With the troops finally out of Afghanistan and military operations winding down in the Middle East, American taxpayers should be seeing some relief now that our overseas commitments have decreased. Instead, just recently, the House Armed Services Committee voted to increase the Pentagon’s budget top line by $24 billion for fiscal 2022 to $740 billion.
After the House vote, grassroots advocacy groups lamented the increase. Erica Fein from Win Without War said: “The House Armed Services Committee voted to put arms dealer profits before the needs of everyday people.”
This follows the Senate Armed Services Committee advancing the same $740 billion version of the National Defense Authorization Act back in July. In the Senate vote, only Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., voted against it. SASC Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., defended the outcome, saying: “Republicans have made it clear that they’re not satisfied with the defense number. … What we’re presenting is what the Pentagon sent over and what they feel is necessary to do their mission.”
What has been deemed “necessary” is actually one of the largest defense budgets in our history. Now that it has left the committee stage, it will be up to the principled members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to put a stop to this shortsighted budget increase.
With involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq diminishing, it is no coincidence that eyes have turned to China as the latest existential threat. Hyperbolic headlines of an imminent military threat posed by China bombard Americans on nearly a daily basis. The truth is that China, a country more than 6,000 miles away from the West Coast, lacks the capacity to storm our shores.
Our last significant military incident with Chinese forces was more than 20 years ago. While China has the ability to strike U.S. territories through other means, it is highly unlikely to do so without provocation and to avoid an assured escalation.
The defense industry and its allies in Congress and the Pentagon are inflating this threat to keep the money flowing from the Treasury in a seemingly ever-increasing fashion. Until Congress and the president demand spending discipline — including serious reductions — on the Pentagon, we can be sure military spending in the United States is being used for something other than programs and resources that actually keep us safe.
Much of the $24 billion defense budget increase wouldn’t even be relevant for a conflict in the Pacific. Rather, it is intended to make up for deferred maintenance and training the service leaders so often put off so they can spend money the way they prefer: on new and unproven weapons programs like the littoral combat ship, the F-35 fighter jet and Future Combat Systems, to name a few recent examples.
Defense corporations, which receive approximately half of the Pentagon’s $700 billion-plus budget, don’t want to see flat or reduced budgets, and they need justification to continue to request high budgets. Raising the specter of a China threat gives them that justification.
In May, the Center for International Policy released an issue brief detailing bloated executive compensation in the defense industry. According to the brief, compensation for CEOs of the top five defense contractors averaged $21 million in 2020, while the Pentagon was providing these same five firms $150 billion worth of taxpayer-funded contracts.
The status quo is unsustainable. The HASC and SASC votes were foolhardy. There simply is no good argument to add an extra $24 billion, or even $1 billion. The president’s budget was too large to begin with, especially with the war in Afghanistan coming to a close. Business as usual should no longer be acceptable.
There are negative, real-world consequences to having bloated budgets and ineffective oversight. Unnecessarily high Pentagon budgets decrease military effectiveness because they are used to purchase overly complex weapons that end up failing. We’re seeing some of those consequences now as bills for the big-ticket weapon programs launched at the beginning of the century — thanks to lobbying from defense contractors and their allies — come due, and we’re left paying astronomical amounts of money to purchase ineffective weapon systems.
Over the past two decades, the U.S. lost $8 trillion — and thousands of lives in the post-9/11 wars. We have an opportunity now to send a message to the defense contractors and their allies in the government that they must meaningfully reform to build an effective military force. All that is needed is the political willpower.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Dan Grazier is a Jack Shanahan military fellow at the Project On Government Oversight.