Mandy Smithberger

The Pentagon budget is spiraling beyond any rational limits

Even as Congress moves to increase the Pentagon budget well beyond the astronomical levels proposed by the Biden administration, a new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has outlined three different ways to cut $1 trillion in Department of Defense spending over the next decade. A rational defense policy could yield far more in the way of reductions, but resistance from the Pentagon, weapons contractors, and their many allies in Congress would be fierce.

After all, in its consideration of the bill that authorizes such budget levels for next year, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives recently voted to add $25 billion to the already staggering $750 billion the Biden administration requested for the Pentagon and related work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy. By any measure, that's an astonishing figure, given that the request itself was already far higher than spending at the peaks of the Korean and Vietnam Wars or President Ronald Reagan's military buildup of the 1980s.

In any reasonable world, such a military budget should be considered both unaffordable and deeply unsuitable when it comes to addressing the true threats to this country's "defense," including cyberattacks, pandemics, and the devastation already being wrought by climate change. Worst of all, providing a blank check to the military-industrial-congressional complex ensures the continued production of troubled weapon systems like Lockheed Martin's exorbitantly expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is typically behind schedule, far above projected costs, and still not considered effective in combat.

Changing course would mean real reform and genuine accountability, starting with serious cuts to a budget for which "bloated" is far too kind an adjective.

Three Options for Reductions

At the request of Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the CBO devised three different approaches to cutting approximately $1 trillion (a decrease of a mere 14%) from the Pentagon budget over the next decade. Historically, it could hardly be a more modest proposal. After all, without any such plan, the Pentagon budget actually did decrease by 30% between 1988 and 1997.

Such a CBO-style reduction would still leave the department with about $6.3 trillion to spend over that 10-year period, 80% more than the cost of President Biden's original $3.5 trillion Build Back Better proposal for domestic investments. Of course, that figure, unlike the Pentagon budget, has already been dramatically whittled down to half its original size, thanks to laughable claims by "moderate" Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) that it would break the bank in Washington. Yet such critics of expanded social and economic programs rarely offer similar thoughts when it comes to the Pentagon's far larger bite of the budgetary pie.

The options in the budget watchdog's new report are anything but radical:

Option one would preserve the "current post-Cold War strategy of deterring aggression through [the] threat of immediate U.S. military response with the objectives of denying an adversary's gains and recapturing lost territory." The proposed cuts would hit each military service equally, with some new weapons programs slowed down and a few, as in the case of the B-21 bomber, cancelled.

Option two "adopts a Cold War-like strategy for large nuclear powers of making aggression very costly and recognizing that the size of conventional conflict would be limited by the threat of a nuclear response." That leaves nearly $2 trillion for the Pentagon's planned "modernization" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal untouched, while relying more heavily on working with allies in conventional war situations than current strategy allows for. It would mean that the military might take longer to deploy in large numbers to a conflict.

Option three "de-emphasizes use of U.S. military force in regional conflicts in favor of preserving U.S. control of the global commons (sea, air, space, and the Arctic), ensuring open access to the commons for allies and unimpeded global commerce." In other words, Afghan- or Iraq-style boots-on-the-ground U.S. interventions would largely be avoided in favor of the use of long-range and "over-the-horizon" weapons like drones, naval blockades, the enforcement of no-fly zones, and the further arming and training of allies.

But looking more broadly at the question of what will make the world a safer place in an era of pandemics, climate change, racial injustice, and economic inequality, reductions well beyond the $1 trillion figure embedded in the CBO's recommendations would be both necessary and possible in a more reasonable American world. The CBO's scenarios remain focused on military methods for solving security problems, assuring an all-too-narrow view of what might be saved by a new approach to security.

Nuclear Excess

The CBO, for instance, chose not to look at possible savings from simply scaling back (not even ending) the Pentagon's $2-trillion, three-decades-long plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and submarines, complete with accompanying new warheads. Scaling back such a buildup, which will only further imperil this planet, could easily save in excess of $100 billion over the next decade.

One significant step toward nuclear sanity would be to adopt the alternative nuclear posture proposed by the organization Global Zero. That would involve the elimination of all land-based nuclear missiles and rely instead on a smaller force of ballistic missile submarines and bombers as part of a "deterrence-only" strategy.

Land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles were accurately described by former Secretary of Defense William Perry as "some of the most dangerous weapons in the world." The reason: a president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them upon being warned of an oncoming nuclear attack by an enemy power. That would, of course, greatly increase the risk of an accidental nuclear war and the potential destruction of the planet prompted by a false alarm (of which there have been several in the past). Eliminating such missiles would make the world a far safer place, while saving tens of billions of dollars in the process.

Capping Contractors

While most people think about the Pentagon budget in terms of what it spends on new guns, ships, planes, and missiles, services are about half of what it buys every year. These are the contracts that go to various corporate "Beltway bandits" to consult with the military or perform jobs that could often be done more cheaply by federal employees. Both the Defense Business Board and the Pentagon's own cost estimating office have identified service contracting as an area where there are significant opportunities for large-scale savings.

Last year, the Pentagon spent nearly $204 billion on various service contracts. That's more than the budgets for the Departments of Health and Human Services, State, or Homeland Security. Reducing spending on contractors by even 15% would instantly save tens of billions of dollars annually.

In the past, Congress and the Pentagon have shown that just such savings could easily be realized. For example, a provision in a 2011 defense law simply capped such spending at 2010 levels. Government spending data shows that, in the end, it was reduced by $42 billion over four years.

Closing Unneeded Bases

While the Biden administration seeks to expand domestic infrastructure spending, the Pentagon has been desperate to shed costly and unnecessary military facilities. Both the Obama and Trump administrations asked Congress to authorize another round of what's called base realignment and closure to help the Defense Department get rid of its excess capacity. The Pentagon estimates that it could save $2 billion annually that way.

The CBO report cited above explicitly excludes any consideration of such cost savings as politically unfeasible, given the present Congress. But considering the ways in which climate change is going to threaten current military basing arrangements domestically and globally, that would be an obvious way to go.

Another CBO report warns that the future effects of climate change — from rising sea levels (and flooding coastlines) to ever more powerful storms — will both reduce the government's revenue and increase its mandatory spending, if its base situation remains as it is now. After all, ever fiercer tropical storms and hurricanes, as well as rising levels of flooding, are already resulting in billions of dollars in damage to military bases. Meanwhile, it's estimated that, in the decades to come, more than 1,700 U.S. military installations worldwide may be impacted by sea-level rise. Future rounds of base closings, both domestic and global, should be planned now with the impact of climate change in mind.

Turning Around Congress, Fighting Off Lobbyists

So far, boosting Pentagon spending has been one of the only things a bipartisan majority of this Congress can agree on, as indicated by that House decision to add $25 billion to the Pentagon budget request for Fiscal Year 2022. A similar measure is included in the Senate version, which it will debate soon. There are, however, glimmers of hope on the horizon as the number of members of Congress willing to oppose the longstanding practice of shoveling ever more funds at the Pentagon, no questions asked, is indeed growing.

