The Trump administration’s most recent budget includes $750 billion for the Pentagon. That near-record sum is only part of the US national-security spending, the total of which is much higher, according to William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger. Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.
In its latest budget request, the Trump administration is asking for a near-record $750 billion for the Pentagon and related defense activities, an astonishing figure by any measure.
If passed by Congress, it will, in fact, be one of the largest military budgets in American history, topping peak levels reached during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. And keep one thing in mind: that $750 billion represents only part of the actual annual cost of our national security state.
There are at least 10 separate pots of money dedicated to fighting wars, preparing for yet more wars, and dealing with the consequences of wars already fought. So the next time a president, a general, a secretary of defense, or a hawkish member of Congress insists that the US military is woefully underfunded, think twice. A careful look at US defense expenditures offers a healthy corrective to such wildly inaccurate claims.
Now, let’s take a brief dollar-by-dollar tour of the US national security state of 2019, tallying the sums up as we go, and see just where we finally land (or perhaps the word should be “soar”), financially speaking.
The Pentagon’s “Base” budget. Reuters
The Pentagon’s “Base” Budget: The Pentagon’s regular, or “base,” budget is slated to be $544.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2020, a healthy sum but only a modest down payment on total military spending.
As you might imagine, that base budget provides basic operating funds for the Department of Defense, much of which will actually be squandered on preparations for ongoing wars never authorized by Congress, overpriced weapons systems that aren’t actually needed, or outright waste, an expansive category that includes everything from cost overruns to unnecessary bureaucracy.
That $544.5 billion is the amount publicly reported by the Pentagon for its essential expenses and includes as well $9.6 billion in mandatory spending that goes toward items like military retirement.
Among those basic expenses, let’s start with waste, a category even the biggest boosters of Pentagon spending can’t defend. The Pentagon’s own Defense Business Board found that cutting unnecessary overhead, including a bloated bureaucracy and a startlingly large shadow workforce of private contractors, would save $125 billion over five years. Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that the board’s proposal has done little to quiet calls for more money.
Instead, from the highest reaches of the Pentagon (and the president himself) came a proposal to create a Space Force, a sixth military service that’s all but guaranteed to further bloat its bureaucracy and duplicate work already being done by the other services. Even Pentagon planners estimate that the future Space Force will cost $13 billion over the next five years (and that’s undoubtedly a low-ball figure).
In addition, the Defense Department employs an army of private contractors — more than 600,000 of them — many doing jobs that could be done far more cheaply by civilian government employees. Cutting the private contractor work force by 15% to a mere half-million people would promptly save more than $20 billion per year. And don’t forget the cost overruns on major weapons programs like the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent — the Pentagon’s unwieldy name for the Air Force’s new intercontinental ballistic missile — and routine overpayments for even minor spare parts (like $8,000 for a helicopter gear worth less than $500, a markup of more than 1,500%).
Then there are the overpriced weapons systems the military can’t even afford to operate like the $13-billion aircraft carrier, 200 nuclear bombers at $564 million a pop, and the F-35 combat aircraft, the most expensive weapons system in history, at a price tag of at least $1.4 trillion over the lifetime of the program.
The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has found — and the Government Accountability Office recently substantiated — that, despite years of work and staggering costs, the F-35 may never perform as advertised.
And don’t forget the Pentagon’s recent push for long-range strike weapons and new reconnaissance systems designed for future wars with a nuclear-armed Russia or China, the kind of conflicts that could easily escalate into World War III, where such weaponry would be beside the point. Imagine if any of that money were devoted to figuring out how to prevent such conflicts, rather than hatching yet more schemes for how to fight them.
Base Budget total: $554.1 billion
The war budget. U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook
The War Budget: As if its regular budget weren’t enough, the Pentagon also maintains its very own slush fund, formally known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO.
In theory, the fund is meant to pay for the war on terror — that is, the US wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere across the Middle East and Africa. In practice, it does that and so much more.
After a fight over shutting down the government led to the formation of a bipartisan commission on deficit reduction — known as Simpson-Bowles after its co-chairs, former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson — Congress passed the Budget Control Act of 2011.
It officially put caps on both military and domestic spending that were supposed to save a total of $2 trillion over 10 years. Half of that figure was to come from the Pentagon, as well as from nuclear weapons spending at the Department of Energy. As it happened, though, there was a huge loophole: that war budget was exempt from the caps.
The Pentagon promptly began to put tens of billions of dollars into it for pet projects that had nothing whatsoever to do with current wars (and the process has never stopped). The level of abuse of this fund remained largely secret for years, with the Pentagon admitting only in 2016 that just half of the money in the OCO went to actual wars, prompting critics and numerous members of Congress — including then-Congressman Mick Mulvaney, now President Trump’s latest chief of staff — to dub it a “slush fund.”
This year’s budget proposal supersizes the slush in that fund to a figure that would likely be considered absurd if it weren’t part of the Pentagon budget.
Of the nearly $174 billion proposed for the war budget and “emergency” funding, only a little more than $25 billion is meant to directly pay for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The rest will be set aside for what’s termed “enduring” activities that would continue even if those wars ended, or to pay for routine Pentagon activities that couldn’t be funded within the constraints of the budget caps.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is expected to work to alter this arrangement. Even if the House leadership were to have its way, however, most of its reductions in the war budget would be offset by lifting caps on the regular Pentagon budget by corresponding amounts. (It’s worth noting that President Trump’s budget calls for someday eliminating the slush fund.)
The 2020 OCO also includes $9.2 billion in “emergency” spending for building Trump’s beloved wall on the US-Mexico border, among other things. Talk about a slush fund! There is no emergency, of course. The executive branch is just seizing taxpayer dollars that Congress refused to provide.
Even supporters of the president’s wall should be troubled by this money grab. As 36 former Republican members of Congress recently argued, “What powers are ceded to a president whose policies you support may also be used by presidents whose policies you abhor.” Of all of Trump’s “security”-related proposals, this is undoubtedly the most likely to be eliminated, or at least scaled back, given the congressional Democrats against it.
War Budget total: $173.8 billion
Running tally: $727.9 billion
The Department of Energy/Nuclear budget. Reuters; Tech. Sgt. Bob Wickley/USAF
The Department of Energy/Nuclear Budget: It may surprise you to know that work on the deadliest weapons in the US arsenal, nuclear warheads, is housed in the Department of Energy (DOE), not the Pentagon.
The DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration runs a nationwide research, development, and production network for nuclear warheads and naval nuclear reactors that stretches from Livermore, California, to Albuquerque and Los Alamos, New Mexico, to Kansas City, Missouri, to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to Savannah River, South Carolina.
Its laboratories also have a long history of program mismanagement, with some projects coming in at nearly eight times the initial estimates.
Nuclear Budget total: $24.8 billion
Running tally: $752.7 billion
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