How Much Is Enough? Pentagon Spending and the Quest for Security

William Hartung
6 min readJul 14, 2021

How Much?

At over $750 billion, the Biden administration’s proposal for Pentagon spending and related work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy is at one of the highest levels since World War II. It is substantially higher than the peaks of the Korean and Vietnam wars and the Reagan buildup of the 1980s. It’s more than three times what China spends and ten times what Russia spends. The question is, are these huge sums making us safer? The answer is an emphatic “no.”

The first problem with overspending on the Pentagon is that it diverts funding from other urgent challenges to our lives and livelihoods, both in the United States and globally. Military spending accounts for half of all U.S. discretionary spending — more than all funding for environmental protection, housing, education, job training, and virtually every other civilian function of government combined, aside from entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. At a time when the greatest risks we face are from climate change, pandemics, and racial and economic injustice — not traditional military threats — this is a case of budgetary malpractice. The disparities in spending are astonishing. The $750 billion budget for the Pentagon and nuclear warheads is nearly 70 times the $11 billion budget for the Environmental Protection Agency. And the annual cost of just one weapons system — the overpriced, underperforming F-35 combat aircraft — is substantially more than the entire budget of the Centers for Disease Control. And the Pentagon is just one element of the costs of “national security” as traditionally defined. Adding the costs of homeland security (including border patrol and immigration enforcement), taking care of veterans of America’s forever wars, defense-related interest on the national debt and other expenditures tied to current and past military activities yields a total national security budget of over $1.3 trillion per year.

It would be one thing if spending these enormous sums on the Pentagon made us safer, but it does not. America’s “cover the globe” military strategy — including over 800 overseas military bases, roughly 200,000 troops stationed around the world, special forces operations in over 100 nations, and arms sales and military assistance to two-thirds of the countries on the planet — risks embroiling America in unnecessary wars, at a high price in blood and treasure. America’s post-9/11 wars are a case in point. According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, these conflicts have cost over $6.4 trillion and more than 300,000 civilian lives. Thousands of U.S. military personnel have died in these wars, and hundreds of thousands have suffered severe physical and psychological injuries, including Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI).

How Much Is Enough?

These enormous levels of spending on the Pentagon are not necessary. A policy of restraint, as outlined by the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, could save $1.2 trillion or more over the next decade while making America and the world a safer place. The new policy should include reducing the size of the armed forces in conjunction with a pledge to avoid Iraq- and Afghan-style wars; taking a more realistic view of the challenges posed by Russia and China, and budgeting accordingly; rolling back the Pentagon’s three decades-long plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons, which could end up costing up to $2 trillion; prioritizing diplomacy in efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons; and eliminating unnecessary overhead, including reductions in the hundreds of thousands of private contractors employed by the Pentagon, many of whom do jobs that could be done more cheaply and effectively by civilian government employees.

The $1.2 trillion in savings is a conservative estimate. Bolder measures would yield larger savings. In its “Poor People’s Moral Budget,” the Poor People’s Campaign calls for a reduction of $350 billion in Pentagon spending, achieved by taking steps such as cutting U.S. foreign bases and troops by 60%, ending all current wars, and pursuing complete nuclear disarmament, as called for by the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Redesigning the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be a top priority. Current levels of nuclear weapons are dangerous and unnecessary — especially intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that are on hair-trigger alert and increase the risks of an accidental nuclear war. The active U.S. nuclear stockpile is composed of nearly 4,000 nuclear warheads, each of them many times more powerful than the bombs that killed well over 100,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasakia in the attacks and their immediate aftermath. An exchange involving a small fraction of the current U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals would kill tens of millions of people immediately, as well as sparking a global famine that would kill billions of people and effectively end life as we know it.

There is a better way. Two analysts from U.S. military colleges have estimated that roughly 300 nuclear weapons — one-thirteenth of the current U.S. nuclear arsenal — would be enough to deter any nation from attacking the United States. And an alternative nuclear posture developed by the organization Global Zero suggests a “deterrence-only” strategy that would eliminate nuclear warfighting scenarios that are part of current U.S. nuclear planning. The resulting nuclear force would eliminate ICBMs altogether and reduce the numbers of ballistic missile submarines and nuclear bombers that the U.S. possesses. The ultimate goal should be to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether, as required under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that entered into force earlier this year. Unfortunately, the major nuclear weapons states have yet to endorse the treaty, but pressuring them to do so should be a priority of the peace and arms control movements, and everyone who cares about the future security and safety of the human race.

Are We Addressing the Wrong Challenges?

The greatest threats to human lives and livelihoods at this point in our history are not military in nature, with the exception of nuclear weapons, discussed above. Climate change is a prime example.

The effects of climate change can literally be witnessed on a daily basis — fires, droughts, more and stronger hurricanes, extreme heat, coastal flooding, and more. Left unchecked, climate change is a threat to the future of life on this planet.

Not only is the Pentagon not contributing to the solution of the climate crisis, but it is part of the problem. As noted in an analysis by the Costs of War project at Brown University, the Pentagon is the biggest institutional user of fossil fuels in the world, emitting more greenhouse gases than entire nations. The Pentagon also devours budgetary resources that would be better spent addressing climate change. A 2016 study by the Institute for Policy Studies found that the United States spent 28 times as much on military security as it did on climate security. That gap has likely worsened after the four years of the Trump administration, which stubbornly refused to even acknowledge that climate change is a problem.

Part of the solution to the climate crisis must involve cooperation with China, Washington’s threat du jour. If the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters can’t come together on a plan to curb climate change, there is no hope of a global solution. That means ratcheting down the anti-China rhetoric and taking a more realistic view of the challenges posed by Beijing, which are primarily economic and diplomatic, not military. The United States far outpaces China in military spending (three times as much), nuclear weapons (13 times as many), and most other measures of military power. It also has strong allies in China’s neighborhood, including Australia, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Rather than pursuing the fool’s errand of creating a military that can “win” a war with China — an absurd goal given that a war between two nuclear-armed powers could wreak unprecedented devastation — the United States should open a dialogue with Beijing on issues of mutual concern.

Possibilities for Change

The next two years will be critical in determining whether the United States can change course and move away from a militarized budget and foreign policy towards one that addresses more pressing concerns that have been long neglected in Washington discussions of what makes America safe. The Biden administration chose not to reduce Pentagon spending in first budget proposal, but the next time around can and should be different. The goal for next year’s budget proposal should be to substantially reduce the Pentagon budget in favor of investments in public health, combating climate change, and reducing racial and economic injustice. The administration’s nuclear posture review, now underway, should devalue nuclear weapons as a tool of U.S. security policy and pave the way for significant reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A parallel “global posture review” should recommend a sharp reduction in the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East and beyond. And a new National Defense Strategy should take a more realistic view of the challenges posed by China and Russia while acknowledging urgent non-military risks like pandemics and climate change. None of this will happen without persistent public pressure. The time to act is now if we are going to pave the way to a sustainable future.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

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William Hartung

Expert on national security/foreign policy at Center for International Policy (@ciponline). Buffalonian turned New Yorker, do standup comedy as a hobby.