The United States military is and must remain the strongest in the world to defend our vital national security interests. However, nearly two decades of inconclusive war have distracted the U.S. government from current and future national security threats, including from Russia and China, while diverting resources from domestic investments in healthcare, education, infrastructure, and technological innovation – all of which are critical for our future security. Last year the national defense budget totaled $716 billion, or roughly 17% of the total federal budget and more than the defense spending of the next 10 countries combined. That is more than the U.S. spent during the height of the Vietnam War. Further obscuring the total spending figures, national security spending on items like nuclear weapons maintenance does not even fall under the defense budget. When including these programs, total annual U.S. expenditures on defense likely exceeds $1 trillion.
Pentagon spending at such high levels could potentially be necessary. But much of the Pentagon’s multibillion dollars budget cannot even be accurately accounted for. A 2016 report found that the Pentagon buried an internal study that highlighted $125 billion in potential savings over five years due to administrative waste. Given the sheer size of U.S. investment in defense spending, Congress must ensure that the Pentagon is transparent in its accounting of how its budget is spent.
The opacity of the Pentagon’s budget makes it hard to know just how much money has been spent on the never-ending wars of the last two decades. An estimated $6.4 trillion has been spent on the War on Terror through Fiscal Year 2020, or an average of $23.7 billion per month since its inception. Cutting spending does not necessarily mean compromising national security. The Pentagon can modernize by phasing out costly, outdated defense measures or save billions by diverting funding from exorbitant private contractors to civilian government employees.
In November of 2018, the Pentagon announced that it had failed its first-ever audit. While the results were not surprising, the fact that the audit was even completed is a notable step in the right direction, identifying some of the most egregious problems. As the Deputy Secretary of Defense noted “it was an audit on a $2.7 trillion dollar organization, so the fact that we did the audit is substantial.” Completing the audit required 1200 auditors, who poured over a sample of 18 billion transactions.
By March of 2020, however, the Pentagon had backpedaled on transparency and accountability, requesting that Congress allow it to classify even more of its budget plans. This is not an isolated incident: the Pentagon has continually classified or restricted access to its records, claiming that this prevents unintentional leaks of sensitive information. This claim ignores the reality that U.S. adversaries do not rely on public sources to gain insight into U.S. programs, but on methods like intelligence collection and cyber operations. Making information about the Pentagon’s spending publicly available serves taxpayers. Instead, recent Congresses have moved in the opposite direction. The FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act eliminated the Chief Management Officer of the Department of Defense – the third highest civilian post at the Pentagon, an office that helped identify savings within the defense budget.
In stark contrast to the actions of legislators is U.S. public opinion: a December 2020 Chicago Council survey found that only 23 percent of Americans support defense spending increases.
President Biden’s FY23 budget request asked for a comparatively moderate increase in defense spending. However, noticeable cost-saving opportunities were missed, especially cutting the unnecessary and expensive new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) known as the Sentinel or Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). Crucially, the fate of another counter-productive nuclear program remains uncertain. President Biden canceled President Trump’s plan to reintroduce a nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM-N), which numerous arms control experts warn against. But Congress could still resuscitate the program.
“Having this ready spigot of money hasn’t forced us to make the hard choices … It hasn’t forced us to prioritize. It hasn’t forced us to do the analysis. And it hasn’t forced us to limit ourselves and get to a point or deciding, in a very turbulent world, what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do.”— Adm. Mike Mullen Former Joint Chiefs Chairman
Indeed, Congress seems inclined to increase military spending across the bill. Rather than accommodate Biden’s spending increase, or even push back thoughtfully, Congress seems poised to pour more money into the Defense budget – beyond what either the White House or the armed services think is necessary. The Senate Armed Services Committee recently added $45 billion to the White House’s request, bringing the total price tag to $847 billion ;their House counterparts recently approved a smaller but similar increase. While final negotiations on the FY23 NDAA continue, now is the time for voters and taxpayers to make their voices heard.
President Biden supports ending endless wars, modernizing our approach to national security, and increasing transparency and accountability for the Department of Defense. Call your Senators and Representatives at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to fully exercise their oversight responsibilities and to authorize and fund the Defense Department at a sustainable level tied to future national security challenges. Be sure to mention:
Forbes, March 2021Taxpayers Should Question the Pitch to Fund Another Naval Nuclear Weapon
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2022The Six Blind Men and the Elephant: Differing Views on the U.S. Defense Budget
War on the Rocks, January 2021Infographic: The Facts About U.S. Defense Spending
Peter G. Peterson Foundation, December 2020Be Wary of Proposals for Less Defense Budget Transparency
Rand Corporation, April 2020Costs of War Study
Brown University, November 2019America’s Defense Budget is Bigger Than You Think
The Nation, May 2019Would a $700 Billion Budget Really Sink the Pentagon?
Defense One, December 2018