The national debt now tops $22.5 trillion. The military-industrial-Congressional complex isn’t the only spending monster hoovering up every nickel it can find, but it’s certainly a key culprit in our impending national debt crisis.
In a recent Washington Post column, Robert J. Samuelson argues the military-industrial complex isn’t bankrupting the American taxpayers, and levels charges of deceitfulness at those who say otherwise. He takes umbrage with arguments that lavish Pentagon budgets leave nothing but scraps for Social Security, Medicaid, and other entitlement programs. True, the Pentagon no longer accounts for a majority share of the federal budget. But we spend nearly $220 billion more, adjusted for inflation, on the military today to support a force of just over 2 million—an expected $989 billion in fiscal year 2020 when all defense-related spending is calculated—than we did at the height of World War II when we had more than 12 million troops fighting around the globe.
“We spend nearly $220 billion more, adjusted for inflation, on the military today to support a force of just over 2 million—an expected $989 billion in fiscal year 2020 when all defense-related spending is calculated—than we did at the height of World War II when we had more than 12 million troops fighting around the globe.”
Mr. Samuelson misses a much more important point about the consequences of historically high defense budgets: out-of-control Pentagon budgets produce a less effective military.
Let’s start with an analogy. When Congress feels generous toward the Pentagon, the military services act like teenagers left at home for a long weekend with their parent’s credit card. Simply put, service leaders make bad purchasing choices when cost doesn’t seem like an issue. But the service chiefs aren’t buying expensive stereo systems or throwing parties for their friends—they’re spending billions of taxpayer dollars on F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and Ford-class aircraft carriers.
Both programs have incurred massive budget overruns and are far from meeting the promised performance standards used to sell them to a credulous Congress. The F-35 is nearly a decade behind schedule, and the costs to design and build the planned fleet have more than doubled since the program’s beginning in 2001. The USS Gerald R. Ford is still not operational, due to problems with the technologies necessary to arm, launch, and recover aircraft.
The problems with the F-35, the Ford, and most other marquee Pentagon programs result directly from lapses in discipline when money is not perceived as an obstacle. Traditionally, the services have attempted to add one major new technology into new programs. The Ford’s designers incorporated four: the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (known as EMALS), advanced arresting gear, dual band radar and advanced weapons elevators. Then, the Navy compounded the challenges with the Ford program by building the ship around these technologies before they were fully developed, creating a major source of cost and schedule overruns.
Had Congress held the Navy to a smaller budget for the program, the service would’ve had to adopt a simpler design, and the USS Ford would likely be on patrol today.
I wrote an article last summer delving into the problems caused by the Pentagon’s lack of spending discipline. As a general rule, I wrote, “weapons should be of the simplest possible design while meeting the needs of their intended use.” That helps keep weapons costs down, so the services can afford to buy as many as they need. Plus, I pointed out, “every extra component added to a weapon system is one more potential failure point,” making them harder to maintain and more likely to be unavailable when they’re needed most.
Historically high Pentagon budgets aren’t a problem because they steal funds from other programs. They’re a problem because the force they produce is smaller and less effective than it should be.