President Trump wants to increase defense spending in an attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to rebuild the military. He proposes an extra $54 billion for the Department of Defense above the current funding levels, an increase of 10 percent. If passed, a total of $639 billion would flow into the DoD, including $65 billion in the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) slush fund.
Yet even these staggering figures don’t represent the full extent of national security spending. The military is funded through several agencies. The nation’s nuclear arsenal is maintained by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) within the Department of Energy, to cite just one example. This budget proposal would see NNSA’s funding increased by 11 percent to $13.9 billion. When you calculate other related costs, including retiree benefits and veteran affairs, we spend more than a trillion dollars a year on national defense.
Despite increased spending, it is highly unlikely we will see a more effective military. In fact, history tells us we will actually get a force even less prepared and less capable as a direct result of a bigger budget. The reason is quite simple. The amount of money is not the issue. It is how it is spent. And the United States does not spend its military money well.
Increasing the budget will only produce more of the same, in a diminishing fashion. While this proposal is only a blueprint for the more detailed budget later, it does specifically mention increasing the number of F-35s. As we have detailed in some length, the F-35 has not come anywhere close to proving itself as an effective system. Yet the American people continue pouring billions and billions of dollars into it. It is vastly more expensive than the aircraft it is meant to replace. It cost approximately $10 million to purchase an F-16 in 1976. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $43 million today. The real cost of an F-35A, the least expensive version, is $157 million. We continue to get less bang for more bucks.
The exact same can be said of the littoral combat ships and the Ford-class aircraft carrier and any number of other highly complex and expensive weapons. They are produced by a bloated R&D and procurement bureaucracy that is more concerned with its own processes than with actually producing weapons that are useful in combat. In this bureaucracy, people get ahead for protecting a failing system rather than killing it. Defense contractors tend not to hand out lucrative jobs to people who worked against their interests while still in uniform.
Pumping more money into this system is not the answer. That will only reward continued bad behavior. If President Trump wants to truly rebuild the military, he should actually slash budgets. It would force the Pentagon and Congress to make the difficult choices necessary to produce a more effective fighting force.
We do know there is plenty of fat to cut. The world got a glimpse of that when news emerged that a Pentagon-commissioned study found $125 billion in wasteful spending. This study showed the Pentagon has 207,000 people working in acquisition and procurement alone. All of these people, plus all their counterparts working for defense contractors around the country, haven’t been able to deliver a working fighter plane (ahem…F-35) in 25 years. Should we really be giving them more money to continue underwhelming us?
Amazingly, in spite of all that, even this increase is not enough for some people. Senator John McCain and Representative Mac Thornberry, the armed services committee chairmen, want an additional $37 billion beyond President Trump proposal in order to fix problems they claim were caused by underfunding during the Obama administration.
Actually, defense spending was at record levels throughout the Obama years. Pentagon budgets peaked in 2011 and have come down incrementally in the years since, but they remained higher than at any time during previous administrations, including at the peak of the Reagan buildup in the 1980s.
What did we get for those massive budgets? We didn’t get more fighter planes. We didn’t get more ships. Almost every day we are bombarded with dire warnings from services that the force is the smallest it has ever been. For some people, there will never be enough spending on the Pentagon.
The Pentagon must stop wasting money on ridiculously complex and expensive weapons. Overhead within the DoD must be reduced, and they must reexamine a dependence on contractors that can cost as much as four times more than federal employees. But none of this will happen unless Congress forces these changes, and they can only do that by restraining budgets.
The status quo is unsustainable in the long term. At this rate, a hundred years from now the entire federal budget will be consumed by the Pentagon, where millions of people will work diligently to produce a single fighter plane.
The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.