Biden and the Military-Industrial Complex

Biden and the Military-Industrial Complex

Bob Sheak, April 19, 2021

Foreword

Since Eisenhower identified and warned about a military-industrial complex in his farewell address on January 17, 1961, the corporate and military interests that make it up have always lobbied for increases in the military budget. The “cold war” provided the principal rationale for high-levels of military spending up to 1989, but, after the demise of the Soviet Union and then the attacks in the U.S. on 9/11, the new rationale became a “war on terrorism,” a war that knows no boundaries. In the years following 2001, the U.S. defense budget increased from 2001 through 2012, declined in 2013, and resumed increasing through the last years of the Obama administration and then robustly under Trump.  

In this post, I consider the reasons for the growth of the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower’s warning, how the US military has become a “mass killing” machine globally, the full magnitude of military and military-related spending, Biden’s proposal – with few details – to increase at a much-reduced rate the military budget, along with many ideas on how spending on the military budget may be significantly decreased. 

If Biden fails to achieve diplomatic agreements with Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and if he fails to find ways to eliminate the waste and unnecessary and unreliable big weapons programs from the budget, then we will most likely see a continuation of a growing military-industrial complex, accompanied by a new and more lethal “cold war” and the relative lack of funds to deal with such existential threats as “climate change.” The emphasis in this post is on how to reduce military spending and thus the power of the military-industrial complex.

Introduction

The sheer size of the U.S. military makes it a major issue for any analysis of the federal government’s budget, the military’s economic and political power in U.S. society, whether it operates efficiently and with minimum waste, its employment effects, its environmental impacts, the military factor in foreign policy, the militarization of the domestic police force, and whether it is meaningfully accountable to any government agency outside itself. My concern is that the U.S. military-industrial complex is too big and too politically powerful and that, as such, weakens our already limited and tenuous democracy, does more to undermine international cooperation than to advance it, and too often creates the very conditions that foment violence, conflict, the shattering of whole states, extensive death and destruction, and the massive and increasing numbers of refugees we now witness. This is all so clear in the cases on American military wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and in virtually every military intervention the US has engaged in since WWII, certainly since 9/11. There is a clear imperialistic aspect in all of this, as the U.S. tries to keep other countries, especially underdeveloped countries, open to U.S. corporate profit-making, corporate-biased trade, cheap labor, and minerals and other resources.

The Pentagon and the main actors in the federal government continuously find justifications for not only maintaining the status quo but increasing the military’s bloated budget. Islamic terrorism has since September 11, 2001 been the principal justification for this position. There is little compelling analysis in the major media of how U.S. foreign policies and military interventions have served to create the conditions for the rise and growth of this terrorism. There are also other alleged threats to U.S. national security, including those posed by Russia and China, that are used to justify keeping the military-industrial complex large and growing. Some policymakers trumpet the need to overthrow “authoritarian” and “repressive” governments. All such justifications have variously played a role in favor of keeping the military big and strong. At the same time, U.S. leaders maintain supportive relations with authoritarian and repressive regimes when it serves the interests of the U.S. government and corporations that produce military weapons. Saudi Arabia is one blatant example of this hypocrisy.  

Eisenhower refers to the idea of “the military-industrial complex”

Three days before President Eisenhower left office on January 17, 1961, he addressed the “American people” by radio and television. One of the most notable and memorable parts of the speech is when the president talks about the political and economic concerns he had about the growth of the military-industrial complex. Here is what he said.

“Until the latest world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

“The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American Experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense without peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together” (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=12086).

The speech was given in a troubled and somewhat unique historical time. Eisenhower was concerned about how we would, as a country, achieve some reasonable balance between national defense, the domestic economy, the material well-being of citizens, and democracy. One thing is clear. He was not saying that the military-industrial complex had to be curtailed. Indeed, he emphasized the country would have to maintain strong military forces and the industrial capacity to ensure their strength. The implication was that this emergent military-industrial complex was going to be a permanent fixture in American society. But citizens must remain vigilant to keep it from going too far.

Context

Remember this was a time when the cold war had already reached ominous heights. The Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. On October 4, 1957, the Soviets had launched the first satellite into space. The Korean War had ended in a divided Korea involving a truce, not a peace agreement. And China was now under the rule of a communist party led by Mao Tse-Tung . John Kennedy came into office later that January 1961 believing falsely that the U.S. suffered from a “missile gap” vis a vis the Soviets, which became another justification for increasing the military budget.

