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As military spending soars, Congress must take critical look at Pentagon budget

FILE – The Pentagon is seen from Air Force One as it flies over Washington, March 2, 2022. Defense officials tell Congress that the military services are still reviewing possible discipline of troops who refused the order to get the COVID-19 vaccine. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

The Pentagon has released its budget request for fiscal year 2024. The figure for the Pentagon alone is a hefty $842 billion.  

Total spending on national defense – including work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy – comes in at $886 billion. That is one of the highest military budgets since World War II, far higher than at the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam Wars or the height of the Cold War. The proposed budget is far more than is needed to provide an effective defense of the United States and its allies.

Unfortunately, there is a danger that Congress will once again add tens of billions of dollars to the Pentagon’s total based on parochial financial interests rather than a careful assessment of what the United States needs to defend itself and its allies.

In the last two budget cycles, lawmakers have added $25 billion and $45 billion to the Defense Department budget, respectively. Much of that funding went for additional weapons programs built in the states or districts of key members that were included because they generate jobs and revenue in their areas, not because they have any special strategic value.  

Systems added by Congress last year included a $2 billion destroyer built in Maine, more F-35s built in Texas and California and a whole array of other weapons systems: 10 HH-60W helicopters, four EC-37 aircraft and 16 additional C-130J aircraft (at a cost of $1.7 billion). 

Not only were weapons added, but Congress also prevented the Pentagon from retiring systems that it deemed unworkable or out of line with its emerging focus on great power competition, such as B-1 bombers, F-22 and F-15 combat aircraft, aerial refueling planes, C-130 and C-40 transport aircraft, E-3 electronic warfare planes, HH-60W helicopters and littoral combat ships (LCS). It will cost billions of dollars to maintain these systems that the Pentagon and the military services don’t even want, at the expense of other priorities.

The move to preserve the LCS was especially egregious, as the ship has been unable to carry out its basic missions, and has had numerous malfunctions that have kept it from even operating in a number of key instances. But the extra LCSs were kept due to a concerted lobbying effort by contractors that are slated to receive billions of dollars to maintain and repair the ships, along with a major push from members representing the areas where that work will be carried out.

Major arms contractors routinely grease the wheels for these kinds of special interest deals by lavishing members of Congress with campaign contributions — $82 million in just the past two election cycles. Much of this funding goes to members with the greatest authority over Pentagon spending levels. For example, House Armed Services Committee chief Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) received over $444,000 from weapons-making companies in the most recent election cycle, while Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the new head of the defense appropriations subcommittee, followed close behind at $390,000. The industry backs up its funding of influential members with its army of 820 lobbyists, many of whom passed through the revolving door from the Pentagon or Congress to positions with major weapons contractors. 

Instead of adding funding that benefits big weapons contractors, Congress should apply itself to determining whether the Pentagon’s proposal aligns with a sensible defense strategy, and whether its funding blueprint provides adequate funds to carry it out. Among other things, that means acknowledging that the challenge posed by China is more political and economic than military in nature, and scaling back plans for spending devoted to preparing for a potential conflict with Beijing — a war between nuclear-armed powers that could result in an unprecedented catastrophe for all concerned.  

The United States already spends about two-and-a-half times what China spends on its military and possesses 13 times as many nuclear weapons in its current stockpile. Even if China were to double or triple the size of its nuclear arsenal, deterrence would hold absent a direct conflict between the two nations, which would increase the risk that nuclear weapons might be used.  

In any event, the best way to head off a conflict over Taiwan is through diplomacy not military buildups and harsh rhetoric. Doing so will require changes in both Washington and Beijing, but a policy based as much on reassurance as on military deterrence is well worth pursuing given its potential security benefits.

Unfortunately, rather than seeking to reduce tensions between the U.S. and China, the newly formed House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party has added fuel to the fire, devoting its first hearing to a litany of alleged threats posed by Beijing, present nearly anywhere one might look, if the committee and its witnesses are to be believed.

As military spending soars towards $1 trillion a year, it is long past time for Congress to take a critical look at the Pentagon budget with an eye towards aligning it with a reasonable defense strategy, rather than piling on weapons we don’t need based on pork-barrel politics rather than strategic necessity.

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

Tags biden budget China defense budget Defense spending PentagonDefense department United States United States federal budget

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