Fueling the Warfare State

In his annual examination of the U.S. “national security” budget, William D. Hartung finds budgetary malpractice on a grand scale. 

U.S. President Joe Biden at the Department of Defense, 2021.  (DoD, Lisa Ferdinando)

By William D. Hartung

This March, when the Biden administration presented a staggering $813 billion proposal for “national defense,” it was hard to imagine a budget that could go significantly higher or be more generous to the denizens of the military-industrial complex. After all, that request represented far more than peak spending in the Korean or Vietnam War years, and well over $100 billion more than at the height of the Cold War. 

It was, in fact, an astonishing figure by any measure — more than two-and-a-half times what China spends; more, in fact, than (and hold your hats for this one!) the national security budgets of the next nine countries, including China and Russia, combined. And yet the weapons industry and hawks in Congress are now demanding that even more be spent. 

In recent National Defense Authorization Act proposals, which always set a marker for what Congress is willing to fork over to the Pentagon, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees both voted to increase the 2023 budget yet again — by $45 billion in the case of the Senate and $37 billion for the House. The final figure won’t be determined until later this year, but Congress is likely to add tens of billions of dollars more than even the Biden administration wanted to what will most likely be a record for the Pentagon’s already bloated budget.

This lust for yet more weapons spending is especially misguided at a time when a never-ending pandemic, growing heat waves and other depredations of climate change, and racial and economic injustice are devastating the lives of millions of Americans.  Make no mistake about it: the greatest risks to our safety and our future are non-military in nature, with the exception, of course, of the threat of nuclear war, which could increase if the current budget goes through as planned.

But as TomDispatch readers know, the Pentagon is just one element in an ever more costly American national security state.  Adding other military, intelligence, and internal-security expenditures to the Pentagon’s budget brings the total upcoming “national security” budget to a mind-boggling $1.4 trillion. And note that, in June 2021, the last time my colleague Mandy Smithberger and I added up such costs to the taxpayer, that figure was almost $1.3 trillion, so the trend is obvious.

To understand how these vast sums are spent year after year, let’s take a quick tour of America’s national security budget, top to bottom.

The Pentagon’s ‘Base’ Budget

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin providing testimony during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2023 budget request on April 7. (DoD, Lisa Ferdinando)

The Pentagon’s proposed “base” budget, which includes all of its routine expenses from personnel to weapons to the costs of operating and maintaining a 1.3 million member military force, came in at $773 billion for 2023, more than $30 billion above that of 2022. Such an increase alone is three times the discretionary budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and more than three times the total allocation for the Environmental Protection Agency. 

In all, the Pentagon consumes nearly half of the discretionary budget of the whole federal government, a figure that’s come down slightly in recent years thanks to the Biden administration’s increased investment in civilian activities. That still means, however, that almost anything the government wants to do other than preparing for or waging war involves a scramble for funding, while the Department of Defense gets virtually unlimited financial support.

And keep in mind that the proposed Biden increase in Pentagon spending comes despite the ending of 20 years of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, a move that should have meant significant reductions in the department’s budget.  Perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn, however, that, in the wake of the Afghan disaster, the military establishment and hawks in Congress quickly shifted gears to touting — and exaggerating — challenges posed by ChinaRussia, and inflation as reasons for absorbing the potential savings from the Afghan War and pressing the Pentagon budget ever higher.

[Related: Weapons Industry’s Investment in US Congress]

It’s worth looking at what America stands to receive for its $773 billion — or about $2,000 per taxpayer, according to an analysis by the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. More than half of that amount goes to giant weapons contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, along with thousands of smaller arms-making firms.

Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2023 budget request, April 7. (DoD, Lisa Ferdinando)

The most concerning part of the new budget proposal, however, may be the administration’s support for a three-decades long, $1.7-trillion plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles (as well, of course, as new warheads to go with them), bombers, and submarines. As the organization Global Zero has pointed out, the United States could dissuade any country from launching an atomic attack against it with far fewer weapons than are contained in its current nuclear arsenal.  There’s simply no need for a costly — and risky — nuclear weapons “modernization” plan. Sadly, it’s guaranteed to help fuel a continuing global nuclear arms race, while entrenching nuclear weapons as a mainstay of national security policy for decades to come. (Wouldn’t those decades be so much better spent working to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether?) 

