A milestone has been struck: President Joe Biden is requesting more than $1 trillion for spending next year on national security—an all-time high.
Other publications have not been reporting that number. They note that the Defense Department is asking for $842.3 billion. Some outlets, digging a little deeper into the budget documents, might note that, including the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons accounts, the total comes to $886.4 billion.
But look on Page 166 of the White House Office of Management and Budget’s summary and you’ll see a category called “Security,” which includes the DOD and the DOE’s nukes account, plus the budgets for Veterans Affairs, certain aspects of foreign aid, and the Intelligence Community Management account (which funds coordination among the intelligence agencies)—and that adds up to $1.014 trillion, a 3.6 percent hike from the current budget’s $979.3 billion.*
Even so, congressional leaders have already said they will raise the budget still higher. Whether one is looking at the security budget as a whole, or just at the Pentagon’s share of it, Biden is asking for an increase of around 3 percent—less than the amount needed to keep up with inflation. By contrast, he’s asking for a 7 percent increase in non-defense programs. In an increasingly dangerous world, Congress will not let that contrast stand. It seems that Biden may even be calling out for splitting the difference—a 5 percent increase for both. An additional 2 percent increase (from 3 percent to 5 percent) means a further increase in spending of $20 billion.
It’s not just guesswork as to what Congress is likely to do. Last year, Biden requested $802 billion for the military (DOD plus DOE’s nuclear weapons programs); Congress raised it to $847 billion—which amounted to a 10 percent increase over the previous year’s budget. In real terms (i.e., adjusting for inflation), that was the largest defense budget since World War II.
The higher costs are not due entirely, or even mainly, to military pay (a 5.2 percent hike in this year’s budget request) or health care. Last year, Biden requested $276 billion for research, development, and procurement of weapons systems. Congress raised it to $307.2 billion—a 10 percent increase. This year, Biden is asking for $315 billion. If past is precedent, Congress is likely to boost it further to $345 billion.
By the way, this increase was not to cover the costs of inflation or military assistance to Ukraine. Those will be handled in emergency supplementals that the Pentagon will request, or Congress will insist on, later in the year.
These numbers are eye-popping, but so is much of what’s going on in the world these days. It is important to ask: Is this level of spending necessary for national security?
Clearly, some of it is. The budget includes massive increases for tactical missiles and ammunition (which are being chewed up at a voracious rate in Ukraine), as well as for a defense industrial base, which hasn’t churned out such weapons in decades, as nobody expected tank-and-artillery wars to be fought in Europe ever again. There are also hefty increases for artificial intelligence and cyberwar activities.
There is a 40 percent increase in funds for countering China’s military expansion in the Pacific, and we probably do need more ships, planes, and associated gear to be ready to respond to those scenarios. But the Pentagon is, for the most part, simply buying more of the same kinds of ships and planes it’s been buying—the ships and planes that, officials say, China is increasingly able to attack with swarms of anti-ship and anti-air missiles. Maybe we need a new approach to air and naval deployment—for instance, larger numbers of smaller, more agile, and, in some cases, remotely controlled platforms. There is very little discussion of this possibility, though, in the defense budget.
Some of the excess is just that—excess. President Biden, who has been skeptical of rationales for more nuclear weapons in the past, decided last year to “modernize” all three legs of the strategic Triad. That means buying brand-new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bombers (as well as air-launched cruise missiles)—and buying new bombs and warheads for these weapons to launch or drop. The Pentagon’s request for nuclear bombers and missiles is $37.7 billion, and the Energy Department’s for nuclear warheads and components is $23.8 billion—for a total of $61.5 billion.
That’s a 20 percent increase over the $51 billion total in the current year’s budget—which was 20 percent higher than the previous year’s. Since these new nuclear weapons systems are still in the early stage of development and production, these figures are bound to rise even higher in the coming years.
It is important to have enough nuclear weapons to deter an adversary from launching a nuclear attack. It is also important, at some point, to build new submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles since the nuclear cores powering the subs will at some point wear out. But do we really need to replace all the other kinds of weapons that we have? The bombers and ICBMs have been modified many times in the past decades; they could be modified further, if need be, for a long time to come.
In other words, a lot of the defense budget is simply the Cold War–era defense budget, plus some—plus a lot. Congressional boosts to this budget are almost nothing but that. Each year, the Joint Chiefs send Congress a list of “unfunded priorities.” These are programs that were cut by the Pentagon’s top civilians or by the White House’s budgeteers, either because there wasn’t enough money to fund them or because analyses showed they weren’t needed or weren’t appropriate. This is a game, and in the past everyone has known it: the chiefs ask for more than they know they’re going to get, and they make like impoverished beggars in congressional hearings.
Now things have changed. Last year, when Congress added $45 billion to Biden’s budget, its members and staff didn’t think hard about what weapons and other tools were needed to meet the threats of today and tomorrow. Instead, they just tacked on the chiefs’ complete wish list—every program in the “unfunded priorities” memo.
This isn’t strategic thinking; it’s not even “throwing money at a problem.” It’s simply throwing money, all to make it seem that the president isn’t as “tough on defense” as he ought to be and that those in Congress are tougher.
Yes, it’s a dangerous world, but spending $1 trillion on security—especially if it’s done so thoughtlessly—doesn’t make it safer.
Correction, March 14, 2023: This article originally misstated the total for the Security category; the total is $1.014 trillion, not $1.104 trillion.