Defense Spending

U.S. Defense Spending Continues To Spiral Out of Control

Increased spending does not automatically equate to higher quality—something that is often lost in this debate.


How much the U.S. should allocate to the Department of Defense remains a contentious topic in the debate over government spending.

After a great deal of chaos, on March 23—about halfway through the fiscal year—Congress approved an appropriations bill worth $825 billion for defense in FY 2024 to avoid a partial government shutdown, less than the $842 billion request by the administration. Not long before, on March 11, President Joe Biden's Administration submitted their request for FY 2025, which included $850 billion for defense.

And yet some still say those massive budgets are not enough. Sen. Roger Wicker (R–Miss.), for example, expressed support for a $1.4 trillion budget for defense at a Heritage Foundation event. "The U.S. should seek to win, not just manage, against China and Russia," he said.

But a trillion-dollar defense budget doesn't mean the U.S. will "win" against China or Russia. More spending does not automatically equate to higher quality defense—something that is often lost in this debate.

The U.S. spends more on the military than China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan, and Ukraine combined. If the amount spent were directly proportional to quality of defense, national security wouldn't be much of a concern right now.

"Many would reasonably argue that it is not all about quantity or about which country spends more, but about quality and what we get for the money—about what capabilities would allow our forces to sustain military advantages for the most relevant military scenarios of importance to the nation," write Michael E. O'Hanlon and Alejandra Rocha at the Brookings Institution.

Eric Gomez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, argues that cutting away from the goal of military dominance—instead sharing the burden with allies—and scaling down personnel would help reduce military spending while still addressing the needs of modern warfare.

"Restraint is a more effective, less expensive grand strategy that better reflects the minuscule threat to the U.S. homeland and the capacity for allies to do more to uphold stability in their own backyards," Gomez writes. He also recommends shifting away from a nuclear triad to a dyad, eliminating the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and instead developing submarine-launched ICBM and strategic bombers. This is especially pertinent after considering the mess that has been the Sentinel program, the future ICBM replacement that is running wildly off course with protracted delays and stratospheric increases in cost.

Also important to note is that while defense spending may appear to be flatlining on the surface, added context paints a different picture. Much of defense-related expenditures don't fall directly under annual fiscal budgets but are instead wrapped up in what the government pays on the national debt interest.

A recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office projected that federal spending on debt interests alone would reach $870 billion in 2024, which is not only a 32 percent increase from 2023's interest but is larger than the defense budget itself. The projected interest payment in 2034 is $1.628 trillion.

There are myriad reasons the U.S. deficit is rising—notably Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—but one of the biggest contributions is past spending on war and defense.  According to a report from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, post-9/11 wars have been paid for mostly by borrowing money. "Through FY2022, the U.S. government owes over $1 trillion in interest on these wars," the report says.

That problem isn't going away. "Even if the United States were to stop incurring any new war-related expenses as of today, the U.S. would continue to make interest payments on war debt well into the future," wrote Heidi Peltier, a senior researcher at the Watson Institute, in 2020. Interest payments on these post-9/11 wars alone would reach several trillion dollars in upcoming decades.

Add to that the nondiscretionary spending on defense, like veterans benefits, which is separate from the U.S. defense budget, and annual defense spending has already crossed the $1 trillion mark.

In other words, the government is still paying for, and will continue to pay for, prior military activities. Policy makers would do well to keep that in mind when approving annual defense budgets.