The riskiest weapon in that nuclear plan is a new land-based, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  As former Secretary of Defense William Perry once explained, ICBMs are among “the most dangerous weapons in the world” because a president warned of a nuclear attack would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them, increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm. Not only is a new ICBM unnecessary, but the existing ones should be retired as well, as a way of reducing the potential for a world-ending nuclear conflagration.

To its credit, the Biden administration is trying to get rid of an ill-conceived nuclear weapons program initiated during the Trump years – a sea-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile that, rather than adding a “deterrent” capability, would raise the risk of a nuclear confrontation.  As expected, nuclear hawks in the military and Congress are trying to restore funding for that nuclear SLCM (pronounced “Slick ‘em”).

The Pentagon budget is replete with other unnecessary, overpriced, and often potentially dysfunctional systems that should either be canceled or replaced with more affordable and effective alternatives.  The most obvious case in point is the F-35 combat aircraft, meant to carry out multiple missions for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. So far, it does none of them well

Reflection of the Pentagon in the drum major’s mace as the Air Force Band takes part in an honor cordon for a visiting dignitary in May. (DoD, Lisa Ferdinando)

In a series of careful analyses of the aircraft, the Project on Government Oversight determined that it may never be fully ready for combat. As for cost, at an estimated $1.7 trillion over its projected period of service, it’s already the most expensive single weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon. And keep in mind that those costs will only increase as the military services are forced to pay to fix problems that were never addressed in the rush to deploy the plane before it was fully tested.  Meanwhile, that aircraft is so complex that, at any given moment, a large percentage of the fleet is down for maintenance, meaning that, if ever called on for combat duty, many of those planes will simply not be available.

In a grudging acknowledgement of the multiple problems plaguing the F-35, the Biden administration proposed decreasing its buy of the plane by about a third in 2023, a figure that should have been much lower given its poor performance. But congressional advocates of the plane — including a large F-35 caucus made up of members in states or districts where parts of it are being produced — will undoubtedly continue to press for more planes than even the Pentagon’s asking for, as the Senate Armed Services Committee did in its markup of the Department of Defense spending bill.

In addition to all of this, the Pentagon’s base budget includes mandatory spending for items like military retirement, totaling an estimated $12.8 billion for 2023.

Running national (in)security tally: $785.8 billion

The Nuclear Budget

Minuteman flight test, March 2020. (National Nuclear Security Administration, Flickr)

The average taxpayer no doubt assumes that a government agency called the Department of Energy (DOE) would be primarily concerned with developing new sources of energy, including ones that would reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels to help rein in the ravages of climate change.  Unfortunately, that assumption couldn’t be less true.

Instead of spending the bulk of its time and money on energy research and development, more than 40 percent of the Department of Energy’s budget for 2023 is slated to support the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the country’s nuclear weapons program, principally by maintaining and developing nuclear warheads.  Work on other military activities like reactors for nuclear submarines pushes the defense share of the DOE budget even higher. The NNSA spreads its work across the country, with major locations in California, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Its proposed 2023 budget for nuclear-weapons activities is $16.5 billion, part of a budget for defense-related projects of $29.8 billion.

Amazingly the NNSA’s record of managing its programs may be even worse than the Pentagon’s, with cost overruns of more than $28 billion during the last two decades.  Many of its current projects, like a plan to build a new facility to produce plutonium “pits” — the devices that trigger the explosion of a hydrogen bomb — are unnecessary even under the current, misguided nuclear weapons modernization plan.

Nuclear budget: $29.8 billion

Running (in)security tally: $815.6 billion

Defense-Related Activities

This catch-all category, pegged at $10.6 billion in 2023, includes the international activities of the FBI and payments to Central Intelligence Agency retirement funds, among other things.

Defense-Related Activities: $10.6 billion

Running (in)security tally: $826.2 billion

The Intelligence Budget

Information about this country’s 18 separate intelligence agencies is largely shielded from public view.  Most members of Congress don’t even have staff that can access significant details on how intelligence funds are spent, making meaningful Congressional oversight almost impossible. The only real data supplied with regard to the intelligence agencies is a top-line number – $67.1 billion proposed for 2023, a $5 billion increase over 2022. Most of the intelligence community’s budget is believed to be hidden inside the Pentagon budget. So, in the interests of making a conservative estimate, intelligence spending is not included in our tally.

