Imagine for a moment a scheme in which American taxpayers were taken to the cleaners to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars and there was barely a hint of criticism or outrage. Imagine as well that the White House and a majority of the politicians in Washington, no matter the party, acquiesced in the arrangement. In fact, the annual quest to boost Pentagon spending into the stratosphere regularly follows that very scenario, assisted by predictions of imminent doom from industry-funded hawks with a vested interest in increased military outlays.
Most Americans are probably aware that the Pentagon spends a lot of money, but it’s unlikely they grasp just how huge those sums really are. All too often, astonishingly lavish military budgets are treated as if they were part of the natural order, like death or taxes.
The figures contained in the recent budget deal that kept Congress open, as well as in President Trump’s budget proposal for 2019, are a case in point: $700 billion for the Pentagon and related programs in 2018 and $716 billion the following year. Remarkably, such numbers far exceeded even the Pentagon's own expansive expectations. According to Donald Trump, admittedly not the most reliable source in all cases, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly said, “Wow, I can’t believe we got everything we wanted” — a rare admission from the head of an organization whose only response to virtually any budget proposal is to ask for more.
The public reaction to such staggering Pentagon budget hikes was muted, to put it mildly. Unlike last year’s tax giveaway to the rich, throwing near-record amounts of tax dollars at the Department of Defense generated no visible public outrage. Yet those tax cuts and Pentagon increases are closely related. The Trump administration’s pairing of the two mimics the failed approach of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s — only more so. It’s a phenomenon I’ve termed “Reaganomics on steroids.” Reagan’s approach yielded oceans of red ink and a severe weakening of the social safety net. It also provoked such a strong pushback that he later backtracked by raising taxes and set the stage for sharp reductions in nuclear weapons.
Donald Trump’s retrograde policies on immigration, women’s rights, racial justice, LGBT rights, and economic inequality have spawned an impressive and growing resistance. It remains to be seen whether his generous treatment of the Pentagon at the expense of basic human needs will spur a similar backlash.
Of course, it’s hard to even get a bead on what’s being lavished on the Pentagon when much of the media coverage failed to drive home just how enormous these sums actually are. A rare exception was an Associated Press story headlined “Congress, Trump Give the Pentagon a Budget the Likes of Which It Has Never Seen.” This was certainly far closer to the truth than claims like that of Mackenzie Eaglen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which over the years has housed such uber-hawks as Dick Cheney and John Bolton. She described the new budget as a “modest year-on-year increase.” If that’s the case, one shudders to think what an immodest increase might look like.
The Pentagon Wins Big
So let’s look at the money.
Though the Pentagon’s budget was already through the roof, it will get an extra $165 billion over the next two years, thanks to the congressional budget deal reached earlier this month. To put that figure in context, it was tens of billions of dollars more than Donald Trump had asked for last spring to “rebuild” the U.S. military (as he put it). It even exceeded the figures, already higher than Trump’s, Congress had agreed to last December. It brings total spending on the Pentagon and related programs for nuclear weapons to levels higher than those reached during the Korean and Vietnam wars in the 1950s and 1960s, or even at the height of Ronald Reagan’s vaunted military buildup of the 1980s. Only in two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when there were roughly 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, or about seven times current levels of personnel deployed there, was spending higher.
Ben Freeman of the Center for International Policy put the new Pentagon budget numbers in perspective when he pointed out that just the approximately $80 billion annual increase in the department’s top line between 2017 and 2019 will be double the current budget of the State Department; higher than the gross domestic products of more than 100 countries; and larger than the entire military budget of any country in the world, except China’s.
Democrats signed on to that congressional budget as part of a deal to blunt some of the most egregious Trump administration cuts proposed last spring. The administration, for example, kept the State Department’s budget from being radically slashed and it reauthorized the imperiled Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for another 10 years. In the process, however, the Democrats also threw millions of young immigrants under the bus by dropping an insistence that any new budget protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or “Dreamers,” program. Meanwhile, the majority of Republican fiscal conservatives were thrilled to sign off on a Pentagon increase that, combined with the Trump tax cut for the rich, funds ballooning deficits as far as the eye can see — a total of $7.7 trillion worth of them over the next decade.
While domestic spending fared better in the recent congressional budget deal than it would have if Trump’s draconian plan for 2018 had been enacted, it still lags far behind what Congress is investing in the Pentagon. And calculations by the National Priorities Project indicate that the Department of Defense is slated to be an even bigger winner in Trump’s 2019 budget blueprint. Its share of the discretionary budget, which includes virtually everything the government does other than programs like Medicare and Social Security, will mushroom to a once-unimaginable 61 cents on the dollar, a hefty boost from the already startling 54 cents on the dollar in the final year of the Obama administration.
The skewed priorities in Trump’s latest budget proposal are fueled in part by the administration’s decision to embrace the Pentagon increases Congress agreed to last month, while tossing that body’s latest decisions on non-military spending out the window. Although Congress is likely to rein in the administration’s most extreme proposals, the figures are stark indeed — a proposed cut of $120 billion in the domestic spending levels both parties agreed to. The biggest reductions include a 41% cut in funding for diplomacy and foreign aid; a 36% cut in funding for energy and the environment; and a 35% cut in housing and community development. And that’s just the beginning. The Trump administration is also preparing to launch full-scale assaults on food stamps, Medicaid, and Medicare. It’s war on everything except the U.S. military.
