As the House and Senate consider the Pentagon budget, it’s long past time to reduce the department’s bloated budget and shift funding to what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as “programs of social uplift.” It will be a test of whether Congress is ready to rethink what makes us safe at a critical turning point for America and the world.
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Proposed spending on the Department of Defense comes in at the massive sum of $740 billion this year. That’s more than the levels spent by the next 10 nations in the world combined, and higher than expenditures at the peak of the Korean and Vietnam wars. These huge expenditures represent more than half of the federal government’s discretionary budget, squeezing out federal spending on virtually everything it does other than funding for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Discretionary outlays cover investments in public health, housing, education, transportation, job training, the environment, energy development, scientific research, and more.
Contrary to popular belief, the bulk of Pentagon spending does not go to support the troops. It ends up in the coffers of contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. As a new study from Brown University’s Costs of War project documents, $370 billion, or about half of the Pentagon budget, goes to private contractors. The top five contractors alone split over $100 billion in Pentagon contracts every year, even as they pay their CEOs tens of millions in compensation, subsidized by your tax dollars.
The Covid-19 pandemic and long-standing demands to address racial and economic inequality cry out for a new approach to protecting Americans that relies less on guns, bombs and aircraft carriers and more on public health and community development initiatives.
As a result of initiatives spearheaded by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and put forward by Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI), Congress will have a chance to weigh in on the question of whether to shift funds from the Pentagon to meet other urgent needs. They will be introducing measures in both houses of Congress to reduce the Pentagon’s top line by 10%, without reducing funding for military personnel or defense health programs. Adopting this approach would provide a good down payment on the new approach to security that is sorely needed in this new era. And it would free up funds to invest in public health, jobs, education, and housing in communities that need it most.
There is no lack of programs to cut to reach the goal of a 10% reduction in the Pentagon budget. First and foremost, Congress should roll back the Pentagon’s plans to build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, submarines, and warheads at a potential cost of over $2 trillion over the next three decades. Current costs for the nuclear enterprise are running at almost $50 billion per year. These expenditures are both dangerous and unnecessary. The United States possesses thousands of nuclear weapons when experts have suggested that a few hundred would be more than enough to dissuade any nation from attacking the United States.
Of particular concern are land-based, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), which former Secretary of Defense William Perry has described as some of the most dangerous weapons in the world, because the president would only have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them in a crisis, greatly increasing the chance of an accidental nuclear war. The Pentagon wants to triple spending on these risky systems in this year’s proposed budget. Thankfully, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) is seeking to freeze ICBM spending and put the funds saved as a result into efforts to fight the coronavirus.
The F-35 combat aircraft is another system ripe for reductions. Analyses by the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight have shown that the F-35 may never be fully ready for combat, due to a raft of performance and cost issues. Buying fewer F-35s and replacing them with upgraded versions of current generation could save tens of billions of dollars in the years to come.
Last but not least is sheer waste, as evidenced by the Pentagon’s massive bureaucracy. Even the staunchest Pentagon hawk can’t honestly say that more waste and bureaucracy will make anyone safer. A study by the Defense Business Board has indicated that the department could save $25 billion per year just by eliminating excess bureaucracy. The Department of Defense employs over 600,000 private contractors, many of whom do jobs that are redundant, and can be done by government employees for less money. As the Project on Government Oversight has noted, cutting spending on private contractors by just 15% would save $262 billion over the next decade.
The debates of the next few weeks could be critical turning points in how we conceive of our priorities and how we define safety and security. It’s time to focus on the real threats to our lives and livelihoods. The question now is whether Congress can rise to the occasion, or if it will continue with business as usual.