When money is no object
The conventional wisdom is that the United States government is hopelessly divided — Republicans and Democrats can't reach a consensus on anything. That's not true.
Year after year, whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge, virtually everyone comes together in support of massive increases in defense spending. This year is no exception.
On Monday, President Biden introduced his budget, which included $815 billion in national security spending, including $773 billion for the Pentagon. "I’m calling for one of the largest investments in our national security in history, with the funds needed to ensure that our military remains the best-prepared, best-trained, best-equipped military in the world," Biden said in a statement. If history is any guide, the amount Congress ultimately approves will be much larger.
Last year, the Biden administration requested $715 billion for the Pentagon. Congress rejected that as insufficient and approved a budget of $740 billion. This year, the Biden administration is taking that inflated number and adding an additional $33 billion to the total. These figures do not include $6.5 billion in supplemental funding the Department of Defense just received to respond to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Republicans are already calling for more cash. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) immediately declared that Biden's budget falls "woefully short" on defense spending. "[T]op military brass from all branches are wisely asking for more. More ships, more planes, more weapons, more satellites, and more training. But President Biden is instead providing them less to complete their mission," Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
In 2021, the Biden administration completed the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, where it was spending billions each year. But there is no talk of using these "savings" to reduce the Pentagon budget or curtail increases. Instead, the pace of proposed increases has accelerated.
When Biden proposed historic investments to combat climate change and help working families, Congress and the media discussed the spending in a ten-year window. $175 billion in annual spending was reported as the "$1.75 trillion Build Back Better plan." If Biden's Pentagon budget proposal was discussed in the same way, the headline would be that he is requesting $8 trillion in defense spending.
The United States v. The World
In 2020, the United States spent more on national defense than the next 11 countries — China, India, Russia, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Australia — combined.
The increase that the Biden administration is proposing for the next budget is roughly equivalent to the UK's entire defense budget. And the UK has the second-highest level of defense spending in the NATO alliance.
Nevertheless, the federal government continues to use the spending of other countries to justify large increases in U.S. military spending. Specifically, the Pentagon is focused on the "pacing" threat of China. That means that, even though China is starting at a small fraction of the United States' total defense spending, the military argues that it is important to keep pace with China's increases.
This is the only area where the U.S. government appears concerned with keeping pace with other countries. No one argues that the U.S. should keep pace, for example, with France on child care spending.
Billions for a plane that seldom works
Each F-35 fighter jet (previously known as the Joint Strike Fighter) costs about $110 to $135 million. It costs millions more each year to operate and maintain. Each hour of flying an F-35, for example, costs $44,000.
But, despite the high costs, these planes are seldom able to perform. A 2021 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the "full mission capable rate—the percentage of time during which the aircraft can perform all of its tasked missions" was just 39%. And that was an improvement over a 32% full mission capable rate the previous year. Notably, the "F-35 supply chain does not have enough spare parts available to keep aircraft flying enough of the time necessary to meet warfighter requirements."
The GAO said the military needed to "resolve critical deficiencies with the aircraft" and "take steps to ensure reliability and maintainability goals are met." The F-35 has been in development since 2001.
The military has given up on solving some of the F-35's many issues. For example, The F-35 is supposed to be capable of flying at supersonic speeds. But the military discovered it can "only fly at supersonic speeds for short bursts of time before there is a risk of structural damage." There is "no plan to correct" this problem, however, because "the operator value provided by a complete fix does not justify the estimated cost of that fix." Rather, "the issue is being addressed procedurally by imposing a time limit on high-speed flight."
The Biden administration has responded to these issues by including only 61 F-35s in the new budget — down from a planned 94. This is already drawing objections from the bipartisan Joint Strike Force Caucus. Yes, there is an entire Congressional caucus dedicated to advocating for more spending on aircraft that, 20 years into its development, still doesn't work consistently.
The revolving door
Defense contractors are able to secure huge sums of money for weapons systems that may not work or be necessary. A key component of their strategy is hiring former high-ranking military officials. Between 2014 and 2019, the GAO found that 14 major defense contractors "hired about 1,700 recent former DOD senior civilian and military officials, such as a general or admiral, or former acquisition officials." Many of these officials work as lobbyists.
The biggest defense contractors — General Dynamics, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, Lockheed, BAE — all currently have multiple retired admirals and generals on their board.
The revolving door works the other way as well. The current Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, was a member of the Raytheon board before being nominated by Biden. Trump's first three Defense Secretaries all previously worked for military contractors. Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper was a lobbyist for Raytheon. Esper's predecessor, Patrick Shanahan, spent three decades as an executive at Boeing. And Shanahan’s predecessor, Jim Mattis, served on the board of General Dynamics for four years before being nominated as Trump's first Secretary of Defense.
There is a problem with "Pentagon officials and senior military leaders seeking lucrative post-government jobs" in the defense industry. It risks confusing "what is in the best financial interests of defense contractors—excessively large Pentagon budgets, endless wars, and overpriced weapon systems—with what is in the best interest of military effectiveness and protecting citizens."
In 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex. "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex," Eisenhower said. At the time, the total defense budget was just $48 billion. If military spending had increased at the pace of inflation over the last 61 years, the current military budget would be about $455 billion.