The United States is confronting a multitude of complex domestic and global challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, disruptive technologies, severe weather events, systemic racism, and great power competition with China and Russia. Now more than ever, Congress has a responsibility to ensure that we robustly fund our national security, even as the cost of doing so rises every year.
We maintain our national security not only by the military dollars we spend, but also by the resources we dedicate to international diplomacy and development, and the investments we make at home in infrastructure and education, in climate change mitigation, and in health care, public safety and our democratic institutions.
With ample defense and nondefense spending, we are better able to secure our nation, revitalize our economy, defeat the pandemic and restore U.S. global leadership.
The American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan are bold initiatives that will strengthen our nation. They comprise long-overdue investments in infrastructure, innovation and our workforce, and they meet the equitable needs of our children and families. They promote American competitiveness and security. Yet, we should not irresponsibly cut defense spending as a way to offset the costs of these necessary investments. We cannot “rob Peter to pay Paul.”
We need a well-funded military because we ask the men and women in our armed forces to do more today than ever before.
Our military deters aggression from China and Russia. China seeks to exert more control over trade and resources in the Pacific and to challenge the security of our critical infrastructure while investing significantly in its military. Russia threatens our European partners and allies, increasingly tests the boundaries of our air defenses and interferes in our elections.
Our armed forces defend the homeland against threats from North Korea, which has tested missiles capable of striking our capital, and Iran, which funds terrorism in the Middle East and attacks our institutions through cyber operations. And through it all, our military maintains watch against terrorism.
The threats are real and increasing, and we must rise to meet these challenges — not simply because we have an interest in our own security and the international order, but because the United States has a greater interest than any other nation.
While we are less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we generate 20 percent of global economic production. We are the leader in international trade, with over $5 trillion in commerce crossing our borders annually, including smartphones, cars and the medicines that we need.
Securing the global economy on which we rely demands that we field an expeditionary force capable of deploying to where it is needed most. Whether securing the 60 percent of maritime trade transiting the Indo-Pacific region, or partnering in Africa to provide security for development, or checking Russia’s Arctic expansionism for newly accessible resources, our military must be able to operate anywhere and everywhere around the world.
Success in these varied regions and missions requires us to train and equip our forces to prevail over any adversary, both in competition and in conflict. It means investing in fighter jets that can counter Russian advanced aircraft and developing submarines to avoid detection by Chinese sensors; modernizing our Army so soldiers have 21st century technology to fight and survive; and ensuring sufficient troop levels to limit back-to-back deployments so our military has time at home with family to maintain morale and readiness. Having a global force that is ready and lethal provides the necessary presence to deter war and maintain peace in the global commons.
At the center of this worldwide mission are the men and women who serve.
Two million service members and civilians devote their lives to our defense, and the Pentagon’s budget funds the everyday needs for them and their families: health care to 10 million Americans, child care for 200,000 children, retirement for 1.5 million veterans and K-12 education in about 160 schools worldwide.
The benefits of defense spending reach beyond the military and our contribution to the international order, returning the investment through domestic dividends. During Hurricane Katrina, the National Guard rescued over 17,000 people and airlifted almost 22 million pounds of cargo to the flooded areas. The Pentagon’s $8 billion annual spend on research invigorates our academic and tech sectors, resulting in technologies like GPS and Google Maps, which were first invented by Navy scientists. Defense innovations like radar are now in civilian use, and they power the weather stations that detect increasingly severe storms amid climate change. And the internet, the backbone of the global economy, began as a Defense Department program.
We spend $1 billion more on Medicare in the defense budget than we do on new tactical vehicles. We spend more on the Defense Health Program than we do on new ships. In total, some $200 billion in the defense budget are essentially for nondefense purposes — from salaries to health care to basic research.
In no place are these domestic benefits of defense spending clearer than in the current pandemic. The Moderna vaccine, developed in record time, was originally seeded by a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency investment in 2013, and a subsequent Pentagon request to rapidly produce a human-ready antibody contributed to the delivery of multiple vaccines in under a year. And 50,000 National Guard members are assisting in coronavirus testing and vaccinations across the country, strengthening our nation against a grave threat to our collective health.
We should neither view the nondefense and defense budgets as opposite sides of the same coin, nor accept them as a false choice between two competing options.
This nation was founded to form a more perfect Union, and in doing so to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare. For 233 years, Congress has endeavored to balance these responsibilities, and in doing so has often found a way to secure our democracy and freedoms while at the same time investing in America as the land of opportunity. It is imperative that we in Congress meet these challenges and fulfill our responsibilities.
Our national security depends on it.
Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chair of the New Democrat Coalition’s National Security Task Force. He previously served in the U.S. Army for about 30 years before retiring as a colonel.