Why the U.S. Defense Budget Keeps Growing | Opinion

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden signed a $1.5 trillion spending package into law to cover the U.S. government's discretionary funding costs through September. Slightly more than half of the total figure, $782 billion, was earmarked for national defense needs—nearly $30 billion more than the Biden administration requested when the budget review process first started.

If you thought $782 billion was a big chunk of change, you haven't seen the budget numbers that were released this week. On March 28, the White House kicked off the lengthy budget ritual by publishing an outline of what exactly it would like Congress to fund in Fiscal Year 2023. The Pentagon, as is the case in most years, comes out a winner. The Biden administration wants $813 billion for national defense, with the lion's share ($773 billion) going to the Defense Department. According to the administration's projections, this would be a 4.1 percent increase from what the president signed into law just a few weeks ago. Biden trumpeted the sum as "one of the largest investments in our national security in history, with the funds needed to ensure that our military remains the best-prepared, best-trained, best-equipped military in the world."

It's hard to disagree with Biden's characterization. The FY23 defense budget request includes $276 billion for procurement, research and development, which would be the highest amount ever for this particular category. The European Deterrence Initiative, established after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and tasked with reassuring Washington's European allies, was nearly doubled to $4.3 billion. The U.S. Navy will receive a 5 percent bump from the previous year to purchase nine new ships and nine new F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Over $24 billion will go toward anti-missile defense systems.

The request will work its way up to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers and their staffs will pour over the exact details to protect their own pet projects (keeping defense-related jobs in their districts is perhaps the top priority for lawmakers serving on the armed services committees). As they do every year, the combatant and service commanders will be called to Capitol Hill for their testimony, where members will quiz the top brass about why the administration is choosing to fund this weapons platform over that weapons platform. And sure enough, after months and months of wrangling over the top-line, Congress is almost guaranteed to add cash above and beyond what the administration feels is necessary. By the time Congress sends the budget back to the president's desk, $813 billion could easily become $850 billion.

Lawmakers love to talk about the bells and whistles of the defense budget. About this time every year, defense analysts around Washington spill ink and write reports explaining why the numbers are too big or too small and which parts of the budget should receive the most priority. But the basic question—should the U.S. even be spending this much money on defense to begin with?—is often left to whither on the vine. It's like a car mechanic working feverishly on the paint job and forgetting to make sure the engine is working.

Americans are frequently told by their leaders that the defense budget needs to go up because the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. That argument holds special salience today, when Russian forces are bombarding multiple Ukrainian cities with indiscriminate missile fire and China continues to press forward with its own military modernization campaign. It's tempting to believe that higher defense budget equates to more security, in which case hiking U.S. defense spending is the quickest, most effective option to deal with these perceived threats.

A gargantuan defense budget, however, doesn't necessarily buy the American people more security. Numbers are far less vital than the strategy the numbers are supposed to support. If the strategy itself is faulty, flawed or just plain bad, it's highly unlikely money alone will be able to fix it. It may just exacerbate the problem and worsen the outcome.

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform a flyover. James Gilbert/Getty Images

This is why any debate on America's defense needs must begin and end with a comprehensive discussion about the goals the U.S. wishes to accomplish and the strategy used to pursue them. Unfortunately, this is precisely the discussion so often lacking during budget season. To the extent there is a discussion about strategy, it's centered on regurgitating one-liners and slogans about the indispensability of U.S. leadership and the virtues of primacy—the notion that every region of the world is of equal importance and that Washington must preserve its status as the dominant player indefinitely. It's a policy of doing everything, everywhere and at all times, lest an adversary has the gumption to make a play to exploit the mythological power vacuum.

Primacy works for U.S. policymakers and lawmakers not necessarily because it's effective, but because it allows them to avoid making difficult decisions about priorities. Settling on priorities requires us to reevaluate assumptions, acknowledge that perhaps other countries are more primed to solve crises in their own neighborhoods and admit that we are throwing too much cash at weapons systems the military doesn't even want anymore.

Why engage in this uncomfortable truth-telling when you can repeatedly kick the can down the road and pretend a fatter Pentagon is the master-key to all of our problems?

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

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