The Washington Post finally conceded in an editorial last week that the United States must “spend smarter” when it comes to defense. Instead of looking for ways to cut defense spending, however, the Post simply wants to spend differently. It favors more spending on conventional and nuclear-armed submarines, despite the huge U.S. advantage in both power projection and lethality in air and naval resources. The Post favors greater investment in cyber defenses and secure communications as well as in “predictive analytics” and artificial intelligence. And, of course, the Post joins the chorus of political and pundit voices warning that China “continues to creep toward Taiwan,” currently the main driver of militarization.
The Post makes no mention of the savings that could result from arms control and disarmament measures such as returning to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that could abolish the national missile defense. Freezing the defense budget makes far more sense than freezing domestic spending, and would allow for reevaluating the Operations and Maintenance budget as well as setting realistic priorities in a hardware budget out of control.
The simple fact is that mindless militarization is being challenged by neither the Congress nor the media. Defense spending is excessive; base agreements are being expanded; large-scale land and air exercises are being resumed; and multilateral embargoes are being expanded on dual-use technology. Later this month, NATO will conduct the largest air exercise in its history. Air Defender 23 will involve 25 nations, 10,000 participants, and 220 aircraft that will gratuitously raise the level of tension throughout Europe. A similar exercise in Europe 40 years ago, Able Archer, led to a war scare in the Soviet Union.
The United States has not undertaken a contested amphibious landing since the Korean War’s Inchon invasion in 1950, but the Marines are still spending on amphibious assault vehicles. The variants for the F-35 fighter plane, the most expensive weapons system in history, were developed for the Navy’s aircraft carriers as well as a vertical takeoff and landing F-35 for the Marines. Cruise missile technology, meanwhile, has made U.S. aircraft carriers and their related task forces obsolete. The Space Command and the Army Futures Command are wasting huge resources. Much of our overseas presence at more than 750 bases and facilities should be reduced as it serves no useful purpose and its costs are enormous.
It is particularly difficult to cut back production of aircraft carriers and the F-35 fighter plane because the supply chain for both systems is located in every state in the continental United States. It involves thousands of companies and, more importantly, hundreds of congressional districts. The fact that China introduced a long-range cruise missile to specifically target carriers, and that Russia and Iran are trying to develop similar technology has had no impact on the military-industrial-congressional complex. According to the New Republic, the Navy has allocated more than $50 billion for the building of additional supercarriers. So, two of the biggest boondoggles in Pentagon’s procurement history continue full-steam ahead.
Fareed Zakaria, a regular Post oped contributor, referred last week to the United States as “mighty,” and argues that the U.S. military is in a “league of its own, far superior to its rivals.” This is conventional wisdom in the mainstream media, but it ignores the military reversals that the United States has suffered over the past half-century in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These defeats incurred profound losses in blood and treasure over the years, which contributed to the American cult of greater defense spending to correct non-existent deficiencies.
Zakaria even boasts that the United States is “inflicting ruinous damage on Russia’s army” at minimal costs without the introduction of American troops. This ignores the terrible costs of the war in Ukraine that has no end in sight and is straining the economic environment in Europe and elsewhere. He believes that 750 U.S. military bases the world over are another indicator of a “mighty” United States, which ignores the debate needed over the extent and even necessity of American power projection. Zakaria acknowledges that China has only one overseas base (in Djibouti), but ignores the fact that Russia has only two (both in Syria). The overextension of U.S. power around the world is the leading indicator of the dangerous militarization of U.S. national security policy.
The Post regularly states that the United States spends as much on defense as the next 10 or 11 nations combined, but the cruel fact is that we spend as much as all other nations combined. The global total for defense spending is around $2.5 trillion, and U.S. defense spending exceeds $1.2 trillion. The Pentagon’s budget for next year is $886 billion, but that is not the full extent of defense spending. The budget for the Veteran’s Administration is over $120 billion, which takes total defense spending to more than $1 trillion. There is significant defense spending in the budgets of the intelligence community, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Homeland Security, bringing total defense spending to at least $1.2 trillion.
The United States spends five times more than China; fifteen times more than Russia; and 30 times more than Iran and North Korea combined. Moreover, we have more than 50 treaty alliance arrangements throughout Europe and Asia that create defense expenditures that accommodate U.S. global goals as well. Overall, defense spending is increasing in key European countries and Japan that address the threat from Russia and China, respectively. The agreement for strategic nuclear submarines in Australia and the recent thawing of relations between Japan and South Korea contribute to U.S. efforts to counter Chinese influence in the the Pacific. Japan also has increased security cooperation with key nations in the region, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Once again, the words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower are insightful. In his first year as president, Eisenhower recorded that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” And in his final year in office, he provided the well known warning about the military-industrial complex, which manages our militarized security state. Eisenhower believed that Congress was the key factor in the so-called complex and added the word “congressional” to the final draft of his farewell address, but dropped the word in his speech.
Sadly, the bargaining between President Biden and Speaker of the House McCarthy indicates we will continue to use defense spending to dominate every corner of the globe, while ignoring or compromising the domestic demands on American investment on the home front. We need to stop bankrolling an American empire abroad and address the needs of education and technology; infrastructure; and public health that are the hallmarks of a successful nation. It will take a profile in courage to start the debate to redefine what true security means and to end the costly spiral of militarization.
Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.