For example, a majority of Democrats and members of the leadership in the House of Representatives supported an ultimately unsuccessful provision to strip some excess funds from the Pentagon this year. A smaller group voted to cut the department's budget across the board by 10%. Still, it was a number that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. That core group is only likely to grow in the years to come as the costs of non-military challenges like pandemics, climate change, and the financial impact of racial and economic injustice supplant traditional military risks as the most urgent threats to American lives and livelihoods.

Opposition to increased Pentagon spending is growing outside of Washington as well. An ever-wider range of not just progressive but conservative organizations now support substantial reductions in the Pentagon budget. The challenge, however, is to translate such sentiments into a concerted, multifaceted campaign of public pressure that will move a majority of the members of Congress to stop giving the Pentagon a yearly blank check. A new poll from the Eurasia Group Foundation found that twice as many Americans now support cutting the Pentagon budget as support increasing it.

Any attempt to curb Pentagon spending will run up against a strikingly powerful arms industry that deploys campaign contributions, lobbyists, and promises of defense-related employment to keep budgets high. In this century alone, the Pentagon has spent more than $14 trillion, up to one-half of which has gone to contractors. During those same years, the arms industry has spent $285 million on campaign contributions and $2.5 billion on lobbying, most of it focused on members of the armed services and defense appropriations committees that take the lead in deciding how much the country spends for military purposes.

The arms industry's lobbying efforts are especially insidious. In an average year, it employs around 700 lobbyists, more than one for every member of Congress. The top five corporate weapons makers got a return of $1,909 in taxpayer funds for every dollar they spent on lobbying. Most of their lobbyists once worked in the Pentagon or Congress and arrived in the world of arms contractors via the infamous "revolving door." Of course, they then used their relationships with their former colleagues in government to curry favor for their corporate employers. A 2018 investigation by the Project On Government Oversight found that, in the prior decade, 380 high-ranking Pentagon officials and military officers had become lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for weapons contractors within two years of leaving their government jobs.

A September 2021 study by the Government Accountability Office found that, as of 2019, the top 14 arms contractors employed more than 1,700 former military or Pentagon civilian employees, including many who had previously been involved in making or enforcing the rules for buying major weapons systems.

The revolving door spins both ways, with executives and board members of the major weapons makers moving into powerful senior positions in government where they're well situated to help their former (and, more than likely, future) employers. The process starts at the top. Four of the past five secretaries of defense have also been executives, lobbyists, or board members of Raytheon, Boeing, or General Dynamics, three of the top five weapons makers that split tens of billions of dollars in Pentagon contracts annually. Both the House and Senate versions of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act extend the periods of time in which those entering the government from such industries have to recuse themselves from decisions involving their former companies. Still, as long as the Pentagon continues to pluck officials from the very outfits driving those exploding budgets, we should all know more or less what to expect.

So far, the system is working — if you happen to be an arms contractor. The top five weapons companies alone split $166 billion in Pentagon contracts in Fiscal Year 2020, well over one-third of those issued by the Department of Defense that year. To give you some sense of the scale of all this — and our government's twisted priorities — Lockheed Martin alone received $75 billion in Pentagon contracts in Fiscal Year 2020, nearly one and one-half times the $52.5 billion allocated for the State Department and the Agency for International Development combined.

Which Way Forward?

The Congressional Budget Office's new report charts a path toward a more rational approach to Pentagon spending, but the $1 trillion in savings it proposes should only be a starting point. Hundreds of billions more could be saved over the next decade by reassessing our national security strategy, cutting back the Pentagon's nuclear buildup, capping its use of private contractors, and scaling back the colossal sums of waste, fraud, and abuse baked into its budget. All of this could be done while making this country and the world a significantly safer place by shifting such funds to addressing the non-military risks that threaten the future of humanity.

Whether our leaders meet the challenges of today or continue to succumb to the power of the arms lobby is an open question.

Copyright 2021 William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

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William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and the author of "Profits of War: Corporate Beneficiaries of the Post-9/11 Surge in Pentagon Spending" (Brown University's the Costs of War Project and the Center for International Policy, September 2021).

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America's nearly $1.3 Trillion national security budget isn't making us safer

President Biden's first Pentagon budget, released late last month, is staggering by any reasonable standard. At more than $750 billion for the Defense Department and related work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy, it represents one of the highest levels of spending since World War II — far higher than the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam wars or President Ronald Reagan's military buildup of the 1980s, and roughly three times what China spends on its military.

Developments of the past year and a half — an ongoing pandemic, an intensifying mega-drought, white supremacy activities, and racial and economic injustice among them — should have underscored that the greatest threats to American lives are anything but military in nature. But no matter, the Biden administration has decided to double down on military spending as the primary pillar of what still passes for American security policy. And don't be fooled by that striking Pentagon budget figure either. This year's funding requests suggest that the total national security budget will come closer to a breathtaking $1.3 trillion.

That mind-boggling figure underscores just how misguided Washington's current "security" — a word that should increasingly be put in quotation marks — policies really are. No less concerning was the new administration's decision to go full-speed ahead on longstanding Pentagon plans to build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and missiles, including, of course, new nuclear warheads to go with them, at a cost of at least $1.7 trillion over the next three decades.

The Trump administration added to that plan projects like a new submarine-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile, all of which is fully funded in Biden's first budget. It hardly matters that a far smaller arsenal would be more than adequate to dissuade any country from launching a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. A rare glimmer of hope came in a recent internal memo from the Navy suggesting that it may ultimately scrap Trump's sea-launched cruise missile in next year's budget submission — but that proposal is already facing intense pushback from nuclear-weapons boosters in Congress.

In all, Biden's first budget is a major win for key players in the nuclear-industrial complex like Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor on the new nuclear bomber and a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); General Dynamics, the maker of the new ballistic-missile submarine; Lockheed Martin, which produces sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs); and firms like Honeywell that oversee key elements in the Department of Energy's nuclear-warhead complex.

The Biden budget does retire some older-generation weapons. The only reason, however, is to fund even more expensive new systems like hypersonic weapons and ones embedded with artificial intelligence, all with the goal of supposedly putting the United States in a position to win a war with China (if anyone could "win" such a war).

China's military buildup remains, in fact, largely defensive, so ramping up Pentagon spending supposedly in response represents both bad strategy and bad budgeting. If, sooner or later, cooler heads don't prevail, the obsession with China that's gripped the White House, the Pentagon, and key members of Congress could keep Pentagon budgets high for decades to come.

In reality, the principal challenges posed by China are diplomatic and economic, not military, and seeking militarized answers to them will only spark a new Cold War and a risky arms race that could make a superpower nuclear conflict more likely. While there's much to criticize in China's policies, from its crackdown on the democracy movement in Hong Kong to its ethnic cleansing and severe repression of its Uyghur population, in basic military capabilities, it doesn't come faintly close to the United States, nor will it any time soon. Washington's military build-up, however, could undermine the biggest opportunity in U.S.-China relations: finding a way to cooperate on issues like climate change that threaten the future of the planet.