According to later revelations in The Pentagon Papers, the U.S. government and military establishment were concerned from the end of WWII that Vietnam should not fall under the control of the nationalist forces in North Vietnam led by the nationalist hero Ho Che Minh. Consequently, Truman and then Eisenhower supported the recolonization of the country by the French after WWII. Then in 1955, after the French occupation was overthrown, the U.S. helped to prevent a democratic vote by Vietnamese from all parts of Vietnam to unify the country and instead supported a puppet, unpopular administration in South Vietnam.

After Eisenhower left office in 1961, the next administrations under Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon (for much of his administration) were bent on preventing the nationalist/communist regime in North Vietnam from taking control of the entire country. They feared such a turn of events would lead to a “domino effect,” that is, that revolutionary movements in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia would fall to communists, though better identified as nationalists and anti-colonialists. When developments in Vietnam turned against the U.S. backed regimes, President Johnson and his military advisers lied about an attack on American ships that never took place (the Tonkin Gulf incident), and used it as a pretext to vastly escalate the misbegotten, tragic, brutal, terribly destructive, and costly war. These historical events are captured well in John Marciano’s book The American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration?

In Cuba, revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro had in 1959 overthrew the Batista-ruled government, which had been favored and supported by the U.S., including the Eisenhower administration. There were also anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, movements in Africa and other parts of the underdeveloped countries of the world (e.g., Indonesia, Central America, Guatemala). From the perspective of Eisenhower and others in leadership positions, the turmoil in the Third World was being caused by an expansionist communist movement under the direct influence of the Soviet Union. Thus, U.S. foreign/military policies rested on the assumption that the U.S. had to do its utmost to prevent the success of leftist, nationalist, revolutionary forces wherever they emerged, thus giving the U.S. government more justifications to maintain a powerful U.S. military-industrial complex with both the most modern conventional forces and with a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Bear in mind that the U.S. has always used its military forces to advance a certain conception of its national interests. U.S. military forces were used to protect the expansion of American colonists into Native American lands, and in the process killed millions. This goes back to the earliest years of the country. This “manifest destiny” is also exemplified in the 1846-1848 U.S. war with Mexico and resultant massive land acquisition that accompanied it – adding 500,000 square miles of Mexican territory to America. The U.S. Civil War was a boon to the incipient U.S. armaments industry. Then there were interventions in the late 19the century in Central America, the Philippines, Hawaii, and elsewhere. The U.S. has never been without a military and an expansionist, imperialistically-leaning foreign policy, though the military-industrial complex, as referred to by Eisenhower, did not emerge fully until during and after WWII. It was then spurred in the late 1940s by the “threat” posed by the Soviet Union and “communism,” the cold war that followed, resting on the lunatic doctrine of “mutual mass destruction, and the anti-colonial upheavals in South America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Of course, there is the tragedy of 9/11 and the subsequent justifications and lies for invading Afghanistan and Iraq and for mounting costly wars against “terrorism.”

Underlying it all, the U.S. government has been concerned with protecting and advancing American corporate interests and their access to minerals, fossil fuels, land, and militarily strategic locations as well as to keeping friendly, often un-democratic governments in power. Of course, this dependence on a military-industrial complex is ever-more challenging in a multipolar world in which competition for scarce resources and military advantage involves an increasing number of countries, most importantly China.

In this context, resource-rich Africa has become the arena for such competition. Nick Turse gives us some idea of how Africa is the renewed focus of U.S. military involvement in his book, Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa. Here’s a sample of what he finds in the years of the Obama administration related to Africa, but one of only a host of places where U.S. was involved in ongoing wars (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya), counter-insurgency operations, the proliferation of military bases in hundreds of countries, most of them in underdeveloped countries.

“Over the course of the Obama presidency, American efforts on the [African] continent have become ever more militarized in terms of troops, bases, missions, and money. And yet from Libya to the Gulf of Guinea, Mali to [the] camp in South Sudan, the results have been dismal. Countless military exercises, counterterrorism operations, humanitarian projects, and training missions, backed by billions of dollars of taxpayer money, have all evaporated in the face of coups, civil wars, human rights abuses, terror attacks, and poorly coordinated aid efforts. The human toll is incalculable. And there appears to be no end in sight” (p. 184).

