely, to the detriment of U.S. and global security. There is also extraordinary wasteful spending in an increasingly unwieldy Pentagon bureaucracy — the only federal agency that can’t pass a full financial audit.

And this surge in spending alongside a shrinking military coincides with the growth in spending on defense contractors. In fact, more than half of the Pentagon budget now goes to private contractors, whose CEOs and lobbyists make millions.

When Congress has the opportunity to exert its oversight power of the Pentagon budget, it should ignore the sideshow of how much to adjust the budget for inflation and focus instead on resolving the issues of global overextension, undue corporate influence and bureaucratic ineptitude, which have, for decades, forced taxpayers to spend more and more and get less and less from the Pentagon. 

The Pentagon doesn’t need more money. It needs a more realistic strategy and a more disciplined approach to spending your tax dollars.

Ben Freeman, Ph.D. is a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. William Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute. They were the co-chairs of the Sustainable Defense Task Force at the Center for International Policy.

Tags American Enterprise Institute Biden Biden budget proposal defense budget Jim Inhofe Jim Inhofe Joe Biden Littoral combat ship Mike Rogers Mike Rogers pentagon Pentagon; House Armed Services Committee

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