As noted, the three-quarters of a trillion dollars the United States spends on the Pentagon budget is just a portion of a much larger figure for the full range of activities of the national security state. Let's look, category by category, at what the Biden budget proposes to spend on this broader set of activities.

The Pentagon's "Base Budget"

The Pentagon's proposed "base" budget, which, in past years, has included routine spending for fighting ongoing conflicts, was $715 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2022, $10 billion more than last year's request. Despite complaints to the contrary by advocates of even higher Pentagon spending, that represents no small addition. It's larger, for instance, than the entire budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No question about it, the Pentagon remains by a long shot the agency with the largest discretionary budget.

One piece of good news is that this year's request marks the end of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account. That slush fund was used to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also included tens of billions of dollars for pet Pentagon projects that had nothing to do with current conflicts.

While off-budget emergency spending has typically only been used in the initial years of a conflict, OCO became a tool to evade caps on the Pentagon's regular budget imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. That legislation has now expired and the Biden administration has heeded the advice of good-government and taxpayer-advocacy groups by eliminating the slush fund entirely.

Unfortunately, its latest budget request still includes $42.1 billion for direct and indirect war-spending costs, which means that, OCO or not, there will be no net reduction in spending. Still, the end of that fund marks a small but potentially significant step towards greater accountability and transparency in the Pentagon budget. Moreover, congressional leaders are urging the Biden administration to seize savings from the ongoing Afghan withdrawal to sooner or later reduce the Pentagon's top line.

As for what's in the base budget, there are a number of particularly troubling proposed expenditures that warrant attention and congressional pushback. Spending on the Pentagon's new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile — known formally as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent — has nearly doubled in the new proposal from $1.4 billion to $2.6 billion.

This may seem like small change in such a budget, but it's just a down payment on a system that could, in the end, cost more than $100 billion to procure and another $164 billion to operate over its lifetime. More importantly, as former secretary of defense William Perry noted, ICBMs are "some of the most dangerous weapons in the world" because a president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them upon a warning of an attack, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm. In short, the new ICBM is not just costly but exceedingly dangerous for the health of humanity. The Biden budget should have eliminated it, not provided more funding for it.

Another eye-opener is the decision to spend more than $12 billion on the F-35 combat aircraft, a troubled, immensely expensive weapons system whose technical flaws suggest that it may never be fully ready for combat. Such knowledge should, of course, have resulted in a decision to at least pause production on the plane until testing is complete. House Armed Services Committee chair Adam Smith (D-WA) has stated that he's tired of pouring money down the F-35 "rathole," while the Air Force's top officer, General Charles Brown, has compared it to a Ferrari that "you don't drive to work every day" but "only drive it out on Sundays."

Consider that an embarrassing admission for a plane once publicized as a future low-cost bulwark for the U.S. combat aircraft fleet. Whether the Air Force, Navy, and Marines, the three services that utilize variants of the F-35, will stay the course and buy more than 2,400 of these aircraft remains to be seen. Count on one thing, though: the F-35 lobby, including a special F-35 caucus in the House of Representatives and the Machinists Union, whose workers build the planes, will fight tooth and nail to keep the program fully funded regardless of whether or not it serves our national security needs.

And keep in mind that the F-35 is only one of many legacies of failed Pentagon modernization efforts. Even if the Pentagon were to acquire its new systems without delays or cost overruns — something rare indeed — its expensive spending plans have already earned this decade the moniker of the "terrible twenties."

Worse yet, there's a distinct possibility that Congress will push that budget even higher in response to "wish lists" being circulated by each of the military services. Items on them that have yet to make it into the Biden Pentagon budget include things like — surprise! — more F-35s. The Army's wish list even includes systems it claimed it needed to cut. That the services are even allowed to make such requests to Congress is symbolic of a breakdown in budgetary discipline of the highest order.

The base budget also includes mandatory spending for items like military retirement. This year's request adds $12.8 billion to the Pentagon's tab.

Running Tally: $727.9 billion

The Nuclear Budget

It would be reasonable for you to assume that the Department of Energy's budget would primarily be devoted to developing new energy sources and combating climate change, but that assumption would, sadly enough, be wildly off the mark.

In fact, more than half of the department's budget goes to support the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the country's nuclear weapons program. The NNSA does work on nuclear warheads at eight major locations — California, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico (two facilities), South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas — across the country, along with subsidiary facilities in several additional states. NNSA's proposed FY 2022 budget for nuclear-weapons activities is $15.5 billion, part of a budget for atomic-energy-related projects of $29.9 billion.

The NNSA is notorious for poor management of major projects. It has routinely been behind schedule and over cost — to the tune of $28 billion in the past two decades. Its future plans seem destined to hit the pocketbook of the American taxpayer significantly, with projected long-term spending on nuclear weapons activities rising by a proposed $113 billion in a single year.

Nuclear Budget $29.9 billion

Running tally: $757.8 billion

Defense-Related Activities

This is a catch-all category, totaling $10.5 billion in the FY 2022 request, including the international activities of the FBI and payments to the CIA retirement fund, among other things.

Defense-Related Activities $10.5 billion

Running tally: $768.3 billion

The Intelligence Budget

There is very little public information available about how the nation's — count 'em! — 17 intelligence agencies spend our tax dollars. The majority of congressional representatives don't even have staff members capable of accessing any kind of significant information on intelligence spending, a huge obstacle to the ability of Congress to oversee these agencies and their activities in any meaningful way. So far this year there is only a top-line figure available for spending on national (but not military) intelligence activities of $62.3 billion. Most of this money is already believed to be hidden away in the Pentagon budget, so it's not added to the running tally displayed below.

National Intelligence activities: $62.3 billion

Running tally: $768.3 billion

The Military and Defense Department Retirement and Health Budget

The Treasury Department covers military retirement and health expenditures that should be in the Pentagon's base budget. Net spending on these two items — minus interest earned and payments into the two accounts — was a negative $9.7 billion in FY 2022.

Military and Defense Department Retirement and Health Costs: -$9.7 billion

Running tally: $758.6 billion

Veterans Affairs Budget

The full costs of war go far beyond the expenditures contained in the Pentagon budget, including the costs of taking care of the veterans of America's "forever wars." Over 2.7 million U.S. military personnel have cycled through war zones in this century and hundreds of thousands of them have suffered severe physical or psychological injuries, ratcheting up the costs of veterans' care accordingly. In addition, as we emerge from the Covid-19 disaster months, the Veterans Affairs Department anticipates a "bow wave" of extra costs and demands for its services from veterans who deferred care during the worst of the pandemic. The total FY2022 budget request for Veterans Affairs is $284.5 billion.