“America as emperor of weaponry”

Big weapons from big weapons makers

In an article published on April 13, 2021, Tom Engelhardt uses this phrase to argue that the United States can be thought of as a “mass-killing machine.” He refers to the military aspects of the U.S. as “Slaughter Central (https://tomdispatch.com/slaughter-central). Unsurprisingly, the top arms makers in the world are located in the U.S., namely, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. He continues his point, referring to examples of the ever-growing lethality of weapon systems.

“…we’re a killer nation, a mass-murder machine, slaughter central. And as we’ve known since the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, there could be far worse to come. After all, in the overheated dreams of both those weapons makers and Pentagon planners, slaughter-to-be has long been imagined on a planetary scale, right down to the latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being created by Northrop Grumman at the cost of at least $100 billion. Each of those future arms of ultimate destruction is slated to be “the length of a bowling lane” and the nuclear charge that it carries will be at least 20 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That missile will someday be capable of traveling 6,000 miles and killing hundreds of thousands of people each. (And the Air Force is planning to order 600 of them.)”

By the end of this decade, Engelhard reports, the “new ICBM is slated to join an unequaled American nuclear arsenal of presently 3,800 warheads.”

“Cornering the Arms Market” abroad in guns

More from Engelhardt: “…when it comes to arming other countries, Washington is without peer. It’s the weapons dealer of choice across much of the world. Yes, the U.S. gun industry that makes all those rifles for this country also sells plenty of them abroad and, in the Trump years, such sales were only made easier to complete (as was the selling of U.S. unmanned aerial drones to “less stable governments”). When it comes to semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 or even grenades and flamethrowers, this country’s arms makers no longer even need State Department licenses, just far easier-to-get Commerce Department ones, to complete such sales, even to particularly abusive nations. As a result, to take one example, semi-automatic pistol exports abroad rose 148% in 2020.”

“Big ticket” weapons

The five big U.S. weapons producers export for sale, Engelhard writes, “jet fighters like the F-16 and F-35, tanks and other armored vehicles, submarines (as well as anti-submarine weaponry), and devastating bombs and missiles, among other things, we leave our ‘near-peer’ competitors as well as our weapons-making allies in the dust. Washington is the largest supplier to 20 of the 40 major arms importers on the planet.” The Middle East has been the destination for nearly half the arms market between 2015 and 2019. Engelhardt cites Pentagon expert William Hartung, whose research found that during these years “U.S. arms deliveries to the region added up to ‘nearly three times the arms Russia supplied to MENA [the Middle East and North Africa], five times what France contributed, 10 times what the United Kingdom exported, and 16 times China’s contribution.” (And often enough, as in Iraq and Yemen, some of those weapons end up falling into the hands of those the U.S. opposes.)” Overall, this $178 billion export trade in 2020, supplied “no fewer than 96 countries with weaponry and controls 37% of the global arms market (with, for example, Lockheed Martin alone taking in $47.2 billion in such sales in 2018, followed by the four other giant U.S. weapons makers and, in sixth place, the British defense firm BAE).

Troops and bases and drones around the globe

Engelhard again sums it up incisively: “…this country has a historic 800 or so military bases around the world and nearly 200,000 military personnel stationed abroad (about 60,000 in the Middle East alone).” He continues: “It has a drone-assassination program that extends from Afghanistan across the Greater Middle East to Africa, a series of ‘forever wars’ and associated conflicts fought over that same expanse, and a Navy with major aircraft carrier task forces patrolling the high seas. In other words, in this century, it’s been responsible for largely uncounted but remarkable numbers of dead and wounded human beings.” He refers to “Brown University’s invaluable Costs of War Project [which] has estimated that, from the beginning of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to late 2019, 801,000 people, perhaps 40% of them civilians, were killed in Washington’s war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.” (The estimate by the Costs of War Project probably underestimates the true extent of the carnage.)

Not all were killed by the U.S. military and some were “American soldiers and contractors.” Nonetheless, “the documented civilian dead from American air strikes in the war years is in the many thousands, the wounded higher yet. (And, of course, those figures don’t include the dead from Afghan air strikes with U.S.-supplied aircraft.) And mind you, that’s just civilians mistaken for Taliban or other enemy forces.” Engelhardt cites investigations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “which followed U.S. drone strikes for years, [and] estimated that, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, by 2019 such attacks had killed “between 8,500 and 12,000 people, including as many as 1,700 civilians — 400 of whom were children,” while “displacing an estimated 37 million people.”