Intelligence Budget: $67.1 billion

Running (in)security tally still: $826.2 billion

Veterans Affairs Budget

A former explosive ordnance disposal technician who suffers from PTSD and traumatic brain injury after combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq , displays a mask he painted in Hanover, Pa., April 5, 2017. (U.S. Air Force, J.M. Eddins Jr.)

America’s post-9/11 wars have generated millions of veterans, many of whom have returned from battle with severe physical or psychological injuries. As a result, spending on veterans’ affairs has soared, reaching a proposed $301 billion in the 2023 budget plan.  Research conducted for the Costs of War Project at Brown University has determined that these costs will only grow, with more than $2 trillion needed just to take care of the veterans of the post-9/11 conflicts.

Veterans Affairs Budget: $301 billion

Running (in)security tally: $1.127 trillion

International Affairs Budget

The International Affairs budget includes non-military items like diplomacy at the State Department and economic aid through the Agency for International Development, critical (but significantly underfunded) parts of the U.S. national security strategy writ large.  But even in this category there are significant military-related activities in the form of programs that provide arms and training to foreign militaries and police forces.  It’s proposed that the largest of these, the Foreign Military Financing program, should receive $6 billion in 2023. Meanwhile, the total requested International Affairs budget is $67.8 billion in 2023.

International Affairs Budget: $67.8 billion

Running (in)security tally: $1.195 trillion

The Homeland Security Budget

After the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established by combining a wide range of agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Agency, the U.S. Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, and the Coast Guard.  The proposed DHS budget for 2023 is $56.7 billion, more than one-quarter of which goes to Customs and Border Protection as part of a militarized approach to addressing immigration into the United States.

Homeland Security Budget: $56.7 billion

Running (in)security tally: $1.252 trillion

Interest on the Debt

The national security state, as outlined so far, is responsible for about 26 percent of the interest due on the U.S. debt, a total of $152 billion.

Interest on the Debt: $152 billion

Running (in)security tally: $1.404 trillion

Misguided Security Budget

Spending $1.4 trillion to address a narrowly defined concept of national security should be considered budgetary malpractice on a scale so grand as to be almost unimaginable — especially at a time when the greatest risks to the safety of Americans and the rest of the world are not military in nature. After all, the Covid pandemic has already taken the lives of more than one million Americans, while the fires, floods, and heat waves caused by climate change have impacted tens of millionsmore. 

Yet the administration’s proposed allocation of $45 billion to address climate change in the 2023 budget would be less than 6 percent of the Pentagon’s proposed budget of $773 billion.  And as noted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are slated to get just one-third of the proposed increase in Pentagon spending between 2022 and 2023. Worse yet, attempts to raise spending significantly to address these urgent challenges, from President Biden’s Build Back Better plan to the Green New Deal, are stalled in Congress.

In a world where such dangers are only increasing, perhaps the best hope for launching a process that could, sooner or later, reverse such perverse priorities lies with grassroots organizing. Consider, for instance the “moral budget” crafted by the Poor People’s Campaign, which would cut Pentagon spending almost in half while refocusing on programs aimed at eliminating poverty, protecting the environment, and improving access to health care.  If even part of such an agenda were achieved and the “defense” budget reined in, if not cut drastically, America and the world would be far safer places.

Given the scale of the actual security problems we face, it’s time to think big when it comes to potential solutions, while recognizing what Martin Luther King, Jr., once described as the “fierce urgency of now.” Time is running short, and concerted action is imperative.

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and the author most recently of “Pathways to Pentagon Spending Reductions: Removing the Obstacles.”

This article is from TomDispatch.com.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

19 comments for “Fueling the Warfare State

  1. July 11, 2022 at 10:54

    This is why we do not have healthcare for all, tuition free higher education, decent infrastructure, a guaranteed minimum wage to address increasing technology based human resource obsolescence, etc., and it is the Democratic Party which purports to espouse all such goals that is most to blame, the party responsible, in reverse chronological order, for the Ukraine conflict, the Yemeni genocide, the Syrian conflict, the Libyan disaster, the Afghani disaster, the Iraqi disaster (along with the GOP), the dismemberment of Yugoslavia, the Palestinian genocide, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War II, World War I, … see a trend there?