Veterans Affairs Budget: $284.5 billion

Running tally: $1,043.1 billion

International Affairs Budget

The International Affairs budget includes funding for the State Department and the Agency for International Development, integral parts of the U.S. national security strategy. Here, investments in diplomacy and economic and health activities overseas are supplemented by about $5.6 billion in military aid to other countries. The Biden administration has proposed overall International Affairs funding for FY 2022 at $79 billion.

International Affairs Budget: $79 billion

Running tally: $1,122.1 billion

The Homeland Security Budget

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created by throwing together a wide range of agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Agency, the U.S. Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, and the Coast Guard. The proposed DHS budget for FY2022 is $52.2 billion, nearly one-third of which goes to Customs and Border Protection.

Homeland Security Budget: $52.2 billion

Running tally: $1,174.3 billion

Interest on the Debt

The national security state, as outlined above, is responsible for about 20% of the interest due on the U.S. debt, a total of more than $93.8 billion.

Interest on the debt: $93.8 billion

Final tally: $1,268.1 billion

Are You Feeling Safer Now?

Theoretically, that nearly $1.3 trillion to be spent on national security writ large is supposed to be devoted to activities that make America and the world a safer place. That's visibly not the case when it comes to so many of the funds that will be expended in the name of national security — from taxpayer dollars thrown away on weapons systems that don't work to those spent on an unnecessary and dangerous new generation of nuclear weapons, to continuing to reinforce and extend the historically unprecedented U.S. military presence on this planet by maintaining more than 800 overseas military bases around the world.

If managed properly, President Biden's initiatives on rebuilding domestic infrastructure and combatting climate change would be far more central to keeping people safe than throwing more money at the Pentagon and related agencies. Unfortunately, unlike the proposed Pentagon budget, significant Green New Deal-style infrastructure funding is far less likely to be passed by a bitterly divided Congress. Washington evidently doesn't care that such investments would also be significantly more effective job creators.

A shift in spending toward these and other urgent priorities like addressing the possibility of future pandemics would clearly be a far better investment in "national security" than the present proposed Pentagon budget. Sadly, though, too many of America's political leaders have clearly drawn the wrong lessons from the pandemic. If this country continues to squander staggering sums on narrowly focused national-security activities at a time when our greatest challenges are anything but military in nature, this country (and the world) will be a far less safe place in the future.

Copyright 2021 William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands(the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

The dirty little secrets of the Pentagon in the Biden era

The first 100 days of President Joe Biden's administration have come and gone. While somewhat exaggerated, that milestone is normally considered the honeymoon period for any new president. Buoyed by a recent election triumph and inauguration, he's expected to be at the peak of his power when it comes to advancing the biggest, boldest items on his agenda.

And indeed, as far as, say, infrastructure or pandemic vaccination goals, Biden has delivered in a major way. Blindly funding the Pentagon and its priorities in the stratospheric fashion that's become the essence of Washington has, however, proven another matter entirely. One hundred days later and it's remarkable how little has changed when it comes to pouring money into this country's vast military infrastructure and the wars, ongoing or imagined, that accompany it.

For the past decade, debate about the Pentagon budget was governed, in part, by the Budget Control Act, which placed at least nominal caps on spending levels for both defense and non-defense agencies. In reality, though, unlike so many other government agencies, the Pentagon was never restrained by such a cap. Congress continued to raise its limits as military budgets only grew and, no less important, defense spending had a release valve that allowed staggering sums of money to flow without serious accounting into an off-budget fund meant especially for its wars and labeled "the overseas contingency operations account." The Congressional Research Service has estimated that such supplemental spending from September 11, 2001, to fiscal year 2019 totaled an astonishing $2 trillion above and beyond the congressionally agreed upon Pentagon budget.

Now, however, the Budget Control Act has expired, leaving this administration with a striking opportunity to reorient the country away from trillion-dollar-plus national security budgets and endless wars, though there's little sign that such a path will be taken.

If there's one thing Americans should have learned in the last year-plus, it's that endless Pentagon spending doesn't actually make us safer. The pandemic, the insurrection at the Capitol, and the persistent threat of white nationalist extremism should have made it all too clear that defending this country against the most significant risks to domestic public health and safety don't fall within the Pentagon's purview. In addition, the Department of Defense is perhaps the country's greatest source of wasteful spending and mismanagement.

Sadly enough, however, it's likely to be business as usual as long as the money continues to flow in the usual fashion. How striking and inexcusable then that, when it comes to the Pentagon, the Biden administration has visibly wasted its pivotal first 100 days in office on yet more of the same. What we already know, for instance, is that, despite a planned withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and claims about winding down America's "forever wars," the first proposed Biden Pentagon budget of $715 billion actually represents a modest increase over the staggering sums the Pentagon received in the last year of the Trump administration.

Admittedly, there is at least a little good news about the Pentagon's finances in the Biden era (though it was already included in the last Trump administration Pentagon budget). The overseas contingency operations slush fund is finally being eliminated. While some saw this as a natural consequence of the end of the Budget Control Act, it was definitely a victory over weapons-industry-funded think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies that were trying to persuade lawmakers and the public to "reform" the fund instead.

In addition, the Biden administration's decision to bring the last troops home from Afghanistan could be an important initial step in drawing down this country's endlessly expensive wars. It's estimated that the United States will have spent upwards of $2.5 trillion dollars on the war in Afghanistan alone (including approximately $12.5 billion annually for the next 40 years on the care of its veterans), a conflict in which, according to Brown University's Costs of War Project, more than a quarter of a million people were killed.

But Biden must do more if he wants to fulfill his promise to end the forever wars. That includes encouraging Congress to repeal long outdated war authorizations and committing not to let any future conflicts start without actual congressional declarations of war. Meanwhile, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and other war fronts should result in significant Pentagon budget reductions, as has happened historically after wars — but don't count on it.

The Pentagon Behemoth of Waste

If you want a bellwether for measuring the Pentagon's influence in America, consider this: even the most disastrous weapons programs regularly get a pass, and it's unlikely the Biden era will end that reality.

Right now, any number of wasteful and troubled Pentagon programs, most notoriously Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, are officially being reviewed. The cost of the creation and maintenance of that jet alone has already ensured that it will be the most expensive weapons program in history: an expected $1.7 trillion over its lifetime. Even department officials and members of Congress have — and this is rare indeed — balked at just how expensive and unreliable that fighter aircraft has proven to be. Trump's outgoing acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller called the F-35 a "piece of…," tellingly leaving the last word hanging, but later referring to the plane as "a monster." Meanwhile, Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), the chair of the House Armed Services committee, has made it clear that he'd like to stop throwing taxpayer dollars down that particular "rathole."

