Defense Spending

More Defense Dollars Don't Guarantee a Better Military

The truth about military spending.


Everyone agrees that federal spending is out of control, yet there's little appetite to go after bloated Pentagon budgets. Americans from the left, right, and center all too often give the military a pass because they grudgingly believe current levels of defense spending are necessary for national security.

But is there such a thing as too much defense spending? Is it possible that, counterintuitively, more defense dollars could make us less safe?

Yes. The fact is, that is exactly what's happening. There are tens of billions of defense dollars being wasted every year. That's not just bad for our checkbook. It's bad for our military effectiveness.

The problem is two-fold. First, there is the Pentagon acquisition system, which fails to deliver affordable and effective weapons on time. Then, this failed system is overseen by a Congress that rewards the waste with additional dollars for modernization at the cost of near- and medium-term readiness.

Consider the ineffective weapon systems the Pentagon tries to develop. One infamous example is the Future Combat System (FCS), an Army program that was meant to replace America's workhouse armored vehicles that were built in the 1980s. After more than a decade, the program was cancelled after spending $20 billion and producing exactly zero new vehicles. Meanwhile, our potential adversaries have produced several new iterations of tanks and other armored vehicles.

A recent CSIS report estimates taxpayers lost $59 billion in acquisition failures from 2001 to 2010, and shows that the problem is systemic. Last year the Government Account Office (GAO) found that, despite years of recommendations on ways to correct development failures, the Pentagon "still lacks the capacity to fully implement reforms, particularly in the areas of cost estimating, program assessment, systems engineering, and developmental testing."  

Then, on top of the Pentagon's inability to effectively manage major acquisition programs, Congress supports systems that primarily benefit its members' constituents and campaign supporters, further compromising the U.S. military's ability to field a force properly equipped and trained. A look at where the defense dollars go—and where key members of Congress get their financial support–is very telling.

Readiness determines whether our troops are fit to fight and is largely funded through the operations and maintenance accounts. But the U.S. Army has seen its training and maintenance funds gashed by almost 40 percent since fiscal year 2012 while the amount of money the services spend on major weapon systems, even during sequestration and other dips in defense spending, has remained steady. The Associated Press reported last month that "the military services' modernization portfolio in November 2008 was $1.64 trillion. The latest reports, from March 2015, show a value of $1.62 trillion."  

Last month Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Lawrence Korb explained that it's much easier to cut readiness than it is to cut a weapon system supported by and lobbied for by the defense industry. The pressure placed on Congress by the defense industry is relentless, with the defense industry spending a stunning $128 million on lobbying Congress in 2014 to support defense projects and bills that benefit them instead of training and support for our armed forces.  

Open Secrets analysis found that the primary reason these private firms spend so much supporting and lobbying members of Congress is expressly to secure "government defense contracts and earmarks and influenc[e] the defense budget to make those contracts more likely." Most contributions are steered toward members on the committees that authorize and appropriate this money. Chairmen of the House Armed Services Committee have been particular favorites.

In his final run for Congress in 2012, former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) received a staggering $703,400 from the defense industry. After retiring from Congress in 2014, McKeon established a consulting firm in Washington, boasting to prospective customers that his company "adeptly crafts and implements messaging strategies, and raises the profile of a client's initiative by getting it in front of key, influential figures." In the 2014 election cycle, the current chairman of that committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) received $427,850 in campaign contributions from the defense industry, equaling almost a third of all his contributions. He has coincidentally been one of the biggest advocates for increased defense spending.

These major acquisition failures, and the sway the defense industry holds over legislators, will continue until ordinary voters hold the military and elected leaders accountable for the way they spend taxpayers' dollars. We need to realize that our national security will not be strengthened by spending more on defense. We need to decide our funding levels, and how the funds are allocated, based solely on what will create the most effective military possible. Choices made with this mentality will produce a military that is both adequately trained and modernized. Maintaining the status quo will likely further degrade our overall ability to defend the nation's vital interests.