  2. DHFabian
    July 10, 2022 at 18:36

    It looks to me like Biden is setting the stage for nuclear world war, and I’m sure it looks that way to the international community.

  3. Gene Poole
    July 10, 2022 at 16:24

    Wouldn’t it be a good idea to stop using “America” in place of “United States” and find a demonym other than “American” for citizens of the United States? We all know that there are other countries and other populations in North and South America. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to show it? Or should we go on giving the world the impression that we think everything revolves around us?

  4. renate
    July 10, 2022 at 14:06

    A lot of money to protect what Trump would call a sh****le. America declares other nations’ adversaries as needed, like Russia and China. They did not know they were adversaries until the USA told them they were.
    What makes it even worse is that many disabled vets don’t have enough to make ends meet. Vets are collecting donations for other disabled veterans.
    With a few exceptions, congress does not care about the people.

  5. Caliman
    July 10, 2022 at 12:41

    Eisenhower, as MICIMATT was just starting its total dominance of American Society:

    “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.

    This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children…

    This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

    Now it’s too late. We go the way of Rome and all other such hyper-militarized societies. Bankruptcy, both moral (already here) and fiscal (rapidly approaching) are the only answer.

  6. Frank Lambert
    July 10, 2022 at 10:33

    But then again, American mercenaries, now called “contractors” can make $400,000 for a six month tour in Afghanistan, thanks to the Republican and Democrats who consistently overfeed the bloated war machine for Full Spectrum Dominance in controlling the world.

    What a waste of money and natural resources.

  7. Peter Loeb
    July 10, 2022 at 09:37

    Dear Mr. Hartung: It is impossible to say how great it is to hear from you on these matters again. I have referred your
    article to both of my US Senators as well as my congressional representative (Ayanna Pressley). In my comments to
    Consortiumnews I have frequently tried to ask some of the questions I thought you might pursue. (For example I
    always want the specific defense contractor producing a weapon.) As in your work, I also want the cost and that over
    a long period of time (not just per weapon).

    I tried to bring Bernie Sanders’ attention to your article but was unable to do so since I do not live in Vermont.

    Once again, my thanks to you and your staff.

  8. Bob M
    July 9, 2022 at 23:52

    What I don’t understand is why the “defense” budget shouldn’t be decreased by 90%. That would still provide more than enough security against any invasion. I find it disheartening to hear recommendations of 50% decreases being considered reasonable. They aren’t by any stretch of the imagination. All foreign bases should be decommissioned and the nuclear weapons program should be scrapped, as well as any weapon that’s main use is offensive.

  9. Paine
    July 9, 2022 at 13:08

    Good article, but wish there was some discussion of the end game in adding so many additional nuclear arms.

    It seems obvious that National Security” apparatus should be referred to as the “National Insecurity” apparatus. As nuclear arms are being increased while at the same time the US government is withdrawing from nuclear arms treaties.

    Against the above back-drop, neocon think-tank newspaper articles point out that US nuclear superiority will enable the US to launch and win a nuclear war. To achieve such goal millions of American lives would be lost. Totally acceptable to advocates. Absolute madness.

    • renate
      July 10, 2022 at 14:14

      Do neocons ever stop and think? What would they win if there is nothing but scorched earth global wide and other than cockroaches nothing left to govern? They would win a cockroach empire, and not anyone left to congratulate them on the victory.

  10. July 9, 2022 at 12:28

    What’s makes the financial mismanagement of our nation’s budget even worse is that every penny of the bloated “defense” budget will have to be borrowed – to be paid back sometime in the future.

  11. Jeff Harrison
    July 9, 2022 at 12:10

    Not bad. I disagree that the US spends more than the next 9 nations. I think we spend more that most of the rest of the world. There’s several things you missed. One, who was the idiot who conceived of the F-35? One of JFK’s best and brightests, Robert McNamera, came up with a similar idea called the TFX, you may know it as the F-111. The Navy never bought it because they couldn’t get it to work off an A/C carrier. It didn’t become a truly effective weapon until they got to the E model. Why did anyone think that they could do that again and add V/STOL capability to it as well? I hope whoever came up with this misguided A/C got fired, his pension cancelled, and was exiled to Minot. The second thing you missed is that it is actually the desire on the part of the military to have the latest and greatest capabilities in their equipment, including capabilities that no one knows how to achieve that blows a hole in weapons costs. It’s not the contractors. I know. I worked for McDonnell Douglas for 30 years and I watched ’em do it.