Military spending – the fuel of the military-industrial complex

 The military budget, adjusted for inflation, has gone up and down, since the Eisenhower years, though it has always been a significant part of the federal budget. It rose in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, declined during the 1970s, and rose again during the Reagan years. Then, in the aftermath of the demise of the Soviet Union and during the Clinton years, military spending fell. Then it increased in the Bush years and the first years of Obama, reflecting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (See http://earlysignal.com/2015/02/14/history-defense-spending-one-chart.) The base military budget increased during the years of the Trump administration (https://thebalance.com/u-s-military-budget-components-challenges-growth-3306320).

Where do we stand at the onset of the Biden era with respect to military spending?

Kimberly Amadeo delves into the components of the US military budget, as of Sept 3, 2020 (that is, the last Trump proposal), and considers why the official military spending account is under-stated (https://thebalance.com/u-s-military-budget-components-challenges-growth-3306320).

She estimates military spending to be $934 billion in the last Trump budget, covering the period October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.” This is much more, she writes, “than the $705 billion outlined by the Department of Defense alone2.” Continuing: “The United States has many departments that support its defense. All these departments must be included to get an accurate picture of how much America spends on its military operations.” To fully grasp the full amount of military spending, “you need to look at four components,” she maintains. There is also a fifth component that Amadeo recognizes but doesn’t include in her total military spending count has been a major contributor to the national debt – and the interest on that debt. Here I quote from Amadeo’s article.

“First is the $636 billion base budget for the Department of Defense. Second is $69 billion in overseas contingency operations for DoD to fight the Islamic State group. These two, added together, total the $705 billion budgeted by the DoD.

“Third is the total of other agencies that protect our nation. These expenses are $228 billion.3 They include the Department of Veterans Affairs ($105 billion). Funding for the VA has been increased by $20 billion over 2018 levels. That’s to fund the VA MISSION Act to the VA’s health care system. The other agencies are: Homeland Security ($50 billion), the State Department ($44 billion), the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy ($20 billion), and the FBI and Cybersecurity in the Department of Justice ($9.8 billion).4

“Additional funding goes to each department for readiness development. This includes $31 billion to the Army, $48 billion to the Navy, and $37 billion to the Air Force.

Service members will receive a 3% pay raise and an increase in their housing allowance. Family members receive $8 billion for child care, education, and professional development.

DoD will spend $21 billion on building maintenance and construction.”

The fifth component: Military spending, the national debt, and interest on the debt

In an article for the “Costs of War” project at the Watson Institute, Brown University, Heidi Peltier takes up this issue of how the military adds to the national debt and the interest that is paid on it. As indicated earlier, the interest can be added to the four components of military spending about which Amadeo writes (https://watson-brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2020/Peltier%202020%20-%20The%Cost%20of%Debt-finance%20War.pdf).

By January 2020, through the “18 years the U.S. has been engaged in the ‘Global War on Terror,’ mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government has financed this war by borrowing funds rather than through alternative means such as raising taxes or issuing war bonds.” This means that “the costs of the post-9/11 wars include not only the expenses incurred for operations, equipment, and personnel, but also the interest costs on this debt.”

The result is that, since 2001, “these interest payments have been growing, resulting in more and more taxpayer dollars being wasted on interest payments rather than being channeled to more productive uses.” Peltier calculates “that the debt incurred for $2 trillion in direct war-related spending by the Department of Defense and State Department has already resulted in cumulative interest payments of $925 billion. Even if military interventions ceased immediately, interest payments would continue to rise, and will grow further as the U.S. continues its current military operations.”

Peltier adds: “When war is financed through debt, the costs are much greater than when it is financed through taxation or other revenues, since interest payments must be made as long as the debt is outstanding. In fact, interest payments can sometimes grow to beyond the level of the debt itself, as will likely be the case with the post-9/11 wars. If war spending ceased immediately, interest payments on the $2 trillion of existing war debt would rise to over $2 trillion by 2030 and to $6.5 trillion by 2050. These interest payments will grow larger as the U.S. continues its post-9/11 military interventions and continues amassing debt to pay for the costs of war.”

