As Pandemic Spending Rises, Pentagon Spending Needs Cuts

The coronavirus pandemic should certainly occasion more prudence at the Pentagon in strategy and spending alike.


If there was any lingering hope of President Donald Trump making good on his promise to "quickly" balance the federal budget, COVID-19 has obliterated it once and for all. Pandemic relief spending has pushed 2020's federal budget deficit north of $3.5 trillion while the economy is forecast to shrink by around 6 percent this year. As borrowing increases and economic growth is erased, publicly held debt is projected to exceed GDP for the first time since World War II.

These numbers are daunting, but the magnitude of the debt we're taking on to grapple with the pandemic's economic effects cannot be an excuse for excess. To all the talk of responsibilities COVID-19 has occasioned, add one more: Not leaving future generations with a balance higher than must be. As federal revenues decline, no expenditure should escape scrutiny, least of all the single biggest slice of the discretionary pie: Pentagon spending.

With a foreign policy pivot toward restraint and diplomacy, we can spend less—far less—on the military while strengthening U.S. security and peace. Here are five ways to start.

Reassess priorities. Effective foreign policy reform requires Washington to recognize its resources are limited and their use must be better prioritized. The purpose of U.S. defense spending is U.S. defense, not policing the world, meddling in other nations' internal politics, or attempting to manage the balance of power in regions on the other side of the planet. The interventionist, military-first approach of the last two decades was always dangerous, expensive, and inhumane. It is clearer now than ever it is a mistake we cannot afford. Trump reportedly realizes this concerning Afghanistan, but the lesson must be applied more broadly.

End wars. The single most important way to reduce Pentagon spending and bolster U.S. security is to stop fighting a litany of counterproductive wars with no plausible path to anything like victory and an unacceptably high cost in blood and treasure. Get out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and smaller conflicts around the Middle East and North Africa. Don't start a new war with Iran. Indeed, stop using military intervention as the primary option in U.S. foreign policy and rebuild American foreign affairs around patient, pragmatic diplomacy instead.

Share burdens. Trump has made a point of complaining about NATO allies free-riding on U.S. security, and the pandemic's downward pressure on defense spending is an opportunity to put words into action. We should wind down U.S. influence and activity in NATO; bring U.S. troops home from permanent bases in Europe; and end U.S. involvement in Eastern European conflicts with Russia, which present an enormous risk of escalation into great power conflict.

Reduce footprint. In addition to reducing U.S. military presence in Europe, Washington should dramatically scale down our foreign military bases elsewhere around the world. This includes conducting a new round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), which shutters unused facilities and others the Pentagon has already determined it does not need. But it should also include a bigger strategic move away from the assumption that it benefits the United States to have around 800 overseas bases in 70 nations. This global military sprawl is abnormal and unnecessary. It exposes us to needless risk and hikes the Pentagon's annual baseline far too high.

Cut waste. To call for cutting Pentagon waste is a fiscal hawk cliche because the Department of Defense has a history of unreliable accounting and indefensible expenditures, perhaps no worse than average in Washington, but certainly on a larger scale. Better oversight will lower spending, and less spending will make good oversight more feasible. This is less important than strategic reform and cannot be its substitute, but it is probably also less controversial.

Writing at Foreign Affairs this month, Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Barry R. Posen mulls the possibility of a "pax epidemica," that widespread illness might curtail global military conflict. Whether that theory proves correct, the coronavirus pandemic should certainly occasion more prudence at the Pentagon in strategy and spending alike.

NEXT: Texas Is Allowing Restaurants To Reopen Starting Today. Many Restaurant Owners Fear It Won't Go Well.

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  1. No one needs to cut anything. The federal government can come up with all the money it wants. Some people have brought up the prospect of inflation, but it’s been explained to them that inflation just doesn’t happen anymore.

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  2. lmao. This is going to be a rude awakening for the bureaucratic class. Can’t take blood from a turnup.

  3. But muh military industrial complex.

    I need you all to make a collective sacrifice to protect my job and career prospects.

  4. Some perspective. The 800 overseas military bases include Marines stationed at embassies and counsels. In fact that accounts for a good bit of that 800 number. Those are not going to close, nor the Marines (and other branches that have intelligence units stationed there) called home. Focusing on defense spending (and I notice the author only focuses on operations, as always not the actual waste that could be easily cut without impacting operations) is stupid when the biggest driver of our deficit is, and will continue to be increasingly, non-discretionary spending. Cut the fat at the Pentagon, by all means but the author once again is focusing on troops and not the waste. Which always seems to be the case. As for the MIC, you want to end that, you need to focus on the waste not the troops.

    1. *consoles.

      1. ‘Consulates’. I think.

        The US does have an awfully large number of overseas bases though, depending on your definition of ‘base’, and whether things like SF assisting with FID counts or not.

        1. Yes you are correct. I meant consulates. I knew even my correction was not correct. A good majority of our overseas bases are joint bases and another percentage is classified as overseas despite actually being US territory. Up until the 1990s, Alaska and Hawaii were classified as overseas by the Pentagon. I believe a good portion of our territories still are.

          1. They’re still classified as overseas for TDY and PCS purposes.

        2. Others are there for tracking and controlling our defense satellites, like our listening posts in Australia.

        3. And another portion are there to serve the resupply and maintenance needs of our Navy and Coast Guard. Unless we went to a purely territorial waters Navy we would still need these.

        4. My point is that the closing of overseas bases would not be as big a savings as people think and far fewer “bases” would actually end up closed then people think.

    2. The people who want less military funding are willing to resort to pretty much any trick to get it to happen. Yes, military spending in certain area’s needs to be cut to the bone or eliminated. It still won’t save that much compared how much we’re blowing on everything else.

      It’s not an argument to keep spending what we do on the military, but rather it’s a plea to maybe focus on the huge spending problems instead of nibbling around the edges on things we do actually need.

      1. Exactly.

  5. We can easily protect American soil for less than 1/10 of the spending the Pentagon does now. Bring all the troops home from all the Perpetual Wars and Europe. End all alliances now. Dissolve NATO, which should have ended at the end of the Cold War. It is nothing but a warmongering organization.

    1. 1/10th. Go ahead try it. And if you think it is all about defending American territory and not also defending free navigation and other issues you are sadly mistaken and misguided. And which part of America, just CONUS, just states or all of our territories? If you include all our territories the reach of our Air Force and Navy would have to reach from the Gulf Stream and windward isles to the Western Pacific, and from the Artic Circle to South Pacific. I doubt the Navy or the Air Force could cover that area for just a 10th of the current cost.

    2. Also, just FYI, the endless wars are separate appropriations and are not part of the defense budget, so ending them would do nothing to the defense budget.

  6. Minutiae of these arguments aside, the spirit of the article has needed to prevail since Eisenhower issued his warning.
    Nobody’s seriously contemplating invading the US land mass, and haven’t seriously contemplated it since 1812.

  7. “If there was any lingering hope of President Donald Trump making good on his promise to “quickly” balance the federal budget …”

    Sad but true. Here’s some more bad news. That piece of paper that says you own the Brooklyn Bridge? I don’t think there is anyone named “Jura Sucker”.

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