Reining in the Pentagon: More security, less spending
Pentagon spending has become a third-rail in American politics. In March of this year, when President Trump proposed increasing the military’s budget to $750 billion for fiscal year 2020, the Washington establishment barely blinked. Never mind that Trump, just months before, had promised to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or that the Pentagon’s budget is already near historic highs. So far, as the House and Senate debate Pentagon appropriations and authorization bills this week, the Democratic leadership’s counter-offer on military spending is $733 billion, a minor adjustment at best. So far, this year’s debate has not been about whether to cut the Pentagon’s bloated budget, but about how much to increase it.
This rush to throw more money at the Pentagon ignores the fact that more spending does not necessarily provide more security. A new report by the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force — a group of experts that includes retired military officers, ex-White House budget officials, and former Pentagon and congressional budget analysts — lays out a new approach to security that can make America safer while saving taxpayers over $1.2 trillion over the next decade.
The Pentagon budget is already extremely high by historical standards. The Trump administration’s proposed $750 billion budget for fiscal 2020 is more than we spent at the height of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and far more than Ronald Reagan ever spent.
The oft-repeated assertion that the U.S. military has been underfunded during this decade is simply not true. In fact, extraordinary budgetary maneuvers that have been used to evade the caps on the Pentagon’s regular budget imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA). As a result, the Department of Defense has actually received over $1 trillion more in the decade the BCA has been in effect than in the previous 10 years, when the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan peaked at 180,000 — nearly nine times current levels.
When advocates of higher defense budgets claim there is a readiness crisis that is undermining the combat capability of U.S. forces, it’s worth remembering that the Pentagon has plenty of money. To the extent that there is a readiness issue it is due to poor spending choices and bureaucratic waste, not lack of funds.
What is the alternative? We need a strategy that avoids unnecessary and counterproductive wars, reduces the U.S. global military footprint, takes a more realistic view of the major security challenges facing the United States, and reduces waste and inefficiency. Instead, for most of this century we have had a military-first approach that has imposed immense costs without providing commensurate security benefits. It’s time for a change.
One essential element of any new approach must be to avoid large-scale counterinsurgency campaigns and nation-building efforts of the sort that were pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan, with disastrous consequences in terms of lives lost, funds expended, and the creation of increased threats like the terrorist backlash that has resulted from our policy of perpetual war.
We should also abandon the notion that the United States needs to be prepared to fight one major conflict while deterring another. Global security should be a shared responsibility. U.S. allies in Europe have more than enough resources to take the lead in their own defense.
European members of NATO spend three times as much on their militaries as Russia does, and their economies taken together are 10 times the size of Russia’s. As for dealing with the challenges posed by China, we need to spend more time figuring out how to prevent a conflict between our two nuclear-armed states and less time spinning out scenarios for a conflict that would be devastating for all concerned.
The United States is also desperately in need of an updated nuclear strategy that focuses on deterring any other nation from attacking the United States, rather than preparing options for fighting and “winning” a nuclear war. As the organization Global Zero has laid out in detail, such an approach would reduce the risks of a nuclear war launched by accident or miscalculation while scaling back the Pentagon’s unnecessary and dangerous $1.2 trillion, three decades-long nuclear modernization plan.
Even without a new strategy, there are tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars to be saved over the next decade by imposing more efficient business operations at the Pentagon, stopping the process of massive overpayments for spare parts and other equipment, and trimming the department’s cadre of over 600,000 private contractors, many of whom do jobs that overlap with work that government employees can do for less.
It’s time for Congress, the public and the candidates for the presidency to wean themselves from the false notion that more Pentagon spending means a better defense, and look instead to smarter, more effective approaches that can free up precious resources for other urgent national needs.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
Ben Freeman runs the Center’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative.
They served as co-directors of the Sustainable Defense Task Force.