Biden requests $715B for Pentagon, hinting at administration’s future priorities

First iteration of Biden’s “defense” budget

Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould report forDefense News that “Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget request asks for $753 billion in national security funding, an increase of 1.6 percent that includes $715 billionfor the Defense Department.” A large part of the $38 billion part of the $752 billion, that is the difference between $753 billion and $715 billion, is for the Energy Department that “handles nuclear warheads” (https://defensenews.com/breaking-news/2021/04/09/biden-requests-715b-for-pentagon-hinting-at-administrations-future-priorities). The national security spending, as conceptualized here, does not include many of the military-related spending components about which Amadeo writes.

Insofar as the DOD component is concerned, the $715 billion “amounts to a slight decrease for the Pentagon when adjusted for inflation, and it’s well shy of the Trump administration’s projected $722 billion request for FY22.” At the same time, Biden wants to boost nondefense spending by 16 percent, to $769 billion.”

With respect to defense spending, a portion of the money “is to pay for the pay raise for men and women in uniform, and then the civilians that support them.” An administration official told reporters, according to Peltier, that the defense budget is sufficient to ensure that “the Defense Department he can continue its strategic goals as we outcompete China, and as we ensure that the men and women in uniform have everything that they need.” There will be money spent on shipbuilding, “which dovetails with the Pentagon’s focus on China and Indo-Pacific,” and includes the recapitalization of the Nation’s strategic ballistic missile submarine fleet, and invests in remotely operated and autonomous systems and the next generation attack submarine program.” There is also money “to update information and cybersecurity systems, which will include ‘$500 million for the Technology Modernization Fund, an additional $110 million for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and $750 million as a reserve for Federal agency information technology enhancements.’”

Identifying how to reduce the Pentagon’s budget

What would it take to reduce the influence and impacts of the military-industrial complex, while at the same time maintaining a credible military position internationally? For one thing, it would require that we eliminate unreliable and costly weapons systems. There are many views on how to do this. Here are some examples.

Example – William Hartung, a defense analyst who covers the economics of Pentagon spending, refers to the proposals “contained in a new letter to key members of Congress from a coalition of over two dozen groups from across the political spectrum (my organization, the Center for International Policy, is a signatory of the letter)” (https://forbes.com/sites/williamhartung/2021/03/24/theres-plenty-of-room-to-reduce-the-pentagon-budget/?sh=17ab002e2001).

In the letter, the signatory groups outline “roughly $80 billion in proposed savings in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, including cancelling additional purchases of the F-35 combat aircraft ($11.4 billion in savings); eliminating the Space Force ($500 million to $2.5 billion in savings); reducing service contracting by 15% ($28.5 billion in savings); canceling the Pentagon’s new ICBM program, formally known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD ($400 million to $2.4 billion in savings); and eliminating the Pentagon’s slush fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations account ($20 billion in savings).”

Hartung gives the following example: “the F-35 program has been plagued by cost and performance problems” and “a series of analyses by the Project on Government Oversight has suggested that the plane may never be fully ready for combat.” With respect to the Space Force, it threatens to further militarize the U.S. approach to space security and will, if implemented, “undermine the ability to use space to enhance life on earth.” Cut out many of the over 600,000 contractors, “many of whom do jobs that could be done more effectively, efficiently, and affordably by civilian government employees. Cutting spending on service contracting by 15% would still leave the Pentagon with roughly a half a million, surely enough to carry out any necessary tasks they may be charged with carrying out.”

Hartung also recommends the cancellation of the new ICBM, known as the GBSD. He cites former Secretary of Defense William Perry [who] has pointed out, ICBMs are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because a president would only have a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them on warning of attack, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war. Even if the Pentagon and the Air Force were to persist in deploying ICBMs – which are both dangerous and obsolete – they could save tens of billions in the years to come by cancelling the new ICBM and refurbishing existing missiles.” The Congressional Budget Office, the Rand corporations and other experts have indicated that “existing missiles could be made reliable for another two decades or more in lieu of building an expensive new ICBM. Given that a new ICBM could cost up to $264 billion over its lifetime, this would be a wise move at time when other security risks such as dealing with outbreaks of infectious disease and addressing the ravages of climate change are starved for funding.”

