We Should Slice the Pentagon Budget—It Would Save Trillions and Rescue America
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Under McNamara and Korb's plan, we still would have handed over $8.1 trillion to the Pentagon over the past 25 years. But that pales next to the $13.7 trillion we have actually spent, adding $5.6 trillion to our national debt. It has been well documented that military spending provides less economic stimulus and job creation than spending on clean energy, healthcare, education or even tax cuts. According to the most comprehensive studies, a billion dollars spent on education will create more than twice as many new jobs as a billion handed over to the Pentagon. So the true cost to the country of this massive diversion of resources to the military is even higher than the raw numbers suggest.
Of course, most of the recent explosion of the military budget took place between FY2002 and FY2008, justified politically as a part of the country's militarized response to the horrific mass murders in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11th 2001. The FY2008 U.S. military budget of $750 billion was an all-time post-WWII record.
But less than half of the 90% increase in the military budget between 1998 and 2008 was related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the "war on terror", as Carl Conetta documented in his study, " An Undisciplined Defense," in 2010. In reality, the Pentagon cashed in on our fear and panic after September 11th to get a blank check for long wish-lists of new warships, warplanes and high-tech surveillance systems, at the expense of all the country's other urgent needs.
After 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq and the endless atrocities and abuses of the "war on terror", most Americans are much wiser about questions of war and peace today. Faced with a new crisis caused by the U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine, only 7% of Americans want our government to even consider a military response. If most Americans understood the huge drain on our national resources by the Pentagon's unilateral arms race over the past 15 years, I think it's fair to say that we would all be as skeptical of a $601 billion military budget as we are of new military entanglements in Ukraine or Syria.
The rational approach to the military budget advocated by McNamara and Korb in 1989 should be a valuable reality check for Congress as it takes up the FY2015 NDAA. In the absence of a serious military threat against the U.S. from any other country, Congress should be asking the same questions and reviewing the same options as Senator Sasser in 1989.
Congress should have no hesitation in cutting the Pentagon budget very quickly to the Cold War baseline of $386 billion. But it should also be thinking and talking seriously about cutting further, at least to the $267 billion level advocated by McNamara and Korb. Current Pentagon projections foresee maintaining a $530 billion baseline defense budget through at least 2018. That's the same level of military spending that McNamara and Korb examined in 1989 and concluded should be cut by half.
In 1989, McNamara and Korb believed that those savings could be achieved in 10 to 13 years. But, as Conetta explained in "An Undisciplined Defense", the biggest driver of today's $600 billion military budget is the failure to make choices between "legacy" Cold War weapons and new ones. In the absence of pressure from Congress to make those choices, the Pentagon simply says, "Thanks! We'll take both."
Many of the most expensive weapons are products of Cold War competition with the U.S.S.R. The $2 billion B-2 bomber was designed to outwit Soviet radar in a nuclear war. The F-35 fighter, "the plane that ate the budget", was designed to outfight Soviet fighters that never got off the drawing board when the U.S.S.R. collapsed. The F-35 and other expensive "legacy" weapons systems are already facing a "death spiral", in which rising cost per unit leads to reduced orders, in turn forcing the unit cost even higher, leading to further reductions in orders, and so on.