The real consequences of a blank check for defense spending

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak shake hands with soldiers during a visit with U.S. troops at the Powidz Air Base in Poland.
Czarek Sokolowski/The Associated Press
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak shake hands with soldiers during a visit with U.S. troops at the Powidz Air Base in Poland.

June was a good month for those who want to see a higher U.S. defense budget. On June 16, the Senate Armed Services Committee tacked on a $45 billion increase to President Biden’s proposed $813 billion topline for the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), calling for $847 billion in defense spending for the coming financial year. And last Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee voted to add $37 billion to the president’s original budget proposal.

Members of Congress and staff cited inflation and the war in Ukraine, as well as a desire to fund military priorities not included in the president’s budget, as reasons for the increase — despite the fact that the budget already accounts for inflation, the Secretary of Defense has expressed his confidence that the department can handle the effects of inflation, and the aid the U.S. has committed to Ukraine is handled separately from the defense budget. 

A historic increase like this isn’t a one-time event; it’s evidence of a complete lack of responsibility within Congress for fighting for Americans’ actual interests. And without serious efforts to increase oversight and encourage efficiency in defense spending now, there is little reason why Congress will not continue to push the defense budget topline closer to the $1 trillion mark in coming years.

It’s time to acknowledge that there are real tradeoffs when defense spending gets first priority from both parties in the face of a parade of preventable miseries — a housing crisis, inflation that is vastly more consequential for the health and wellbeing of most consumers than the financial health of the military or the defense industry, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which, two and a half years in, has not yet received an adequate policy response.

Then there are the slower-rolling crises we’ve come to accept as simply part of American life in the 21st century: the crippling effects of student debt on a generation of adults for whom the basic building blocks of economic stability are now all but out of reach, the increasingly dramatic and destructive effects of climate change — the list goes on.

This consistent prioritization of defense spending has profound consequences throughout the country. Take Montana, for example. The state is home to part of the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force through Malmstrom Air Force Base, located in underground silos spread out among the farm and ranchland of the west-central area of the state. The communities of the missile fields have been promised new jobs resulting from the renovation of the existing silos through the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), recently designated the LGM-35A Sentinel program. Recent Washington Post coverage cited Air Force messaging that the program would bring two workforce hubs with 3,000 jobs in Fergus County, which has a population of around 11,000.

The impact of that kind of investment on the local economy is undeniable and dramatic but what is less clear is how long those jobs would last, what kind of benefits they would come with and whether, after the project is finished, they would simply disappear without leaving behind any basis for longer-term regional prosperity. From the perspective of Congress — or anyone concerned with what the defense industry is doing with the approximately $2,000 each individual pays into defense via taxes — it’s not clear whether the 10,000 new jobs promised by Northrop Grumman to result from the nearly $300 billion project are new or pre-existing positions.

What’s more, there are few reliable methods for making sure that community members have a say in whether and how the defense industry invests in their communities. Beyond industry-led public relations campaigns, communities that are chosen to play host to new defense industry facilities often find themselves the last to know, with little input into the process.

Meanwhile, Montana is suffering from multiple crises that could benefit from increased federal investment in areas that have been shown to create more jobs, such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, and non-fossil fuel energy. With nearly one million acres up in smoke in 2021, declining trout populations set to affect the fisheries and tourism industry — both of which contribute at least as much to the state economy as defense — and unpredictable weather patterns threatening agriculture, there are plenty of opportunities for productive investment to address climate change rather than to allow its effects to cause catastrophic losses of employment and revenue. And the housing crisis gripping the country that has gone largely unaddressed by policymakers has itself stifled economic development in the state, as workers struggle to find affordable places to live.

It’s not just about moving numbers from one column to the other. It’s about what the U.S. chooses to invest in — what sort of research and development it encourages, which facilities it builds and maintains and whether it encourages investment in a livable long-term future for all Americans. The importance of maintaining good priorities in government investment, and correcting course when necessary, was indelibly highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic when the U.S. faced disastrous shortages of necessary medical supplies and few established policy levers to address them.

Runaway defense spending is much more than a number: It represents a systematic lack of investment in real security with real consequences at the local and state level. It’s not too late to correct course toward a responsible and accountable approach to defense spending.

Emma Claire Foley is a senior associate at Global Zero, the international movement to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Tags Biden Defense Department Defense spending NDAA authorization Politics of the United States

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