There’s apparently no limit to how high D.C. hawks want to push the Pentagon budget, whether it will make America or the world a safer place or not. The latest case in point is Kori Schake’s latest piece in Foreign Affairs, which calls for a Pentagon budget well in excess of $1 trillion per year, an astonishing figure that is neither wise nor affordable given other urgent security priorities, from preventing pandemics to reducing the ravages of climate change.
When D.C. analysts start throwing around numbers like Schake’s, it’s important to remember how high the Pentagon’s budget is already. The Biden administration’s proposal of $773 billion for Fiscal Year 2023 -- $813 billion if activities like nuclear warhead development at the Department of Energy are included – is well over $100 billion more than the highest level reached during the Cold War, and far more than was spent at the height of the Korean or Vietnam Wars. The United States already spends ten times what Russia does on its military, and three times what China does. And that doesn’t even include spending by U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, which is on the rise.
America is spending too much on the Pentagon, not too little. To the extent that there are problems with U.S. defenses, they are related to a misguided strategy, gross mismanagement, and special interest politics that put parochial economic concerns above considerations of what systems and forces will best defend the country at this moment in its history.
To be fair, there is one thing – and perhaps only one -- in Schake’s essay that I agree with, her assertion that “the United States . . . must make sure that its strategy matches the resources it is willing to dedicate to the country’s defense.” Our current, “cover-the-globe” military strategy is a recipe for disaster that could not be successfully implemented at any price. We need a new strategy, not more money for the Department of Defense.
Both the 2018 National Defense Strategy crafted during the Trump years and the new one released by the Biden administration late last month outline far too many missions, from winning a war against one nuclear-armed “great power” while holding off another, to continuing to wage a global war on terrorism, to preparing to fight regional conflicts with Iran or North Korea. If America should have learned one lesson after spending $8 trillion on its post-9/11 wars, it is that guns and money are no substitute for a keen understanding of the limits of military power. Even before we get to the question of how best to address the challenges posed by China and Russia, our leaders should at least acknowledge that our globe-spanning counter-terror and nation building efforts have been dismal failures, and reduce the U.S. global military footprint accordingly. And as difficult as it can be, diplomacy offers a far better route to curbing Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs than war or the threat of war.
This brings us back to Schake’s essay. She suggests that the deployment of one aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean and a few thousand extra troops to Europe to address the Ukraine crisis will greatly weaken America’s ability to deal with China. Nothing could be further from the truth. America has 1.3 million troops under arms and 11 aircraft carriers. Current U.S. deployments to Europe related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represent a tiny fraction of America’s military power. If there is a further buildup in Europe, it should be financed by the United States’ NATO allies, not by boosting the Pentagon budget.
By all means, let’s align America’s spending on the Pentagon with its strategy. But first let’s develop a more realistic strategy that recognizes that the military is only one of many tools for pursuing security, and that it should be funded accordingly, at considerably lower levels than currently prevail.