Once upon a time, Americans were assured that, as the country's future jet fighter, the F-35 would be "more Chevrolet than Porsche"; that is, on the low (and cheap) end of any new mix of future air power. A lot has changed since then. Total program costs have doubled, while the future price of maintaining the planes soared — unlike the planes themselves. Often, in fact, they aren't in good enough shape to fly, raising serious concerns about whether enough F-35s will be available for future combat. The chief of staff of the Air Force now claims that it's not the Chevrolet, but the "Ferrari," of jet fighters and so should, in the future, be used sparingly. The predictable evolution of that plane was described by the legendary late Colonel Everest Riccioni as a modern Pentagon version of "unilateral disarmament."

At the very least, no more F-35s should be purchased until testing is successfully completed, but such common sense has not, in recent memory, been a notable Pentagon trait — not in the world of the "revolving door" of the military-industrial complex. In this sense, the F-35 program has been typical of our times. In 2017, when delays and exploding costs led the Department of Defense to consider reducing the program's size, then-commandant of the Marine Corps General Joe Dunford weighed in on the subject. Largely ignoring F-35 testing data, he promptly declared that the program had indeed reached initial operational capability (which it likely hadn't). Unsurprisingly, soon after his retirement in 2019, he joined the board of Lockheed.

The future of the Pentagon will largely be shaped by the personnel selected to lead it. In too many instances, they've come directly from a defense industry that's profited handsomely from its soaring budget. In the Trump administration, for instance, figures were selected for the position of secretary of defense who had worked for top defense firms. Retired general Jim Mattis had been on the board of General Dynamics (and returned to it shortly after his stint at the Pentagon ended); Patrick Shanahan came from Boeing; and Mark Esper came from Raytheon.

Although Joe Biden issued a strong ethics executive order to be applied to his political appointees across the board, so far his administration doesn't look that different from past ones when it comes to the Pentagon. After all, his secretary of defense, retired General Lloyd Austin III, arrived directly from the board of Raytheon; while Frank Kendall, nominated to be Air Force secretary, comes from the board of Leidos, another top Pentagon contractor, though one that provides services rather than building weaponry. (While often overlooked, service contracts make up nearly half of all the department's contract spending.)

Spreading defense contracts across congressional districts, a practice known in Washington as "political engineering," also needs to end. Lockheed, for instance, claims that the F-35 program has created jobs in 45 states. According to conventional wisdom, it's this reality that makes the Pentagon too big to fail. Though seldom noted, similar money put into non-military funding like infrastructure or clean energy almost invariably proves to be a greater job creator than the military version of the same.

Here, then, is a question that might be worth considering in the early months of the Biden administration: Is there a more striking indictment of this country's approach to military budgeting than continuing to buy a weapon because our political system is too corrupt to change course?

Militarism at Home

In our recent history, Washington has distinctly been a Pentagon-first sort of place. Often forgotten is how such an approach has negatively impacted communities not just in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, or Yemen, but also here at home. To take one example, the Pentagon has played a key role in militarizing this country's police forces, only contributing to the destructive cycle that was first widely noticed after police used military-grade weapons against those protesting the killing of an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Continued police violence targeting the Black community finally gained major attention in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the police response to the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. As colleagues of mine at the Project On Government Oversight have written, the militarization of our police makes the public "both less safe and less free."

The Pentagon has negatively impacted the policing of America through its 1033 program, which in recent years has transferred staggering amounts of excess military equipment, sometimes directly off the battlefields of this country's "forever wars," to police departments across the country. Tools of war now transferred to local police forces include tanks, mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, assault rifles, and bayonets, among many other military items. The group Open The Books, dedicated to government transparency, found that since 1993 the program has transferred 581,000 items of military gear worth $1.8 billion to the police. Unsurprisingly, a 2017 study found police departments that received such equipment were more likely to kill the very civilians they are supposed to protect and serve.

At the beginning of the Biden administration, it appeared that the 1033 program would be curtailed. In January, Reuters reported that the president was preparing to sign an executive order that very month, which would at least put significant limits on the program. As of yet, more than three months later, the White House has taken no such action, though in March, Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) did introduce legislation to curtail the program. According to the Security Policy Reform Institute, the National Association of Police Organizations claimed credit for delaying the president's action.

So today, the military continues to make this country's police look ever more like they're occupying some foreign land.

The China Chickenhawks

And if the China hawks who have gained significant power among the Biden foreign-policy team have anything to say about it, funding the Pentagon will continue to be the order of the day.

Not surprisingly, the Biden administration faces increasing pressure over China and the dangers of war, a narrative that seems like a response to a growing public consensus that we can't continue to put the Pentagon's needs first. The military services are already beginning to turn on each other as they fight for their share of the future budget pie. Concerned that the money train may finally be preparing to run off the tracks, there's been a persistent drumbeat of exaggeration about the military threat posed by China.

In that context, the key document Pentagon boosters continue to cite, though it was published in 2018, is a report from the National Defense Strategy Commission. It recommended cutting the entitlement programs that make up this country's social safety net to pay for a 3% to 5% annual increase in Pentagon spending. Most of the panelists on that commission were defense industry consultants, board members of the giant weapons makers, or lobbyists for the same. Needless to say, they had a financial stake in raising concerns that China would overtake the United States militarily in the reasonably near future.

Indeed, it's a fact of life that competition with China is now a challenge, but it's important to maintain a sense of realism about the nature of that threat. As John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World recently showed, in capacity and strength, the U.S. military dominates China's many times over. "It seems that China has become the new Soviet Union strawman," Isaacs wrote. "But there's one big difference: while the Soviet military and nuclear arsenal were a fair match for the United States', China's simply aren't." The new cold war with China that the Biden administration is already promoting only threatens to weaken this country as resources are diverted away from combating the most serious threats of our time like pandemics, climate change, and white supremacy.

Unfortunately, in February, the Biden administration, having largely bought into this rhetoric, announced the establishment of a new Pentagon China Task Force. The most likely outcome, as my colleague Dan Grazier points out, is that the president and his foreign policy team will provide ample "cover for elected officials to back unpopular policy recommendations that will end up fulfilling the wish list of the defense industry."

As longtime Atlantic correspondent and defense-reform expert James Fallows has noted, America's draft-less twenty-first-century wars have essentially ensured that the U.S. has become a "chickenhawk nation." For those unfamiliar with the term, chickenhawk refers to "those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going" in their place. The net result is that the American public has, in this century, proven remarkably complacent about how Washington has used force, "blithely assuming we would win." It was bad enough with Afghanistan, Iraq, and the other forever-war countries, but when it comes to China, it's hard to imagine anything but the most negative outcomes from those encouraging military conflict.

Meanwhile, as with so much related to the Pentagon, the consequences at home of the China scare are already apparent. As has been increasingly obvious of late, overheated rhetoric about the dangers of China have led to an increase in hate-crime attacks against Asian Americans nationwide. While former President Trump's anti-China rhetoric ("Kung-flu," "China Virus") seems to have contributed significantly to this increase in hate crimes, so has the rise in fear-mongering about the China threat and the bolstering of what's still called "defense" policy that's gone with it.

This country would undoubtedly benefit from more competition with (as well as cooperation with) China that would strengthen the economy and create more prosperity here. On the other hand, a new cold war atmosphere will allow the Pentagon to horde resources that would otherwise go to our greater public health and safety needs.

