War Stories

There Is No Good Reason for a Defense Budget This Large

And yet, no one is even talking about the additional $45 billion.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer speaking to reporters Monday. He is photographed from the back.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking to reporters Monday. Congress was working to pass the annual defense spending bill. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

It is remarkable that both houses of Congress are about to pass a military spending bill totaling $847 billion—piling $45 billion on top of President Joe Biden’s already hefty budget request—and almost no major media outlets have so much as raised an eyebrow at the amount. The House and Senate armed services committees have sent the bill to the full floors with almost no dissent.

Some news agencies have reported on other newsworthy aspects of the bill: that it lifts the mandate on servicemen and women to get COVID vaccines, or that sexual-assault cases within the military will now be investigated by prosecutors, not commanders. But the fact that this will be $80 billion (10 percent) larger than last year’s defense budget—or that, in real terms (i.e., adjusting for inflation over the years), it will be the largest U.S. military budget since World War II (see Table 6.1 here)—seems to warrant barely a shrug.

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You might think that the members of the House and Senate armed services committees have topped Biden’s budget in order to adjust for inflation or to restock our arsenal with weapons that we’ve provided to Ukraine. But you would be wrong. Monica Montgomery, policy analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, notes that only “a small fraction” of the money in this budget compensates for inflation or for the weapons sent to fight the Russians in Ukraine.

So where will those additional billions go? Almost all of the extra money is simply to buy more of the usual stuff—more expensive combat planes, warships, missiles, etc. More specifically, it’s meant to pay for what the service chiefs call “unfunded priorities.” At the start of each year, the chiefs give their civilian masters in the Pentagon and the White House a wish list—everything that they want from here to the moon. It is understood that the civilians will set limits on the size of the budget and, within those limits, trim the items that don’t make the grade. In recent years, the chiefs have started sending the list of rejects to the congressional armed services committees, as a sort of appeal. Usually, the list is ignored, recognized properly as a gimmick. Not this time: The committees have rubber-stamped nearly every single item on the list.

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So, to the extent inflation will raise the cost of these items, it will have to be covered in an emergency supplemental request next year. To the extent the chiefs want to refill the stockpiles of weapons sent to Ukraine, that too will require a supplemental. And of course, Congress will accept those add-ons as well (as, in those cases, it probably should). In other words, by the time the 2023 budget year is over, the total military budget will total well over $847 billion—and the media will probably shrug at that as well.

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It should be noted that this budget has not even been calibrated to meet new threats or adjust to new situations. No, it’s the same old budget, much of which is structured along Cold War lines—with thicker padding. It may well be that the U.S. needs more ships and aircraft, given Beijing’s aggressive actions in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. (Congress has raised the amount allotted to shipbuilding from $27.9 billion to $32.6 billion—and from Navy and Air Force planes from $35.3 billion to $40.6 billion.) But nobody has analyzed how much is needed to meet new threats or fill gaps in our defense. Nobody in government—at least nobody who makes decisions on budgets—has studied the lessons of the Ukraine war. (The Royal United Services Institute has published a very sophisticated study, which U.S. officials and lawmakers should read right now.) Nobody has even studied whether we have the right mix of ships and planes. (Some private analysts believe that China’s real threat—a swarm of anti-ship missiles to keep us far away from its territory—might be better met by revamping our forces, shifting to a larger number of smaller ships. This is an idea that the U.S. Navy—dominated by aircraft carrier officers—resolutely rejects.) Instead of any strategic thinking, it’s just more, more, more of what we already have.

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There is a hefty increase in some new stuff as well—an extra $8.8 billion on top of the $130.1 billion that Biden requested for research and development, much of it related to A.I. and cyber warfare. But precisely what that topping pays for, and why, isn’t laid out, at least not in the public documents.

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There was a time, not so long ago, when congressional staffers scrutinized every line item of the defense budget, studying whether the official rationales were in alignment with the sum of money requested. That doesn’t happen anymore. The world is a dangerous place; our main rivalries, with China and Russia, are more intense. So Congress gives the military chiefs whatever they ask for. The budget is treated as a symbol of our strength and will—make it larger, and that means we’re stronger and more determined. But “throwing money” at a problem doesn’t necessarily solve it. The defense hawks say that about domestic issues; they don’t consider that it applies to defense issues too.

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