Defense Spending

Bursting the Pentagon Spending Bubble

To make America safer, we need to get military costs under control.


Next year the White House will have a new occupant, but one thing is almost certain not to change: a U.S. foreign policy driven by mind-boggling sums of taxpayer money. With the exception of Bernie Sanders, all the major-party presidential candidates during this election season have said they would oppose military spending cuts. Even the relatively non-interventionist Sen. Rand Paul wanted to bust the military spending caps put into place by the Budget Control Act of 2011, while the other Republican candidates essentially fought over who wanted to increase spending most.

Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, left no doubt that he intends to keep the military gravy train rolling. Trump may have said that President George W. Bush lied about Iraq (a war that he claims, falsely, to have been publicly against since the start) but he has nonetheless earned the endorsements of former Vice President (and Hawk in Chief) Dick Cheney; interventionist former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, and Arizona Sen. John McCain, a man who has rarely met an international problem he does not want to fix with American force.

Don't count on presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to cut Pentagon spending, either. Clinton's track record of supporting more and bigger interventions paid for with a growing military budget makes her virtually indistinguishable from the Republican White House hopefuls. As reason's Nick Gillespie put it, "a vote for Hillary is a vote for war."

Sadly, the American public is also warming up to the idea of more military spending. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 35 percent say the U.S. should increase spending on national defense; that's a 12 percentage-point hike just since 2013. As Pew notes, "Most of the increase has come among Republicans. Fully 61% of Republicans favor higher defense spending, up 24 percentage points from 2013."

Members of Congress and Pentagon officials talk as if our military is dangerously depleted after two long, taxing wars. While certain programs may face shortfalls, the current $585 billion the U.S. spends on "defense" is not just up—a lot—since the turn of the millennium; it's also more than the military budgets of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Britain, and India combined.

That $585 billion figure understates the actual taxpayer cost of maintaining the United States' global military presence, because it excludes many of the security-related items that are paid for outside of the Department of Defense (DOD), such as homeland security, aid to veterans, and the nuclear arsenal. In any given year, these expenditures can add $300 billion or more to overall national security costs.

So why the freakout over how "little" we're spending? Pentagon funding has indeed been cut from a peak of $692 billion in 2011. With America winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that makes sense—unless you're in one of the many interest groups that feed off that spending.

There's also an exaggerated sense that the security of individual Americans is existentially threatened. Both Democrats and Republicans on the campaign trail contribute to this collective anxiety. "We live in a complex and dangerous world!" Clinton told a March rally in Seattle. Speaking before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2015, former Republican candidate Jeb Bush insisted that America needs "a military equal to any threat," while Marco Rubio's campaign website informed us that the "world has never been more dangerous than it is today" and that "Nothing matters if we aren't safe."

This is crazy. The United States has wide oceans to the east and west and friendly neighbors to the north and south, and is decidedly not at risk of being invaded by its enemies any time soon. And as Micah Zenko and Michael A. Cohen pointed out in Foreign Affairs last November, Americans are more likely to be crushed to death by their televisions and furniture than to be killed in a terrorist attack.

These incessant calls for more spending aren't really about making us safer. The buildup is aimed at projecting American military superiority while keeping as many people as possible in comfortable jobs. "To any other country on the planet, it would be horribly redundant to have a Department of 'Defense' and a Department of Homeland Security," says Chris Preble, the Cato Institute's director of foreign policy studies. "In the United States, it has become routine."

Even if you believe the world is more dangerous now than ever before, it's still possible to acknowledge that not every dollar spent on national security actually makes us more secure. The DOD isn't immune to the inherently political budget allocation process that plagues other agencies, resulting in bad investments and ceding shameful undue influence to industry lobbyists.

As The New York Times recently noted, this explains why, following a 50 percent increase in military spending in real terms since 2001, the number of active duty and reserve troops is down 6 percent.

It also explains why, even as our troops were fighting two wars, billions of dollars were being wasted on useless items like the F-35 jet fighter.Lockheed Martin started developing a nuclear-capable fighter jet in 2001. A decade and a half later, the airplane still isn't fully operational. The project has already run more than 100 percent over budget, and it is expected to cost north of $1.5 trillion. But as Mike Fredenburg wrote at National Review in July 2015, "For this trillion-dollar-plus investment we get a plane far slower than a 1970s F-14 Tomcat, a plane with less than half the range of a 40-year-old A-6 Intruder, a plane whose sustained-turn performance is that of a 1960s F-4 Phantom, and a plane that had its head handed to it by an F-16 during a recent dogfight competition."