Unfortunately, 100-plus days later, the Biden administration has already wasted its first opportunity to change course.

Copyright 2021 Mandy Smithberger

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

The addiction to Pentagon spending will damage our country's recovery

This country is in a crisis of the first order. More than half a million of us have died thanks to Covid-19. Food insecurity is on the rise, with nearly 24 million Americans going hungry, including 12 million children. Unemployment claims filed since the pandemic began have now reached 93 million. Given the level of damage to the less wealthy parts of this society, it's little wonder that most Americans chose pandemic recovery (including the quick distribution of vaccines) as their top priority issue.

Keep in mind that our democracy is suffering as well. After all, former President Donald Trump incited an insurrection when he wasn't able to win at the polls, an assault on the Capitol in which military veterans were overrepresented among those committed to reversing the election results (and endangering legislators as well). If you want a mood-of-the-moment fact, consider this: even after Joe Biden's election, QAnon followers continued to insist that Trump could still be inaugurated to his second term in office. Addressing economic and political instability at home will take significant resources and focus, including calling to account those who so grossly mishandled the country's pandemic response and stoked the big lie of questioning the legitimacy of Biden's election victory.

If, however, you weren't out here in the real world, but in there where the national security elite exists, you'd find that the chatter would involve few of the problems just mentioned. And only in our world would such a stance seem remarkably disconnected from reality. In their world, the "crisis" part of the present financial crisis is a fear, based on widespread rumors and reports about the Biden budget to come, that the Pentagon's funding might actually get, if not a genuine haircut, then at least a trim — something largely unheard of in the twenty-first century.

The Pentagon's boosters and their allies in the defense industry respond to such fears by insisting that no such trim could possibly be in order, that competition with China must be the prime focus of this moment and of the budget to come. Assuming that China's rise is, in fact, a genuine problem, it's not one that's likely to be solved either in the near future or in a military fashion (not, at least, without disaster for the world), and it's certainly not one that should be prioritized during a catastrophic pandemic.

While there are genuine concerns about what China's rise might mean for the United States, it's important to recognize just how much harm those trying to distract us from the very real problems at hand are likely to inflict on our health and actual security. Since the beginning of the pandemic, in fact, those unwilling to accept our failures or respond adequately to the disease at hand have blamed outside forces, most notably China, for otherwise preventable havoc to American lives and the economy.

Trump and his allies tried to shirk accountability for their failure to respond to the pandemic by pushing xenophobic and false characterizations of Covid-19 as the "China virus" or the "kung flu." In a similar fashion, the national security elites hope that focusing on building up our military and building new nuclear weapons with China in mind will distract time and energy from making needed changes at home. But those urging us to increase Pentagon spending to compete with China in the middle of a pandemic are, in reality, only compounding the damage to our country's recovery.

Militarizing the Future

Given the last two decades, you won't be surprised to know that this misplaced assessment of the real threat to the public has a firm grip on Washington right now. As my colleague Dan Grazier at the Project On Government Oversight pointed out recently, confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks included more than 70 (sometimes ominous) mentions of China.

So again, no surprise that only a few weeks after those hearings, Biden announced the creation of a new China task force at the Pentagon. As the press announcement made clear, that group is going to be a dream for the military-industrial complex since it will, above all, focus on developing advanced "defense" technologies to stare down the China "threat" and so further militarize the future. In other words, the Pentagon's projected threat assessments and their wonder-weapon solutions will be at the forefront of Washington thinking — and, therefore, funding, even during this pandemic.

That's why it's easy enough to predict where such a task force will lead. A similar panel in 2018, including lobbyists, board members, and contractors from the arms industry, warned that competition with China would require a long-term increase in funding for the Pentagon of 3% to 5%. That could mean an almost unimaginable future Department of Defense budget of $971.9 billion in fiscal year 2024. To pay for it, they suggested, Congress should consider cutting social security and other kinds of safety-net spending.

Even before Covid-19 hit, the economic fragility of so many Americans should have made that kind of recommendation irresponsible. In the midst of a pandemic, it's beyond dangerous. Still, it betrays a crucial truth about the military-industrial complex: its key figures see the U.S. economy as something that should serve their needs, not the other way around.

Of course, the giants of the weapons industry have long had a direct seat at the table in Washington. Despite being the first Black secretary of defense, for instance, Lloyd Austin III remains typical of the Pentagon establishment in the sense that he comes to the job directly from a seat on the board of directors of weapons giant Raytheon. And he's in good company. After all, many of the administration's recent appointees are drawn from key Washington think tanks supported by the weapons industry.

For instance, more than a dozen former staffers from, or people affiliated with, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) have joined the Biden administration. A recent report by the Revolving Door Project found that CNAS had repeatedly accepted the sort of funding that went comfortably with recommendations it was making that "would directly benefit some of the think tank's donors, including military contractors and foreign governments." When it came to confronting China, for instance, CNAS figures urged the Department of Defense to "sustain and enhance" defense contractors so that they would become ever more "robust, flexible, and resilient" in a faceoff with that country.

Sadly, even as the Pentagon's budget remains largely unchallenged, there's been a sudden reawakening — especially in Republican ranks — to the version of fiscal conservatism that looks askance at providing relief to communities and businesses suffering around the country. Recentdebates in Washington about the latest pandemic relief bill suggest once again that the much-ballyhooed principles of "responsibility" and "fiscal conservatism" apply to everyone — except, of course, the Pentagon.

Putting Covid-19 Relief Spending in Perspective

The price tag for the relief bill presently being debated in Congress, $1.9 trillion, is certainly significant, but it's not far from the kind of taxpayer support national security agencies normally receive every year. In 2020, for instance, the real national security budget request surpassed $1.2 trillion. That request included not only the Pentagon, but other costs of war, including care for veterans and military retirement benefits.

Over the years, such costs have proven monumental. The Department of Defense alone, for example, has received more than $10.6 trillion over the past 20 years. That included $2 trillion for its overseas contingency operations account, a war-fighting fund used by both the Pentagon and lawmakers to circumvent congressionally imposed spending caps. Reliance on that account, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office assured Congress, only made it likelier that taxpayers would fund more expensive and less optimal solutions to America's forever wars.

In the past, the justification for such excessive national-security spending rested on the idea that the Defense Department was the key to keeping Americans safe. As a result, the Pentagon's ever-escalating requests for money were approved by Congress year after year without real opposition. Disproportionate funding for that institution has, however, come at a significant cost.

Caps on non-defense spending under the Budget Control Act of 2011 meant that civilian agencies were already underfunded when the pandemic hit. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out, "Overall funding for programs outside veterans' medical care remains below its level a decade ago." The consequences of that underspending can also be seen in our crumbling roads and infrastructure, to which, in its last report in 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D+ — and the situation has only grown worse since then.

