Pentagon Spending: A Primer

Note: This article is based on a briefing for activists who will be participating in the Global Days of Action on Military Spending (GDAMS), which are being held from April 10ththrough May 9th, 2020.

Introduction: How Much?

The United States is spending at near-record levels on the Pentagon and related programs like work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The Trump administration requested over $740 billion for this work in its February 2020 budget proposal. That’s far more than the United States spent for military purposes at the height of the Korean or Vietnam Wars or the peak of the Reagan buildup of the 1980s.

A more comprehensive assessment of total spending carried out in the name of national security — like the one recently done by Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight — puts the figure at over $1.2 trillion per year. The higher figure includes military-related items like the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, military aid, intelligence, and the costs of military-related interest on the national debt.

Looked at on a global scale, in 2018 U.S. spending on the Pentagon is greaterthan the amounts spent by the next seven nations combined — China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany. Five of these seven nations are U.S. allies. As for potential adversaries, the U.S. spends two and one-half times what China spends, and ten times what Russia spends. In all, the United States accounted for over one-third of total worldwide military expenditures of $1.8 trillion for 2018.

Updated figures on global military spending will be released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in April 2020.

What For?

The biggest increase in the budget that was proposed by the Trump administration in February — which will cover Fiscal Year 2021 — is a nearly 20% increase in spending on nuclear weapons at the Department of Defense (delivery vehicles and support) and the Department of Energy (nuclear warheads). Spending on these two elements of the nuclear enterprise along is slated at $45 billion, with the biggest jump for military activities at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (a $3.1 billion increase, which is 25% more than current levels). In terms of actual nuclear weapons systems, the biggest increase is for the development of a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), which is proposed to triple from roughly $500 million this year to $1.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2021. All of the above information is summarized in this issue brief by Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association.

This year’s nuclear weapons spending is just the down payment on a long-term plan to buy a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and nuclear warheads over the next three decades. As noted in the Arms Control Association brief cited above, “Over the next 30 years, the price tag is likely to top $1.5 trillion and could even approach $2 trillion.”

It’s important to note that while high levels of Pentagon spending are all too often described as essential to “supporting the troops,” in any given year 40 to 50 percentof the Pentagon budget goes to corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics, often for weapons systems that are overpriced, underperforming, and unnecessary. And hundreds of millions, if not billions, go to enormous compensation packages for weapons contractor executives and board members. The CEOs of the top six contractors alone receive over $100 million in salary and benefits. Add to that the monies paid to CEOs of dozens of other contractors, and their other top executives, and their board members, and the cost of subsidizing the top management of arms makers could easily be in the billions of dollars. Lockheed Martin alone has gotten up to $40 to $50 billion per year in government contracts in recent years, which is as much or more than the operating budget of the U.S. Department of State.

Many of the weapons systems that the major contractors produce are overpriced, underperforming and unnecessary. From aircraft carriers at $13 billiona copy to the F-35 combat aircraft program at $1.4 trillion over its lifetime, misguided expenditures predominate in the world of Pentagon procurement. Aircraft carriers will soon be obsolete, as they are vulnerable to a new generation of guided missiles; and they are only “necessary” if one believes that U.S. defense requires a globe-spanning capability for military intervention of the kind that got the U.S. and the world into so much trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as the Project on Government Oversight hasdocumentedrepeatedly, the F-35 may never be fully ready for combat. These dysfunctional systems are good news for companies like Lockheed Martin, but terrible news for American taxpayers.

The largest part of the Pentagon budget goes to support roughly 1.3 millionactive duty military personnel — supplemented by hundreds of thousands more in the guard and reserve — that are used to sustain the Pentagon’s “cover the globe” military strategy, referenced above. The United States maintains over 800 military bases worldwide, supplemented by 11 aircraft carrier strike groups. The United States is involved wars in eight nations, through troop deployments, drone strikes, and aerial bombing — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Mali, and Yemen. And according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the U.S. has counterterror operations underway in 76 countries – over one-third of the nations in the world. The Costs of War Project estimates that the United States has spent or obligated over $6.4 trillion on its post-9/11 wars.

In recent years the Pentagon has sought to develop weapons aimed at preparing for a possible “great power conflict” with Russia or China, including not only the nuclear weapons buildup but hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, a greatly expanded Navy, and cyberwar capabilities.

Needed: A New Strategy

In addition to the considerable power of the military-industrial complex, the main driver of the enormous level of expenditures the United States lavishes on the Pentagon and related agencies is an aggressive and unrealistic strategy that views military power as the primary means for solving the world’s most urgent problems.

The Pentagon’s most recent National Defense Strategy is a case in point. It suggests that the United States should be able to fight and win a war against either Russia or China while holding the other at bay; intimidate, and potentially go to war with Iran or North Korea; and continue the far-flung global war on terror described above. These are the wrong problems to be addressing, and the military is the wrong tool for addressing them. A war with a nuclear-armed power like China or Russia would be an unprecedented humanitarian and strategic disaster, and U.S. strategy should focus on areas of cooperation — like arms control and combatting climate change — not preparing for a military confrontation. The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs should be dealt with through effective diplomacy, like the multilateral Iran nuclear deal that was abandoned by the Trump administration. And a military-dominated approach to addressing terrorism has done more harm than good. Meanwhile, non-military risks like climate change, outbreaks of disease, extreme inequality, and the rise of right-wing nationalism, have been neglected as the bulk of U.S. spending — more than half of the discretionary budget — goes to the Pentagon.

A Better Way

There is a better way. The United States and its allies can be made safer while spending less, as outlined in the report of the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group comprised of former White House, Congressional, and Pentagon budget officials; retired military officers; and non-governmental experts from across the political spectrum. The task force has outlined a plan that would save at least $1.25 trillion over the next decade by ending current wars; reducing the size of the armed forces, including a one-third cut in overseas troop deployments; terminating the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons buildup; and cutting overhead and waste by reducing spending on private contractors by 15%. Other organizations like the Poor People’s Campaign, have proposed even deeper cuts, in its Moral Budget. The point is that the United States could spend far less on its military while investing in tools to address the most urgent threats to humanity, making America and the world far safer in the process.

The author is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.