Buying fewer F-35s than originally planned would be an easy way to achieve savings that doesn't in the least threaten national security. But that sort of pruning isn't ultimately going to be enough.

As in the rest of the federal budget, the share of military spending consumed by health care and pension costs has increased dramatically in recent years. Yet Congress has consistently rebuffed efforts to rein in the unsustainable growth in personnel expenditures. Given that the funds available to support the Pentagon are not unlimited, policy makers are facing a situation where paying our obligations to current and former service members means having less money for other priorities.

Fortunately, claims about how reducing government spending will wreck the economy miss the mark. In a March 2013 study for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the Harvard economist Robert Barro and I looked at the impact of across-the-board federal spending cuts (also known as the "sequester"). We found that they would actually improve economic growth over five years, with each $1 in military spending cuts leading to roughly $1.30 in increased private spending.

As entitlement costs balloon, our next president faces a difficult task. Everything should be on the table for review, including the Pentagon budget. In the end, downsizing our bloated military could be the very thing that makes this country safer.

NEXT: Brickbat: When Life Hands You Lemons

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  1. From watching Fox News, my octogenarian mom is totally wound up about the need to “rebuild our military.” This is the main thing at stake in the election, and the propaganda blitz leading up to it, to keep the trillions flowing, and to all the right people, and it’s going just fine for them even if Trump wins. It’s Republican billionaires versus Democrat billionaires for who gets the best spot at the trough, but all will eat. Either Rand Paul is part of it or his realpolitik calculations led him to support it, anyway. Depressing.

    1. In Paul’s case, I suspect he was lying. He was trying to win the Republican nomination after all and coming out for cutting the military budget wouldn’t exactly have helped his chances.

      1. Actually it might have. Paul never got the early money bombs going because the Paulite pro-liberty base never got excited about him. Donald Trump certainly didn’t back away from calling the Bush foreign policy a disaster.

    2. You can believe that crap without being 80. How many times has Sean Hannity claimed that Obama has “gutted” the defense budget? Literally!

      1. The claim is not inaccurate. Our military is in a very distinct drawdown and quite a few knowledge analysts have expressed concern about the trendline. Take a hard look at where the money is going and what pigs are gorging at the trough, but acting like FOX News is just making shit up is childish. What…you listen to CNN? lol

        1. But the reduction of the US military is not due to budget cuts but do to the decisions of the civilian and military “leadership”. They are the ones who have signed off on both the expensive military actions and the expensive “transformational” weapon systems

          Just look at how much the nation building efforts have cost in both money and lives even though its obvious that neither the US civilian system or military are competent in such activity

          Or look at the USS Ford, a new class of CVN which was suppose to save money on manpower but cost more then twice as much as the previous class and whose transformational combat information system, catapult, and arrester systems are buggy and fail at a much higher rate then previous systems

        2. Not sure what your definition of “gutted” is, but the defense budget in 2015 was $637B. Seven years earlier, when Obama was elected, it was $696B — that’s less than a 10% decrease. Of course, seven years earlier than that (in 2001) the budget was $335B.

          Oh, the horrors of our current skeletal defenses.

          1. A $59 billion dollar decline in the budget isn’t chump change, particularly when a lot of the total spending is fixed for infrastructure, care, and pension. and that of course ignores inflation.

            What is the total “flexible” spending of the defense budget that goes to growth/development activities? How much of that $59 billion came out of that?

            Not arguing the validity of the spend. But my point is that you can’t simply claim that the ‘other side’ is making shit up.

            1. Cutting military spending by 50% would be a good start from a libertarian perspective. Military spending is just another welfare program for flyover country families and defense contractors.

              1. “Military spending is just another welfare program for flyover country families and defense contractors.”

                no….but rather….

                “a significant, but difficult to define, portion of military spending is just kickbacks to defense contractors, regional economies, and crony business associates.

                Don’t be dissing the flyover country families. Yeh, they benefit from having more money and jobs in the local economy, but you can sure as hell bet that their congresscritter isn’t pushing for it for them. They just happen to be indirect beneficiaries after the local cronies and contractors get their cut.

              2. Honest question: Is the libertarian ideal realistically possible outside of a world artificially forced to stability by a dominant world or regional military power?