Job protection is the other common refrain for those defending high funding levels for the Pentagon and, during a pandemic with such devastating employment consequences, such a concern can hardly be dismissed. But studies have consistently shown that military spending is a remarkably poor job creator compared to almost any other kind of spending. Some of us may still remember World War II's Rosie the Riveter and mid-twentieth-century union support for defense budgets as engines for job creation. Those assumptions are, however, sorely out of date. Investing in healthcare, combating climate change, or rebuilding infrastructure are all significantly more effective job creators than yet more military spending.

Of course, non-military stimulus spending has been far from perfect. Even measuring the effects of the first relief package passed by Congress has proven difficult, especially since the Trump administration ignored the law when it came to reporting on just how many jobs that spending either preserved or created. Still, there's no question that non-military stimulus efforts are more effective, by orders of magnitude, than defense spending when it comes to job creation.

Needed: A New Funding Strategy to Weather Future Storms

The uncomfortable truth (even for those who would like to see a trillion dollars in annual Pentagon spending) is that such funding won't make us safer, possibly far less so. Recent studies of preventable military aviation crashes indicate that, disturbingly enough, given the way the Pentagon spends taxpayer funds, more money can actually make us less safe.

Somewhere along the line in this pandemic moment, Washington needs to redefine the meaning of both "national security" and "national interest." In a world in which California burns and Texas freezes, in which more than half-a-million Americans have already been felled by Covid-19, it's time to recognize how damaging the over-funding of the Pentagon and a myopic focus on an ever more militarized cold war with China are likely to be to this country. As the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft's Stephen Wertheim has argued, it's increasingly clear that an American strategy focused on chasing global military supremacy into the distant future no longer serves any real definition of national interest.

Vanderbilt law professor Ganesh Sitaraman recently pointed out at Foreign Affairs that "the coming era will be one of health crises, climate shocks, cyberattacks, and geoeconomic competition among great powers. What unites those seemingly disparate threats is that each is not so much a battle to be won as a challenge to be weathered." While traditional defense threats still loom large in what passes for national debate in Washington, the most likely (and potentially most devastating) threats to public health and safety aren't actually in the Pentagon's wheelhouse.

Weathering those future crises will continue to require innovation and creativity, which means ensuring that we are investing adequately not in the hypersonic weaponry of some future imagined war but in education and public health now. Particularly in the near term, as we try to rebuild jobs and businesses lost to this pandemic, even the Pentagon must be forced to make better use of the staggering resources it already receives from increasingly embattled American taxpayers. Rushing to produce yet more useless (and sometimes poorly produced) weapons systems and technology will only increase the fragility of both the military and the civilian society it's supposed to protect.

Make no mistake: the addiction to Pentagon spending is a bipartisan problem in Washington. Still, change is in order. The problems we face at home are too overwhelming to be ignored. We can't continue to let the appetites of the military-industrial complex crowd out the needs of the rest of us.

Copyright 2021 Mandy Smithberger

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

The erosion of civilian control: How the Pentagon is infecting American politics

This month's insurrection at the Capitol revealed the dismal failure of the Capitol Police and the Department of Defense to use their expertise and resources to thwart a clear and present danger to our democracy. As the government reform group Public Citizen tweeted, "If you're spending $740,000,000,000 annually on 'defense' but fascists dressed for the renaissance fair can still storm the Capitol as they please, maybe it's time to rethink national security?"

At a time of acute concern about the health of our democracy, any such rethinking must, among other things, focus on strengthening the authority of civilians and civilian institutions over the military in an American world where almost the only subject the two parties in Congress can agree on is putting up ever more money for the Pentagon. This means so many in our political system need to wean themselves from the counterproductive habit of reflexively seeking out military or retired military voices to validate them on issues ranging from public health to border security that should be quite outside the military's purview.

It's certainly one of the stranger phenomena of our era: after 20 years of endless war in which trillions of dollars were spent and hundreds of thousands died on all sides without the U.S. military achieving anything approaching victory, the Pentagon continues to be funded at staggering levels, while funding to deal with the greatest threats to our safety and "national security" — from the pandemic to climate change to white supremacy — proves woefully inadequate. In good times and bad, the U.S. military and the "industrial complex" that surrounds it, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower first warned us about in 1961, continue to maintain a central role in Washington, even though they're remarkably irrelevant to the biggest challenges facing our democracy.

These days, it's completely normal for military and defense officials to weigh in endlessly on what once would have been civilian matters. As the Biden years begin, it's time to give some serious thought to how to demilitarize our democracy.

Unfortunately, in the America of 2021, the short-term benefit of relying on the widely accepted credibility of military figures to promote policies of every sort is obvious indeed. Who in the political class in the nation's capital wouldn't want a stamp of approval from dozens of generals, active or retired, endorsing their favorite initiative or candidate? (It's something in years past the authors of this piece have been guilty of as well.) As it happens, though, such approval comes at a high price, undermining as it does the authority of civilian officials and agencies, while skewing resources toward the Pentagon that should be invested elsewhere to keep us truly safe.

It's an essential attribute of the American system that the military remains under civilian authority. These days, however, given the number of current or retired military officers who have become key arbiters of what we should do on a dizzying array of critical issues, civilian control is the policy equivalent of an endangered species.

In the last election season, long before the attack on the Capitol, there was already an intense national discussion about how to prevent violence at the polls, a conversation that all too quickly (and disturbingly) focused on what role the military should play in the process. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was repeatedly asked to provide assurances that it would have no role in determining the outcome of the election, something that in another America would have been a given.

Meanwhile, some actually sought more military involvement. For example, in a widely debated "open letter" to Milley, retired Army officers John Nagl and Paul Yingling stated that "if Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order." Proposals of this sort undermine the integrity of the many laws Congress and the states have put in place to prevent the military or armed vigilantes from playing any role in the electoral process.

Similarly, both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have identified the military as a key future player in distributing the Covid-19 vaccine, something that could and should be handled by public-health institutions, if only they, like the Pentagon, had adequate resources.

The Military Knows Best?

During and after the attack on the Capitol, officials from the military and national security worlds were given pride of place in discussions about the future of our democracy. Their opinions were sought out by the media and others on a wide range of issues that fell well outside their primary areas of expertise. A letter from 10 former secretaries of defense calling on the Republican caucus to respect the results of the election was given headline attention, while political figures pressed to have retired military officers involved in the January 6th assault tried in military, not civilian, courts.

Before pursuing the second impeachment of Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi typically turned to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs (who isn't even in the civilian chain of command) to seek assurance that he could stop the president from starting a last-minute nuclear war. And none of this was faintly unusual, given that retired military officers have regularly been asked to weigh in on subjects as varied as abortion rights, climate change, and childhood obesity. It's not, of course, that such figures shouldn't be able, like anyone else, to offer their opinions or support on matters of public health and safety, but that their voices shouldn't matter more than those of public-health experts, scientists, medical professionals, or other civilians.

