The U.S. Defense Budget is Too Damn High | Opinion

On April 9, the Biden administration submitted its first "skinny budget" request to Congress. The 41-page document set forth a grand total of $1.521 trillion in discretionary spending. Defense-related items composed roughly half of the overall request, clocking it at $753 billion—a 1.7 percent increase from the previous fiscal year.

If that figure sounds high, it's because it is: The United States devotes an extremely large amount of taxpayer dollars to the U.S. military. William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, assessed that Washington spends more on defense programs today than it did at the height of the Vietnam War and President Ronald Reagan's arms buildup in the 1980s. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks global military expenditures, calculated the U.S. share at almost 40 percent. China, the next largest military spender at $252 billion, spent less than one-third of what the U.S. did last year.

Objectively speaking, $753 billion is a big chunk of change. Yet there is a loud crowd on Capitol Hill that stakes out a different position. The U.S. military, they argue, is being squeezed financially, forcing the service chiefs, defense officials and combatant commanders to do more with less. A vocal group of lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member James Inhofe, immediately panned the Biden administration's defense spending request as too small.

"Anything less than real growth will force the [Defense] Department to choose between taking care of service members and ensuring they have the tools and training to meet new and growing threats," the lawmakers wrote in a joint press release. "Talk is cheap, but defending our country is not."

The service chiefs and secretaries aren't exactly pleased with the White House budget document either, even if they are more careful in their remarks. Testifying to the House Appropriations defense spending subcommittee, acting Army Secretary John Whitley said, "There is a lot of risk in the budget." The U.S. Army, he added, would eventually have to make the choice between maintaining the current rate of modernization and increasing end-strength, one of Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville's goals.

Similar concerns are being expressed about the U.S. Navy. Some lawmakers are hoping to tuck a $25 billion provision for shipyards into the Biden administration's $2 trillion infrastructure plan. None of this even begins to touch on what the combatant commanders feel all about the situation, all of whom travel to Capitol Hill at the same time every year and habitually ask for more funding, personnel, more assets in their respective theaters.

This picture taken December 26, 2011, shows the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. STAFF/AFP via Getty Images

The prevailing assumption powering the defense budget debate in the Beltway is about as simple-minded as elementary algebra: The more money Washington throws at the Pentagon, the safer the United States will be. However, this isn't the case. In fact, the more resources the Pentagon has had its disposal, the more likely the U.S. will seek to do more than it should—increasing the odds of self-defeating (and self-created) mistakes.

Those mistakes go beyond the cost overruns that plague the development and production of signature U.S. weapons systems like the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (since called off), the KC-46 tanker ($5 billion over budget) and the money-pit otherwise known as the F-35 joint strike fighter program (projected to cost more than $1 trillion over its 60 year life span). They also negatively influence what U.S. foreign policymakers recommend. Just as important, equating more money with better strategy and policy avoids the day when the entire national security bureaucracy is forced to make deep, comprehensive and necessary choices about what it should and shouldn't be doing.

Simply put, larger the U.S. defense budget is, the less likely policymakers in Washington will go through the painstaking work of reviewing U.S. grand strategy as it currently exists and ditching commitments and policies that are cost-ineffective, counterproductive, or high risk to U.S. national security. Instead, with defense budgets large and growing nearly every year (more so now that the Budget Control Act's spending caps expire this September), critical choices are kicked down the road. Doing as much as possible becomes business as usual.

It's a vicious circle the U.S. has yet to escape: more defense spending tempts over-extension around the world, which in turn is used to justify even higher defense budgets in the future.

There are a few things that can be done on the margins that would at least begin to address this nagging problem. Congress could authorize a process that permits the Defense Department to shutter military bases, training grounds and facilities (19 percent of the Pentagon's total infrastructure stateside, according to a congressionally-mandated report) the Pentagon doesn't need—an admittedly difficult ask given the reluctance of lawmaker to threaten defense-related jobs in their districts. It could take the advice of the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition, which this past March recommended eliminating some of the more than 800 U.S. military base sites present in about 80 countries.

Or, the national security establishment writ-large can enter a period of self-reflection and begin taking a serious look at whether the U.S. military is being asked to perform too many functions in too many places—a discussion that should have happened yesterday.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.