News & Politics

How America's Bloated Defense Budget Leaves Us Defenseless...and Broke

We're spending billions on the military at the expense of health care and schools.

Photo Credit: Orlok / Shutterstock.com

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."

It has been over six decades since Dwight D. Eisenhower uttered these words in a broadcast announcement from the Statler Hotel in Washington D.C. And while circumstances in America have undoubtedly changed, his words remain accurate.

Since the late 19th century, the United States has acted as the world’s policeman, the one that keeps order and makes sure everyone else sticks to the rules. Occupying this role evidently has had repercussions, both good and bad. Yet, it seems as of late the bad outweighs the good. The U.S.'s mission to police the world has led to massive overspending abroad and subsequently growing negligence at home. In an attempt to address this problem, the U.S. continues to do what it does best—throw money at it. 

On September 18th, as Democrats fell in line with Republicans to fund the $692 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress proved they would continue to fund a system that does little to protect the American people. The act passed with a sweeping 89-8 vote—with only five Democrats voting against the act. The figure is a significant $80 billion annual increase from last year and a $28.5 billion more than President Trump asked for. It does not include the $12.9 billion of continued investment in nuclear security or $186 billion for the Veterans Administration Budget. Nor does it include the interest the United States has accumulated by putting their wars on a credit card. The total cost of military-related expenditures is over a trillion dollars and over 70% of all federal discretionary spending. 

Speaking at Westminster College just three days after the NDAA passed, Senator Bernie Sanders, one of just five Democrats who voted against the bill, dismantled the case that progressives don’t have big ideas on foreign policy and set forth a template for future democratic positions on national security. 

Standing where Eisenhower delivered his famous "Cross of Iron" speech nearly 70 years ago, Sanders rightly recognized the irony between a colossal Pentagon budget and Republican attempts to take health care away from tens of millions of Americans in the name of fiscal responsibility. He made clear that “we cannot convincingly promote democracy abroad if we do not live it vigorously here at home” and in a reliable Sanders-like fashion demanded we address our growing domestic issues.  

He is right to wonder how asking a fraction of the price for domestic issues such as health care and education funding is criticized as a nonstarter, yet when it comes to our military, there is no number too high.  

Earlier this year, Trump submitted a budget proposal in which he cut social spending dramatically to fund a $54 billion increase in defense spending. Democrats criticized it as a nonstarter. However, at September's NDAA hearing, 41 Democrats raised little to no concern about this military spending—even at the cost of social spending. 

Currently, the U.S. is $20.4 trillion in debt and we spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined on defense. While we are authorizing $692 billion, China, our closest follower is spending $102 billion while Russia spends $59 billion. The argument for America's excessive defense spending is synonymous with the argument that America is and must remain the strongest military on the planet. However, the cost necessary to maintain American power and protect our troops is small in comparison to the amount we spend, primarily because most of the defense budget does not directly impact our military standing or the safety of our troops. 

First, there is fraud. A report prepared for Bernie Sanders by the Department of Defense showed that hundreds of defense contractors that defrauded the U.S. military received more than $1.1 trillion in Pentagon contracts during the past decade. Yes, that's trillion with a "T." For example, Northrop Grumman paid $62 million in 2005 to settle charges that it "engaged in a fraud scheme by routinely submitting false contract proposals," and "concealed basic problems in its handling of inventory, scrap and attrition."

Second, there is waste. As an example, July 2013, the Pentagon decided to build a 64,000 square foot command headquarters in Afghanistan for the U.S. military that is and will remain unoccupied. The project is estimated to have cost the Pentagon $34 million. We then supplied $771 million worth of aircraft for Afghan use. However, Afghanistan obtains only one-quarter of the trained personnel necessary to use them and in 2015, the Pentagon suppressed a study that reported $125 billion in waste. 

