The Trump administration is reportedly set to propose $716 billion on the Pentagon and related programs for fiscal 2019. If true, it will be a case of throwing good money after bad. Pentagon spending is already approaching a post-World War II record, well above the Cold War average and higher than peak spending during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
At a time when military force has been either irrelevant or ineffective in addressing the most urgent threats we face, doubling down on Pentagon spending at the expense of diplomacy and other elements of national strength is misguided at best, and potentially disastrous at worst.
Rather than overspending on unnecessary nuclear weapons and bulking up on traditional weapons systems, the administration should be crafting a strategy for making Americans safer that uses the full range of available tools. The Pentagon doesn't need more spending, it needs more spending discipline, and a clearer strategy. Trying to do everything is not a strategy, it is a recipe for perpetual conflict.
Advocates of higher spending claim that there is a “readiness” crisis driven by shoddy equipment and inadequate training, factors that — they claim — are the cause of deaths of sailors and Marines on patrol or in stateside military exercises. In fact, as a number of officers who lead personnel on the front lines have noted, there is no readiness crisis. To the extent that additional funds are needed for training and maintenance there is more than enough money available if the Pentagon would eliminate wasteful and misguided expenditures.
Examples of waste in the Pentagon budget abound. For example, a Pentagon advisory council has identified excessive bureaucratic overhead that, if eliminated, would save $25 billion per year.
Rather than get down to the task of streamlining its operations, Pentagon leaders tried to hide the report’s findings from Congress, fearing that the revelations would undercut their pleas for additional funding. Or take the case of the more than 600,000 private contractors that the Pentagon employs, many of whom do jobs that duplicate work being done by government employees. Cutting this work force by 15 percent would save another $20 billion per year.
Then there are the Pentagon’s sloppy purchasing practices, which result in overpaying for basic items like $500 worth of helicopter gears that the Army purchased for $8,000.
Part of the problem is that the Pentagon’s books are in such a state of chaos that the department is the only major U.S. agency that has never passed an audit. If they can’t keep track of where the money goes, it’s much harder to root out waste or avoid overpaying for basic goods and services.
Another factor that keeps Pentagon spending higher than it should be is the myth that most of the funds it receives support our troops. This is not the case. About 40 to 50 percent of the Pentagon’s yearly outlays go to corporations, with large contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics getting the lion’s share. And too often the big-ticket items that fuel the revenues of these firms are of little value in actually defending us from the most urgent threats we face.
Take, for example, the F-35 combat aircraft, the largest weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon, at a projected $1.5 trillion to build and operate over the lifetime of the aircraft. The Project on Government Oversight, a respected nonpartisan watchdog group, has determined that the plane may never be fully ready for combat, even as it experiences huge cost overruns and ongoing performance problems.
For another example, look at the Pentagon’s plan to spend $1.7 trillion over the next three decades on a new generation of nuclear-armed submarines, bombers, and land-based missiles. We already possess massive nuclear overkill, with a stockpile of 4,000 nuclear weapons when a few hundred would be enough to dissuade any nation from attacking the United States. Cutting the arsenal down to size could save hundreds of billions of dollars in the years to come. And needless to say, building more nuclear weapons will do nothing to protect us from terrorism, even as it starves necessary domestic programs of funds.
Before they throw more money at the Pentagon, the administration and Congress need to force the department to do a better job of spending the money it already has. Spending more without a smarter strategy won’t make us any safer, and it could even make matters worse.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.