The recent budget plans have brought joy to the hearts of one group of needy Americans: the top executives of major weapons contractors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. They expect a bonanza from the skyrocketing Pentagon expenditures. Don’t be surprised if the CEOs of these five firms give themselves nice salary boosts, something to truly justify their work, rather than the paltry $96 million they drew as a group in 2016 (the most recent year for which full statistics are available).
And keep in mind that, like all other U.S.-based corporations, those military-industrial behemoths will benefit richly from the Trump administration’s slashing of the corporate tax rate. According to one respected industry analyst, a good portion of this windfall will go towards bonuses and increased dividends for company shareholders rather than investments in new and better ways to defend the United States. In short, in the Trump era, Lockheed Martin and its cohorts are guaranteed to make money coming and going.
Items that snagged billions in new funding in Trump’s proposed 2019 budget included Lockheed Martin’s overpriced, underperforming F-35 aircraft, at $10.6 billion; Boeing’s F-18 “Super Hornet,” which was in the process of being phased out by the Obama administration but is now written in for $2.4 billion; Northrop Grumman’s B-21 nuclear bomber at $2.3 billion; General Dynamics’ Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine at $3.9 billion; and $12 billion for an array of missile-defense programs that will redound to the benefit of... you guessed it: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing, among other companies. These are just a few of the dozens of weapons programs that will be feeding the bottom lines of such companies in the next two years and beyond. For programs still in their early stages, like that new bomber and the new ballistic missile submarine, their banner budgetary years are yet to come.
In explaining the flood of funding that enables a company like Lockheed Martin to reap $35 billion per year in government dollars, defense analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group noted that “diplomacy is out; air strikes are in... In this sort of environment, it’s tough to keep a lid on costs. If demand goes up, prices don’t generally come down. And, of course, it’s virtually impossible to kill stuff. You don’t have to make any kind of tough choices when there’s such a rising tide.”
Pentagon Pork Versus Human Security
Loren Thompson is a consultant to many of those weapons contractors. His think tank, the Lexington Institute, also gets contributions from the arms industry. He caught the spirit of the moment when he praised the administration’s puffed-up Pentagon proposal for using the Defense Department budget as a jobs creator in key states, including the crucial swing state of Ohio, which helped propel Donald Trump to victory in 2016. Thompson was particularly pleased with a plan to ramp up General Dynamics’s production of M-1 tanks in Lima, Ohio, in a factory whose production line the Army had tried to put on hold just a few years ago because it was already drowning in tanks and had no conceivable use for more of them.
Thompson argues that the new tanks are needed to keep up with Russia’s production of armored vehicles, a dubious assertion with a decidedly Cold War flavor to it. His claim is backed up, of course, by the administration’s new National Security Strategy, which targets Russia and China as the most formidable threats to the United States. Never mind that the likely challenges posed by these two powers — cyberattacks in the Russian case and economic expansion in the Chinese one — have nothing to do with how many tanks the U.S. Army possesses.
Trump wants to create jobs, jobs, jobs he can point to, and pumping up the military-industrial complex must seem like the path of least resistance to that end in present-day Washington. Under the circumstances, what does it matter that virtually any other form of spending would create more jobs and not saddle Americans with weaponry we don’t need?
If past performance offers any indication, none of the new money slated to pour into the Pentagon will make anyone safer. As Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has noted, there is a danger that the Pentagon will just get “fatter not stronger” as its worst spending habits are reinforced by a new gusher of dollars that relieves its planners of making any reasonably hard choices at all.
The list of wasteful expenditures is already staggeringly long and early projections are that bureaucratic waste at the Pentagon will amount to $125 billion over the next five years. Among other things, the Defense Department already employs a shadow work force of more than 600,000 private contractors whose responsibilities overlap significantly with work already being done by government employees. Meanwhile, sloppy buying practices regularly result in stories like the recent ones on the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency losing track of how it spent $800 million and how two American commands were unable to account for $500 million meant for the war on drugs in the Greater Middle East and Africa.
Add to this the $1.5 trillion slated to be spent on F-35s that the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight has noted may never be ready for combat and the unnecessary “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, and missiles at a minimum cost of $1.2 trillion over the next three decades. In other words, a large part of the Pentagon’s new funding will do much to fuel good times in the military-industrial complex but little to help the troops or defend the country.
Most important of all, this flood of new funding, which could crush a generation of Americans under a mountain of debt, will make it easier to sustain the seemingly endless seven wars that the United States is fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. So call this one of the worst investments in history, ensuring as it does failed wars to the horizon.
It would be a welcome change in twenty-first-century America if the reckless decision to throw yet more unbelievable sums of money at a Pentagon already vastly overfunded sparked a serious discussion about America’s hyper-militarized foreign policy. A national debate about such matters in the run-up to the 2018 and 2020 elections could determine whether it continues to be business-as-usual at the Pentagon or whether the largest agency in the federal government is finally reined in and relegated to an appropriately defensive posture.
William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.