War Stories

Defunding the Pentagon Will Be Harder Than Bernie Sanders Thinks

This could be a unique opportunity to move funds from guns to butter, but only if we’re smart about it.

Bernie Sanders in front of a bookshelf.
Sen. Bernie Sanders in Washington on March 17. BernieSanders.com via Getty Images

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, a serious movement is afoot in Congress to cut the military budget. And for the first time since the end of the Vietnam War, the thrust of the movement is to shift funds from weapons to social programs—or, as they used to say, “from guns to butter.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders is the sponsor of an amendment to the defense bill, scheduled for a vote next week, to slash the Pentagon’s budget by 10 percent and to transfer the savings—about $74 billion—to health care, education, and other investments in areas, as he put it, “ravaged by extreme poverty, mass incarceration, decades of neglect, and the COVID-19 pandemic.” More important, the measure has been endorsed by the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer.

The amendment is all but certain to be defeated, but if the Democrats win not only the White House but also majority control of the Senate in this fall’s election, Schumer will be majority leader, and defense cuts will almost certainly be on the agenda.

It’s a moment reminiscent of the mid-1970s, when the congressional budget committees were created. The idea at the time was that these committees would “set national priorities” by determining how much money each federal department would receive, leaving it to the various other committees to work out the details. The context was the widespread desire to carve out a “peace dividend” as the Vietnam War was ending—to decide explicitly how much to spend on guns, how much on butter.

It didn’t work out that way. The powerful chairs of the armed services committees resisted—or, more to the point, ignored—the attempt to wrest away their control. The budget committees proved to be little more than the legislative equivalent of a useless bureaucratic layer.

Next year might be different. Already, the House is in Democratic hands, and the current chair of the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, said last year, upon taking the gavel, that, if intelligently managed, the defense budget could be safely reduced by $100 billion.

Combine these trends with three others—the explosive coronavirus-driven deficits, the new attention to issues of social inequality raised by protests in the wake of the George Floyd killing, and a growing awareness that defense spending under Donald Trump has soared without the slightest check and beyond any commensurate increase in national power (his current budget of $740 billion is $150 billion larger than President Barack Obama’s final budget, which itself was larger than any since the height of the Cold War)—and the political pins are in place for a serious push for serious cuts.

However, actually making these cuts is a lot harder than Sanders seems to suggest. In an article for Politico explaining his bill, the Vermont democratic socialist and two-time presidential candidate refers to the Pentagon’s failure to pass an independent audit, the enormous cost overruns in major weapons programs, and the “outrageous compensations” to contractors’ CEOs.

The problem is that “waste, fraud, and abuse”—as this litany of scandals has long been summarized—are often the hardest things to parse, much less cut. They are so endemic—and comprise such a huge share of the budget—because they are built into the weapons-contracting system, a vast, intricate, and highly specialized bureaucratic entity that seems to have been designed and perpetuated to maximize impenetrability to outside (or even internal Defense Department) monitors. There are no doubt billions to be saved by untangling this bureaucracy’s obstructions and inefficiencies. Some have tried; most get lost or go native in the maze.

Another approach is to terminate weapons programs, or whole categories of weapons programs, or whole military missions for which certain weapons programs are justified. Sanders doesn’t go into this possibility, perhaps because he isn’t (and doesn’t pretend to be) deeply versed in this subject, perhaps because it would raise issues of foreign and defense policy, and when crafting political coalitions for a broad goal, it’s best not to get too specific on how you get there, lest you alienate potential allies.

Robert Gates applied this approach as defense secretary during Obama’s first year, slashing, restructuring, or killing 33 weapons systems—including some of the Army, Air Force, and Navy’s most cherished tanks, planes, and ships—at a savings of $150 billion over the subsequent five years. He did this after his staff conducted a deep analysis—the deepest since Robert McNamara’s in the John F. Kennedy administration—of the cost-effectiveness of hundreds of weapons. However, in part to soften the political blow of these cuts, he also added tens of billions of dollars for programs that he thought were underfunded. And he did very little to alter the basic structure of the U.S. war machine or military deployments—which, even after the cuts, looked very much like that of the Cold War era.

To save serious money now, the next defense secretary—or the congressional armed services committees, whose staffers used to do more analytical work than they do now—will have to reopen the books, in the way that Gates did in 2009, and much more. They will have to question programs not just on whether they’re cost-effective but also on whether they’re needed for national security.

We’re spending almost $30 billion a year on nuclear weapons—a figure that will soon rise to $50 billion a year. Yes, we need a reliable nuclear deterrent, but does this require, as our current plans call for, a new land-based intercontinental ballistic missile, a new nuclear submarine, a new bomber, a new cruise missile, and new hypersonic missiles? It’s been a long time since anybody in a position of power seriously reexamined the assumption that we need all of this. It’s long past time to do it now.

We’re buying a new aircraft carrier for $4 billion, but when you field an aircraft carrier, you also need a whole flotilla of escort ships: a carrier “task force,” it’s called, consisting of a cruiser, two destroyers or frigates, a submarine, logistics and supply ships, and about 70 fighter jets as well as roughly 7,500 sailors, pilots, and other personnel. This costs about $10 billion in all, not counting the price of munitions, fuel, and repairs. Should the Navy continue to be structured around a global network of aircraft carrier task forces, all of them quite vulnerable to fast missiles—or, as some recommend, should it be reshaped into a fleet of many more, much smaller and specialized ships, each less visible and thus less vulnerable to attack?

Even if Congress took an ax to the array of weapons systems in the arsenal, the savings won’t be instantaneous. This is because weapons systems take a few years to develop and build; as a result, the money appropriated to buy these systems takes several years to spend out.

For instance, on average, only 8 percent of the cost of a Navy ship gets spent in its first year, another 24 percent gets spent in the second year, another 29 percent in the third year … and on it goes, lasting between five and 10 years, depending on the ship. For Air Force combat planes, just 6 percent gets spent in the first year, with the typical spend out lasting four years. Even Army missiles take three or four years to get completely built.

In other words, cutting the defense budget by $75 billion won’t save defense spending by anywhere near that much right away.

An easier, and faster, way to cut the budget is simply to cut the number of troops. The budget for troops consists mainly of paychecks, so cutting here yields real money right away. But Sanders says his cuts would not affect personnel—or their housing or health care. The cuts would affect only weapons, which, as he put it in a press statement, are made by “private for-profit contractors.” In other words, Sanders’ plan is to cut money for capital but not for labor.

It is worth noting that the Pentagon’s labor costs are larger than any other piece of the defense budget. They come to $162 billion this year for military personnel, $34 billion for the Defense Department’s health care programs, and $8 billion for military construction (including barracks, bases, and family housing)—or $202 billion in all. (By comparison, the procurement of weapons systems amounts to $140 billion; research and development costs another $104 billion.) Not to shortchange the troops, but it’s not unpatriotic to ask whether we need so many of them. The answer might be: Yes, we do. But it’s worth running the numbers.

If the Democrats win back the White House and the Senate, while retaining control of the House, everything will be up for grabs. But cutting the defense budget shouldn’t be done casually. For one thing, if it’s done casually, it won’t really be cut at all. Analyzing the defense budget has dwindled into a lost art the past few years; it’s time to make a return.