                Cause I honestly can’t think of any part of history or current world climate where liberty has dominated that isn’t directly attributable to “peace through superior firepower”.
                A lot of libertarians hate on the military-industrial complex, but isn’t that perhaps like the goose that has laid the golden egg? not saying it shouldn’t be on a diet, but at some point the golden eggs stop getting laid.

                1. Just do a thought experiment vis-a-vis terrorism. Would the USA be facing more or fewer terrorist threats if the USA had maintained a strictly defensive military posture and capability for the past 30 years?

                  1. terrorism is really a side issue. Large wars are what rip apart civilization and liberty and the 70 years since the last large war is arguably the single biggest factor for the increase in global freedom and ultimately the libertarian ideals.

                    My point is just that perhaps we should acknowledge the critical importance of the US military-industrial complex for its enabling of liberty. Trim and direct as necessary, but taking away the ‘vastly superior firepower’ may have terrible longterm repercusions to the libertarian ideals.

                    Is there any other country in the would that offers more freedoms and individual liberty than the US….that hasn’t been a direct beneficiary of the US protection umbrella?

        3. This is true. Some of the systems we have are pretty old. Right now the big money is in sustainment and obsolescence. We have been trying to get a customer to rebuild an avionics box for an aircraft with easily available OEM parts, ditching things like ASICS and FPGA’s for modern equipment. The old box is heavy, expensive, and unreliable.

          If they would give my group about a 2 mil, we could prototype a box that would weigh 5lbs instead of over 20 with more processing overhead and much lower maintenance costs but the prime involved is fighting the project. Until the gov lead grows a pair, they will spend 20mil to keep the same box to preserve the status quo. This particular box is not even safety or flight critical.

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  2. The military budget is proof that the Republicans love to slosh around that sweet taxpayer gravy every bit as much as the Democrats do, just on different stuff.

    1. Republican arguments about how government spending is inefficient suddenly disappear when it involves military spending, which is portrayed as the best way to boost an economy. Literally having your money blow up in a desert half a world a way is efficient because….?

  3. I think it is more fair to argue that the system of government spending overall, not just from the Pentagon, is the issue. The entire system is filled with bloat and unaccountable cronyism.
    Get it all under control, then we can talk about what portion of our GDP should be going to the military.

    But when we have that discussion, it is important to note that while technological advancement is expensive, having military technology a generation or more in advance of the rest of the world is ultimately very cheap in the long run if it keeps us out of big wars.

    1. There’s much truth in what you wrote, but unfortunately, I don’t think it provides much of a solution to the budget issues. Instead, it leads to this sort of typical arguing: “Hey, you need to cut your budget!” “Oh yeah? Why don’t you cut your budget!” “I asked first!” “Well, I’m not going to cut my budget unless you cut your budget!” “Fine, be that way! Maybe I’ll spend even more money!”

      Then, it a touching display of bipartisanship, both sides agree to increase their budgets and get the taxpayers to bend over one more time.

      1. Wasn’t my intention to describe a fix to the problem. Really just pointing out that the article is too narrow and isn’t seeing the forest for the trees.

        My solution is to have strict term limits on Senate/congress, allowing only 2 terms for Senators, and one for congressman. That alone would erase a lot of crony relationships.
        Second, no Senator/Congressman is permitted to work in an industry after service that they touched upon during service. Just like judges, if they have a personal stake, they must recuse themselves from committees. If they were on committees they must not enter into overseen industries
        Strict financial reporting on par with what is required of private sector. No freakin land deals, kickbacks, sweetheart loans, insider trading and the like. Every effin dollar/asset gained during service is overseen by the IRS. Corruption is a capital crime. Designate a lamppost on Capitol Hill for the inevitable public executions. There isn’t much more vile that stealing from your constituents.

        That would resolve 75% of the Defense spending issues…maybe more.

        1. “I served on this particular defense committee so I legally can’t take a position as a consultant with you. Which is why I’m recommending my son for the position instead.”

          1. there is always a workaround with corruption. Can’t be eliminated, but we can at least try to make it even slightly difficult.

      2. Well as a %GDP defense spending has almost monotonically declined for the last 60 years. Can you say the same for entitlement spending? If you consider 3.5% of GDP to be an unreaonably high number, then what do you think of the 12% that goes to entitlements or the 5% that goes to welfare?