And, finally, Hartung recommends eliminating “the Pentagon’s slush fund, known officially as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO.” He continues: “In recent Congressional testimony, Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight detailed the numerous downsides of funding military objectives in this undisciplined, under-scrutinized, and shortsighted fashion. Not only has the OCO account been used to fund tens of billions worth of projects and activities that wouldn’t have made the cut under the regular process of Pentagon budget review, but it has pushed up the department’s top line to astronomical levels that are far in excess of what is needed to ensure the safety of America and its allies.”

Example – William Astore, William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) who has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, offers “suggestions” on how spending on the military may be reduced (https://thenation.com/article/world/coronavirus-military-spending). Astore’s recommendations dovetail with Hartung’s. Like Hartung, he suggests eliminating the nuclear arsenal modernization program, as a cost over the next 30 years of $1.7 trillion, eliminating the F-35 jet fighter contract with Lockheed Martin costing $1.5 trillion over the course of the contract. But Astore also points to cuts beyond those to which Hartung referred. Astore would reduce by half the 800 U.S. military bases that encircle the globe.

Example – John Nichols reports on the ideas of Representative Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who “thinks the time is right to push the administration and Congress for a broader rethink of spending priorities” (https://thenation.com/article/politics/biden-military-budget). Nichols quotes Pocan as follows: “A proposed increase of $13 billion in defense spending is far too much given [the Pentagon budget’s] already rapid growth at a time of relative peace…. We cannot best build back better if the Pentagon’s budget is larger than it was under Donald Trump.” Pocan identifies some areas of the military budget that should be cut, such as “former President Trump’s excessive $1.5 trillion nuclear modernization plan” and “no new spending on nuclear weapons, as well as the need “to audit Pentagon waste and accountability measures to eliminate slush funds.” Nichols also quotes Win Without War’s Erica Fein: “Deadly pandemics, climate crisis, desperate inequality—the greatest threats to global security do not have military solutions. Yet while we’re repeatedly asked how we will afford to address these truly existential threats; the same question is never asked of adding to the Pentagon’s already-overstuffed coffers. Let’s be clear: continuing to funnel near-limitless resources into the pockets of arms manufacturers while underfunding public goods only undermines the safety of people in the United States and around the world.”

Example – Lawrence J. Korb, who has years of service in government, academia, and think tanks, also has ideas on how to reduce the military budget (https://americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2019/04/29/469086/fy-2020-defense-budget-gets-wrong).

Korb recommends cancelling “the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), a new nuclear cruise missile that experts such as former Secretary of Defense William Perry say is not needed because the stealthy B-21 bomber will be able to penetrate even the most sophisticated air defenses. This step would save $713 million in FY 2020 and $18 billion for the rest of the LRSO program. Moreover, stopping production of the two new tactical nuclear weapons currently being developed would not only save about $1 billion in FY 2020 but would also save $17 billion over the next decade, in addition to decreasing the risk of a nuclear war. As Rep. Smith notes, “Funding new, low-yield weapons would only draw us further into an unnecessary nuclear arms race and increase the risks of miscalculation.”

And: “The Navy should also heed the advice of the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and current acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan not to continue building large nuclear carriers.60 Shanahan and key members of his staff believe that the days of the U.S. aircraft carrier are largely over in the face of advanced threats from China and Russia.” The Air Force “should cancel its plans to buy eight of the outmoded F-15 Eagles in 2020 for more than $1 billion—and 80 total over the next five years.61 Other than allowing Boeing to keep its production line open, there is no real reason for the Air Force to buy these planes, which will cost more than $100 million each, especially since the Air Force has 175 of them already and has not purchased any since 2001.”

Additionally, Korb would have Congress reject the Trump-inspired “space force.” He elaborates: “This force would have between 15,000 and 20,000 personnel and at least three four-star generals and would cost between $2 billion and $13 billion over the next five years. Moreover, it is unnecessary. There is no doubt that the United States needs a space command, much like the U.S. Strategic Command, but it does not need a separate service. Establishing a separate armed force to deal with the threats of space makes no more sense than establishing a separate force to manage the nation’s strategic nuclear capability.62 As House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith pointed out: “It [the space force] is too expensive, it creates more bureaucracy. We don’t want more people, we want to figure out how to better emphasize space.” And, finally, there is not need to increase the size of the active military force. On this point, Korb writes:

“the Army wants to increase the size of its active force; yet it missed its recruiting goals for a smaller force last year by almost 10,000 soldiers, even after giving massive bonuses and lowering its standards. Meanwhile, the Air Force should delay adding new squadrons until it deals with its pilot shortage, and the Navy should cut back its goal of growing to 355 ships by 2034. This is unrealistic even with a $750 billion budget, especially since the Navy just had to spend $24 billion to buy three Zumwalt-class destroyers and has underestimated the cost of the Columbia-class nuclear-armed submarines.”

