We Should Be Debating How to Reduce the Pentagon Budget


The first pres­i­den­tial debate of 2020 is set for tomor­row night, and as usual, bread-and-butter domes­tic issues such as health care and eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty are likely to dom­i­nate the con­ver­sa­tion — this year no doubt sup­ple­ment­ed by dis­cus­sions of racial jus­tice and law and order (as defined by President Trump). This is under­stand­able, but lim­it­ing the dis­cus­sion to these admit­ted­ly cru­cial issues would leave an incom­plete pic­ture of the qual­i­fi­ca­tions needed to lead the coun­try. Many issues, from immi­gra­tion to cli­mate change to how to combat Covid-19, call for inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion. And ade­quate­ly address­ing them will call for a dra­mat­ic shift in public invest­ment away from end­less war and near-record Pentagon bud­gets towards coping with more imme­di­ate risks, which are not mil­i­tary in nature.

Earlier this month the Trump admin­is­tra­tion released a letter from former mil­i­tary offi­cials that, among other things, attacked the Obama-Biden admin­is­tra­tion for imple­ment­ing “debil­i­tat­ing budget cuts” to our mil­i­tary. This was appar­ent­ly an attempt to spark a bid­ding war over who can throw more money at the Pentagon, as if this were a sign of strength rather than an indi­ca­tor of undis­ci­plined bud­get­ing and mis­placed pri­or­i­ties.

The real ques­tion is, why is the Pentagon budget still so high, when our great­est chal­lenges are not mil­i­tary in nature? Pandemics, cli­mate change, extreme inequal­i­ty and racial injus­tice all pose greater risks to public health and safety than tra­di­tion­al mil­i­tary chal­lenges, yet the Pentagon con­sumes well more than half of the fed­er­al gov­ern­men­t’s dis­cre­tionary budget. And just last week we learned that the Department of Defense diverted hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in fund­ing des­ig­nat­ed for Covid-19 relief to pay for jet engine parts and body armor that could have been easily accom­mo­dat­ed within its exist­ing budget – yet anoth­er sign of waste and undis­ci­plined spend­ing of our tax dol­lars.

The first thing one needs to know about the asser­tions of under­spend­ing on the Pentagon is that they are gross­ly inac­cu­rate. There were not sig­nif­i­cant reduc­tions in Pentagon spend­ing during the Obama admin­is­tra­tion. In fact, the Pentagon received more funding in the eight years of the Obama admin­is­tra­tion than in the Bush admin­is­tra­tion’s two terms in office — $5.8 tril­lion under Obama over eight years versus $5.3 tril­lion under Bush for eight years (adjust­ed for infla­tion). To the extent that fund­ing did come down slight­ly in the later years of the admin­is­tra­tion it is because the number of troops in the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan came down from a peak of 180,000 to about 25,000.

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We need a strong mil­i­tary, but we can be safer for less if we set the right pri­or­i­ties and impose long over­due budget dis­ci­pline at the Pentagon. The Pentagon is the only major fed­er­al agency that has never passed an audit. Eliminating excess over­head alone could save $25 bil­lion per year. Getting rid of dan­ger­ous, unnec­es­sary and over­priced weapons sys­tems like air­craft car­ri­ers, F‑35 combat air­craft, and new nuclear weapons sys­tems can save tens of bil­lions more per year. And a true com­mit­ment to ending America’s for­ev­er wars and reduc­ing the size of the mil­i­tary accord­ing­ly would save hun­dreds of bil­lions in the next decade. As Brown University’s Costs of War Project has doc­u­ment­ed, America’s post‑9/11 wars have cost at least $6.4 tril­lion and count­ing, and far from making us safer, they have made mat­ters worse, leav­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of people dead, dis­plac­ing mil­lions, and cre­at­ing fer­tile ground for ter­ror­ist groups like ISIS to rise.  

The above-men­tioned changes and more are set out in the report of the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force, a group of former White House, Congressional, and Pentagon budget experts, ex-mil­i­tary offi­cers, and inde­pen­dent ana­lysts from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum.

The response of the defense estab­lish­ment to calls for a shift in pri­or­i­ties can be summed up in three words: China, China, and China. Variations on this theme have been repeat­ed relent­less­ly by the Pentagon and its allies in Congress, from both par­ties. But the pri­ma­ry chal­lenge from China is polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic, not mil­i­tary. And the U.S. and China need to coop­er­ate if global chal­lenges like pan­demics, cli­mate change, and eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion are ever going to be solved. The last thing either nation, or the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, needs is a new Cold War, or a new U.S.-China arms race. Using China as a reason to boost Pentagon spend­ing is mis­guid­ed and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.

Diverting Pentagon spend­ing to more con­struc­tive pur­pos­es is not only good policy, it’s also good pol­i­tics. A recent survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation found that twice as many Americans want to decrease the Pentagon budget as increase it, and a plu­ral­i­ty of both Biden and Trump sup­port­ers agreed that peace is best achieved and sus­tained by “keep­ing a focus on the domes­tic needs and the health of American democ­ra­cy, while avoid­ing unnec­es­sary inter­ven­tion beyond the bor­ders of the United States.”

Whether in the pres­i­den­tial debates, on the cam­paign trail, or in the tran­si­tion to the next admin­is­tra­tion – who­ev­er wins the elec­tion in November – the time has come to stop treat­ing the Pentagon’s budget as sacro­sanct and come up with a com­pre­hen­sive, multi-faceted plan to make America and the world a safer place. This may be dif­fi­cult to do in the rough and tumble of an increas­ing­ly harsh cam­paign season, but the sooner we have that con­ver­sa­tion, the better.

Forbes: Aerospace & Defense source|articles

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