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The Mindboggling Sum We Actually Spend on National Security

If you've heard a number for how much the U.S. spends on the military, it's probably in the neighborhood of $530 billion. But that's merely the beginning of it.

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We can’t forget the cost of caring for our nation’s veterans, including those wounded in our recent wars. That’s an important as well as hefty share of national security funding. In 2013, veterans programs will cost the federal government $138 billion.

That brings us to $847 billion -- and we’re not done yet.

Taxpayers also fund pensions and other retirement benefits for non-veteran military retirees, which will cost $55 billion next year. And then there are the retirement costs for civilians who worked at the Department of Defense and now draw pensions and benefits. The federal government doesn’t publish a number on this, but based on the share of the federal workforce employed at the Pentagon, we can estimate that its civilian retirees will cost taxpayers around $21 billion in 2013.

By now, we’ve made it to $923 billion -- and we’re finally almost done.

Just one more thing to add in, a miscellaneous defense account that’s separate from the defense base budget. It’s called “defense-related activities,” and it’s got $8 billion in it for 2013.

That brings our grand total to an astonishing $931 billion.

And this will turn out to be a conservative figure. We won’t spend less than that, but among other things, it doesn’t include the interest we’re paying on money we borrowed to fund past military operations; nor does it include portions of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that are dedicated to national security. And we don’t know if this number captures the entire intelligence budget or not, because parts of intelligence funding are classified.

For now, however, that whopping $931 billion for fiscal year 2013 will have to do. If our national security budget were its own  economy, it would be the 19th largest in the world, roughly the size of Australia’s. Meanwhile, the country with the next largest  military budget, China, spends a mere pittance by comparison. The most recent  estimate puts China’s military funding at around $136 billion.

Or think of it this way: National security accounts for one quarter of every dollar the federal government is projected to spend in 2013. And if you pull trust funds for programs like Social Security out of the equation, that figure rises to more than one third of every dollar in the projected 2013 federal budget.

Yet the House recently passed  legislation to spare the defense budget from cuts, arguing that the automatic spending reductions scheduled for January 2013 would compromise national security. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has said such  automatic cuts, which would total around $55 billion in 2013, would be “ disastrous” for the defense budget. To avoid them, the House would instead pull money from the National School Lunch Program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, food stamps, and programs like the Social Services Block Grant, which funds Meals on Wheels, among other initiatives.

Yet it wouldn’t be difficult to find savings in that $931 billion.  There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit, starting with various costly  weapons systems left over from the Cold War, like the Virginia class submarine, the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, the missile defense program, and the most expensive weapons system on the planet, the F-35 jet fighter. Cutting back or cancelling some of these programs would save billions of dollars annually.

In fact, Congress could find much deeper savings, but it would require fundamentally redefining national security in this country. On this issue, the American public is already several steps ahead of Washington. Americans overwhelmingly  think that national security funding should be cut -- deeply.

 
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