Concluding thoughts

The debate over military spending will ultimately be resolved politically, in the White House and in the U.S. Congress. That said, the decisions will be influenced by the mega-military contractors and their armies of lobbyists and campaign contributions, the generals in the Pentagon, the competing narratives on what constitutes an adequate military budget, as well as by the pressure from communities that rely on military contracts, military bases, and jobs. Trevor Hunnicutt reports for Reuters that, at the moment, it won’t be an easy road for Biden. His military-spending plan “displeased both liberals hoping to impose cuts and hawks who want military spending to increase to deal with threats from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea – a reminder of the uphill battle Biden faces in delivering the policies he promised as a candidate beyond the COVID-19 emergency” (https://reuters.com/article/us-usa-biden-budget-idUSKBN2BW190).

Looming in the background there is the perennial question in foreign relations of how to mix diplomacy and force, or the threat of force. There are some signs that the Biden administration will, as one significant example, continue the past U.S. position vis-à-vis China, that is, viewing that country more as a military and economic threat than as a diplomatic opportunity.

Simone Chun at the Harvard Kennedy School of Politics points out that Biden’s Pentagon “recently asked Congress for an astronomical $27 billion budget increase to support a massive military buildup in Asia  as part of its new Indo-Pacific plan, which calls for a substantially more aggressive military stance against China (https://iop.harvard.edu/get-involved/harvard-political-review/waste-greed-and-fraud-business-makes-world’s-greatest-army). And, Chun writes, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken “echoed bipartisan political rhetoric about the “Chinese threat” during his visit to Asia last week [late March]. In a stream of condescending self-righteousness, he unleashed a deluge of recrimination against China and North Korea while pontificating on American exceptionalism.” She elaborates as follows.

“Blinken’s performance seemed tailored to the US domestic audience; a rallying call to win support for the upcoming battle: selling the Pentagon’s costly Asian military buildup plan–and the unprecedented profits it represents for the US military industrial complex–to Congress and American public. Unsurprisingly, US corporate media amplified Blinken’s message, exulting: ‘Blinken blasts aggressive China, North Korea’s systematic and widespread rights abuses.’ At the same time, Blinken and his team have been hard at work in reinforcing  an anti-China stance among their lynchpin Far Eastern military outposts–South Korea and Japan– by ensuring that the respective governments of these garrison states continue to unswervingly toe the US line with regard to Beijing.”

We’ll see in the coming months how the Biden administration addresses the issues of an inflated Pentagon budget, waste, and questionable weapons’ systems. I’ll close by referring to an article by Elliott Negin, senior editor at The Union of Concerned Scientists (https://scientificamerican.com/article/its-time-to-rein-in-inflated-military-budget).

He thinks a good place to start is with the 10 percent, $74 billion, cut in the military budget called for by the Congressional Progressive Caucus mid-July of 2020. He has other ideas for even greater spending cuts in the military budget, as follows.

“Cutting annual U.S. military outlays by 10 percent would be a good start, but even that would barely scratch the surface. Last year, Pentagon watchdog groups offered proposals for much deeper cuts that could still maintain a robust military. For example, the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force—a collection of former White House, congressional and Pentagon budget officials, ex-military officers, and think tank experts—published a report detailing how the Defense Department could cut $1.2 trillion in waste and inefficiency over the next decade. The Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information posted a report recommending ways to cut the Pentagon’s annual budget by $199 billion without compromising national security or military capabilities. And the Poor People’s Campaign’s wide-ranging “moral budget” report went even further, calling for only $350 billion in annual military spending, essentially chopping the Pentagon budget in half.”

Perhaps such proposals are politically outlandish in the present scheme of things. Probably a lot more than the Biden administration will undertake. But there is no doubt that the U.S. spends too much on the military-industrial complex at a time when there is such unprecedented and unmet need in the society and when the world seems already embroiled in a new and more lethal Cold War.

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