  12. Betsie Weil
    July 9, 2022 at 11:55

    I transcribed the comments below last week from one of the regular videos of Alex Christoforou of The Duran. If he is correct, how is it that President Biden is overseeing the conflict in Ukraine?

    …In 2014,15–you had the Maidan coup. The Biden family decided to get involved in an energy company known as Burisma. The energy players–they understood that there were a lot of resources in the east of Ukraine. A lot of resources. Natural resources. But they had a problem. People were living on the land that these resources were located under. And so they had to figure out a way–all of us–the Biden family, Burisma, other big energy players involved; the new Maidan coup government–Poroshenko in Kiev. How in God’s name are we going to get people off of this land, out of these villages. And how are we going to get our hands on all of these natural resources in the very rich area of East Ukraine? How are we going to get our hands on all these things?

    And so Biden made a whole bunch of trips to Ukraine, and eventually they came up with one solution: start a war. Bomb them off the land.

    There’s no difference–what’s happening in Ukraine and what they are trying to do in The Netherlands. Maybe a different approach.

    In Ukraine they wanted to just bomb the people off the land, so then they can get their hands on all the energy reserves and all the natural resources in the East.

    In the case of The Netherlands they are using a bogus nitrogen legislation reform thing to drive the farmers out of business, so then they can take their land–the whole green reform, “Save the Planet” excuse that they always use in order to grab more assets.

    • Rob Roy
      July 11, 2022 at 12:04

      Betsie Weil
      Great comment.

    • Realist
      July 11, 2022 at 14:01

      Even without his dementia, Joe Biden has been one of the most corrupt, recklessly belligerent and utterly stupid presidents in American history. His whole biography is one of plagiarism, lies (both little white ones and huge whoppers), and bald-faced fraud, much of it for personal gain, before the American people. Jimmy Dore once did a lengthy segment outlining the long embarrassing public life of Joe Biden. There can be only one reason he, specifically, was chosen by the Democrats to “run” this country: he was meant to initiate something so terrible, like a world war, that he could never be anything more than a complete discard both in the present and distant future. Couple him with his corrupt family, their kinky sex, drug addictions and stumble-bum intrigues and you’ve got the modern day American “Borgia dynasty,” except the Borgia’s were not sock puppets like Clueless Joe. He has taken Dubya’s malevolent performance under the spell of Svengali Cheney and quadrupled down on it under dangerous string-pullers like Hilary, Obomber and persons or entities unknown. Who truly sees a genuine person, rather than a marionette, competently leading this country in good faith for the best interests of the people?

  13. Vera Gottlieb
    July 9, 2022 at 10:46

    Budgetary malpractice…Why should this surprise??? There is an American saying…’it is OK to cheat just don’t get caught’. To me this explains a lot.

  14. Sam F
    July 9, 2022 at 07:54

    The US has since WWII given less than $1 per year per capita to the world’s poorest, whom it might easily have rescued from poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, and disease. It is not capable of benevolence, only advertising, theft, and bribery scams. Its people have no moral foundation, and equate personal money with virtue, despite firmly believing in scams. The US government is a plague upon humanity and the US, a fake in every branch and aspect at every level.

    Very true that “the best hope … lies with grassroots organizing.”
    But the US will have to suffer massive military defeats before fools see the futility of its militarism.

    • Airlane1979
      July 11, 2022 at 04:07

      “whom it might easily have rescued from poverty…” is not the way that US hegemony works. The poverty, ignorance etc. are imposed by the US empire on its billions of victims through capitalism which works by creating artificial scarcity and demanding an arbitrary token called money to access what would, in a socialist world, be available to all.

      • Lois Gagnon
        July 11, 2022 at 14:23

        Indeed. Socialism is the only remedy to this madness. That’s why the powers that be do everything they can to besmirch it.

Comments are closed.