Third, whether it is paying $8,000 for a $500 helicopter part, $425 million in wrongful travel reimbursements or the illustrative $640 toilet seat, the Pentagon has a history of overpaying. According to the Federal Procurement Data System’s top 100 contractors report for 2016, the CEO's of the top five Pentagon contractors—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman—paid themselves a cumulative $96 million in 2016, more than a fair cut. 

Conveniently enough, the Department of Defense can’t tell us how much equipment it has purchased, or how often it has been overcharged, or even how many contractors it employs. The Pentagon can only approximate that they employ more than 600,000 private contractors, yet these costs account for the majority of their tax spending dollars. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has announced they cannot even audit the Pentagon. To illuminate the utter disorder of the United States military finances, in 2015 in a rush to close its books, the army made $6.5 trillion in wrongful adjustments to accounting entries. A law in effect since 1992 requires annual audits of all federal agencies—and of all the federal agencies, the Pentagon alone has never complied. The NDAA is asking the American public to pay for huge expenditures that the Pentagon cannot even document. 

What we do know of this year's bill offers little in the way of consoling the American public that the money will be well spent. The defense authorization bill contains a number of provisions that increase the risk of cost overruns for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and undermine the ability of Pentagon officials and Congress to assess the combat suitability of new weapon systems in the future. Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act authorizes a block purchase of 440 F-35s through a procurement process called “Economic Order Quantity,” even though the planes are still being developed and the testing necessary to prove they are operationally effective won’t be completed for years. Until that testing is done, all the American people will get for their money is a pile of parts for an unproven prototype, a $1.4 trillion pile of uncertainty. A recent test of six of the new, stealthy fighters revealed that only one of them was capable of a rapid, ready alert launch. The F-35 program has come to symbolize all that's wrong with American defense spending: a bloated budget, greedy manufacturers, and an impenetrable Pentagon culture that cannot adequately track its own spending.

To add concern, the NDAA requested $8.5 billion for the Missile Defense Agency, a $630 million boost above what Trump requested. It would add up to 28 ground-based interceptors as well as put $28 million into developing space-based missile sensors. Despite the fact that up to today the U.S. has spent nearly $320 billion, most analysts have little confidence that the U.S. can destroy any intercontinental missiles launched against them once they get off the ground. After the most recent failed interceptor test Philip E. Coyle III, who previously ran the Pentagon’s weapons-testing program, stated that the system “is something the U.S. military, and the American people, cannot depend upon.” Why add more money to an expensive system that has been compared to hitting a bullet with a bullet, that doesn't work after over 20 years of trying? 

Senate Republicans are concurrently proposing to cut billions from Medicare and $1 trillion from Medicaid, in addition to big federal spending cuts that would likely decimate federal housing and education programs. 

There exists a massive blind spot as senators fight tooth and nail to ensure no one is abusing food stamps, while dropping trillions on an unreliable, unaccountable defense strategy. 

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders pledged to make tuition free at public colleges and universities. This proposal was met with dismissal as though the notion belonged solely in Arcadia. The proposed plan was estimated to cost the federal government a mere $47 billion.  

More recently, Sanders continued his Medicare-for-All plea with a health care system estimated to cost $1.4 trillion a year. This was treated as unrealistic although our current private insurance-based health care system will cost $3.35 trillion this year. 

If America were to spend even double as much as China, four times as much as Russia on defense spending, we could potentially create an America where young people can attend college with little to no out of pocket cost and the millions of people with health issues can get the help they need without the financial burden.   

Why is it that only six out of 47 Democratic senators can see the potential of cutting defense spending and instead funding domestic programs?

The notion of a healthy and educated America should not be the stuff of dreamers when it could be a tangible reality. America should not spend more on defense. America should spend smarter on defense and more on pressing domestic issues. And Democratic senators should realign their vote to match their supposed politics. 

Guy T. Saperstein was a civil rights attorney for 25 years. He was included in the National Law Journal's list of "The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America." 
 

 

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World