        Yeah, yeah, fuck you, cut spending. I get it. Funny how we never get around to cutting that sweet, sweet entitlement pork.

        Oh and if we want to compare our spending to China, then we should be willing to bring back the draft. Apples to apples. Or would it be more libertarian to impose wage caps on service personnel? I have trouble with the conflicting daily memes.

        I’ll at least give vero credit for mentioning the increase in personnel costs even if she didn’t particularly highlight the fact that they are one of the biggest reasons defense expenditures have increased as much as they have. I know, fighter jetz.

  4. The Pentagon budget is important.

    That said, if the public keeps letting them treat military as the big spending decision while entitlements skate by untouched, we’re in much bigger trouble than just having some hawks wasting a trillion dollars on a shitty fighter. Each of the Big Three welfare programs has a budget either larger than or just under that of the Pentagon, and they’ll likely grow faster than defense spending with more Boomers retiring.

    Unfortunately it’s looking increasingly like the Republicans have been distracted from spending reduction by all the shiny terrorists and transgenders and Mexicans, which is not unexpected but is a little odd that they didn’t even wait until the election to forget fiscal conservatism.

    1. At least on the national level, Team Red threw the fiscal-conservatism mask into the trash a while ago.

    2. That reminds me: the new album from Shiny Transgendered Mexican Terrorists comes out today.

  5. What needs to be cut first is the military commitments, then cut the military

    But the politicians love to give a commitment since its cheap, that is until we have to go to war and then it gets very very expensive.

    1. This. Scaling back commitments would make it impossible to justify such a large military budget.

      Fewer overseas bases, fewer wars, and less meddling would translate to substantial budget cuts.

    2. The politicians love to sell the commitments to the public as cheap, especially in relation to the overall R&D budget. Even during peaceful or advisory engagements, the daily budget for each individual mission hits six figures in every country we engage.

      Just the cost of housing our forces overseas in the vast majority of our commitments is ridiculous. I remember reading an essay from some O-6 which spoke about the global role of special operations in the face of ongoing “austerity”. I was reading this while earning $140/day in per diem entitlements on my last deployment (got my DD214 about two weeks ago), on top of my regular pay plus deployment “entitlements”. We call these “money trips” for a good reason and they are constantly growing in scope, frequency and duration.

      These are just some of the hidden costs of HRC’s “whole of government” approach to diplomacy and they are a constant no matter which team is in charge.

    3. What needs to be cut first is the military commitments, then cut the military.

      I believe the saying is something along the lines of “If you have a large military, you will use it.”

      Cut the commitments and the size all at once.

  6. It is the constant fear mongering of both the right and left that is this nations biggest problem. We have a war on everything except war.

  7. I’m a DOD contractor. Work for a small business. The biggest waste I see is when a Project Office gets “Prime Lock”, then they just shovel money at them. The primes have perverse incentives. My business is about saving the gov money by doing things faster and cheaper than a larger business. However, we have to struggle constantly to keep from being squished between a big PMO and a big Prime.

    I know programs that do not even own their own requirements.

  8. Americans are more likely to be crushed to death by their televisions and furniture than to be killed in a terrorist attack.

    Aha! Proof that the Asian TV manufacturers and Swedes are hell-bent on invasion!

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  10. We have oceans to the east and west and a friendly neighbor to the north. The neighbor to the south is sending us their detritus. If you next door neighbor was emptying his trash cans on your lawn you wouldn’t call him friendly.

    1. So tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free are no longer welcome in America?
      Can we replace the torch with a sword then?

  11. Put one aircraft carrier in the Gulf — of Mexico.
    Put two on the Atlantic seaboard and two on the Pacific, with a spare in Hawaii.

    Have a few strategically located airbases, in the USA.

    Disband the standing army — it’s supposed to be funded only 2 years at a time anyway.
    Keep the Army Reserve command structure in place in case it’s needed someday.
    Rely on state National Guard units for the unlikely event of a Canadian or Mexican land invasion (or Cuban paratroopers, I saw that in the documentary film Red Dawn once.)

  12. No politician opposes military spending because the Pentagon budget is also a slush fund for politicians. It is the single largest source of illicit political money.

  13. No politician opposes military spending because the Pentagon budget is also a slush fund for politicians. It is the single largest source of illicit political money.

  14. We used to have a Libertarian Defense Caucus, with John Hospers and volunteers arguing for defending These States, not the other side of the planet.

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