Despite its failure to win a war in decades, the military remains one of America's most respected institutions, getting the kind of appreciation that generally doesn't extend to other more successful public servants. After almost 20 years of forever wars, it's hard, at this point, to accept that the military's reputation for wisdom is deserved. In fact, continually relying on retired generals and other present or former national security officials as validators effectively erodes the credibility of, and the public's trust in, other institutions that are meant to keep us healthy and safe.

In the Covid-19 moment, it should be clear that relying on narrowly defined notions of national security harms our democracy, a subject that none of those military or former military figures are likely to deal with. In addition, in all too many cases, current and retired military officials have abused the public trust in ways that call into question their right to serve as judges of what's important, or even to imagine that they could provide objective advice. For one thing, a striking number of high-ranking officers on leaving the military pass through the infamous revolving door of the military-industrial complex into positions as executives, lobbyists, board members, or consultants for the defense industry. They work on behalf of firms like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics that receive a combined $100 billion annually in Pentagon contracts with little accountability, even as they remain key go-to media figures.

They then use their former rank and the prestige attached to it to lobby Congress and influence the media on the need for endless wars and an ever-increasing military budget to support major weapons programs like Lockheed Martin's troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — all without bothering to disclose that they stand to gain financially from the positions they're taking. And the prospect of a big, fat salary in the weapons sector upon retirement also exerts an unhealthy influence on officers still serving in the military who are often loath to anger, or in any way alienate, their potential future employers.

This revolving-door phenomenon is widespread. A study by the Project on Government Oversight found that, in 2018 alone, there were 645 cases in which the top 20 defense contractors hired former government officials, military officers, members of Congress, and senior congressional legislative staff as lobbyists, board members, or executives. This should hardly inspire public trust in their opinions.

When civilian voices and policies are eclipsed as the central determinants in how our democracy should operate, a larger dilemma arises: continuing to rely on the military as a primary source of judgment for what's right or wrong in the civilian world risks politicizing the armed forces, too. From retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn leading chants of "Lock her up!" at the 2016 Republican National Convention to the competition between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as well as, in the 2020 election campaign, between Joe Biden and Donald Trump to see who could get more retired generals to endorse him or her only helps militarize the civilian election process and politicizes what should be a nonpartisan institution.

In some cases, ex-military officers have even taken to the airwaves and the op-ed pages of newspapers to advocate for war without disclosing their ties to the arms industry. A 2008 New York Timesinvestigation, for example, revealed that a number of retired-officers-turned-media pundits with continuing defense industry ties had, for years, advocated for the Iraq War at the Pentagon's behest. Ex-generals like former Trump administration Defense Secretary James Mattis, who served on the board of General Dynamics before taking the helm of the Pentagon and returned there shortly after stepping down, too often use their stature to refrain from providing basic information to the media while befogging the transparency and accountability that should be a pillar of democracy.

The Politicization of the Military

Given the more than a trillion dollars Americans annually invest in the national security state, it's striking to note, for instance, how such institutions let us down when it came to addressing the threats of white nationalism. Last summer, the Interceptuncovered a buried FBI report on the shortcomings of various federal agencies when it came to dealing with domestic terrorism. Before the 2020 election, the bureau refused to release that report on the domestic threat of white supremacy. Last year, in a similar fashion, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) withheld for months its assessment of the same "lethal" threat of racist extremism in this country.

While there must be a full investigation of what happened at the Capitol on January 6th, reports seem to indicate a striking blindness in the national security state to the possibility of such an attack. It's not that the DHS, the FBI, or the military need an influx of new funds to face the problem. Rather, what's needed at this moment in history is a clearer focus on the real risks to our country, which have little to do with foreign terrorists, the Taliban, or other such groups the U.S. has been fighting abroad for years on end. The Department of Defense typically did itself and the rest of us no favors by burying a report on widespread racism in the ranks of the military, which, though completed in 2017, didn't see the light of day until this January. Only in the aftermath of the riot at the Capitol did that organization finally begin to truly address its own white-supremacy problems.

The military, like so many other American institutions, has failed to reckon seriously with deep-seated racism in its ranks. Even before the January 6th insurrection, it was clear that such racism made it nearly impossible for Black officers to be promoted. And while many questioned the naming of key military bases after Confederate generals, the issue has only recently been addressed (over a presidential veto at that) with the creation of a new commission to rename them. Reports of active duty, reserve, and veteran members of the military aiding the Capitol insurrection only bring into stark relief the inexcusable costs of not having addressed the problem earlier.

More Pentagon Spending Won't Make Us Safer

There are also high costs to be paid for relying on the Department of Defense to handle problems that have nothing to do with its primary mission. Using the armed forces as key players in addressing crises that aren't military in nature only further undermines civilian institutions and is often counterproductive as well.

In the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of politicians called for President Trump to use the Defense Production Act (as it seems Biden will indeed soon do) and the Department of Defense to ramp up the production of N95 masks, ventilators, and other personal protective equipment. The story of what happened to such funds in the Trump years should be telling. The Washington Post discovered that $1 billion in supposed pandemic relief money was instead funneled directly to defense contractors and $70 million of the funds the Pentagon spent went to ventilators that proved unfit for Covid-19 patients. While some of that money did go to bolster mask supply chains, another Post investigation discovered that such efforts did not come close to addressing national shortfalls and amounted to less than the department spends on instruments, uniforms, and travel for military bands.

Perhaps the most disturbing cost of our overreliance on the military can be found in Congress's budget and policy priorities. In December of last year, a bill to authorize nearly $740 billion in Pentagon spending garnered enough votes to easily overcome President Trump's veto (motivated mainly by his refusal to condone renaming military bases named after Confederate generals) at the very moment when Congress was blocking legislation to give $2,000 relief checks directly to Covid-19 embattled Americans.

By now, two decades into the twenty-first century, it's clear that more money for the Pentagon hasn't made this country safer. It has, however, helped give the military an ever more central role in our previously civilian political world. Biden's selection of retired General Lloyd Austin III to be secretary of defense only emphasizes this point. While it's certainly laudatory to appoint the first Black leader to that position, Austin has retired so recently that he needed a congressional waiver from a law requiring a seven-year cooling off period before taking up such a civilian post (just as Mattis did four years ago) — another sign that civilian control of the military is continuing to weaken. In addition, now that he has retired from his role in private industry, Austin stands to make a small fortune, up to $1.7 million, when he divests his stock holdings in Raytheon Technologies.

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," President Eisenhower warned Americans in his 1961 farewell address. How right he proved to be! Sixty years later, it's become all too clear that more must be done to deal with that very "unwarranted influence." The immediate crises of the American republic should be clear enough right now: responding to the pandemic and restoring our civilian democracy. Certainly, military leaders like Milley should be appreciated for agreeing on the need to prioritize the pandemic and oppose sedition. However, more Pentagon spending and more military influence will not, in the end, make us any safer.

Copyright 2021 Mandy Smithberger and William D. Hartung

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands(the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

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William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

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