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New spending bill squanders billions on dysfunctional weapons programs

The increase alone from last year is more than what some of the world's biggest countries spend on their own defense budgets.

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

Sometimes more is less. So it is with the House and Senate’s compromise version of the Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that was made public this week and was passed by the House on Thursday.

The bill calls for near record levels of Pentagon spending, but it chooses to devote much of the funding to costly, dysfunctional weapons systems that are ill-suited to addressing current challenges, largely because many of the weapons boosted in the NDAA were chosen based on where they are built, not whether they are the best systems for defending the United States and its allies. Pork barrel politics ruled the day to an extent not seen in recent memory, and we may all pay for it for years to come — in burgeoning expenditures and reduced security.

First, there’s the sheer size of the funds authorized for the “national defense” category of the budget, which includes Pentagon spending as well as work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy. The bill calls for $858 billion in such spending, far more than the levels reached at the height of the Korean or Vietnam wars or the peak year of the Cold War.  

Just the increase over last year’s level — $80 billion — is higher than the entire military budget of almost every country in the world, including major powers like Germany, Japan, France, and the United Kingdom. This year’s increase is also substantially higher than Russia’s spending for 2021, the most recent year for which full statistics are available. That has no doubt changed since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, but the comparison is telling nonetheless. The only country with a military budget higher than the U.S. increase from Fiscal Year 2022 to Fiscal Year 2023 was China, at $293 billion, according to estimates by the Stockhholm International Peace Research Institute.

Unfortunately, much of the $858 billion authorized in the FY 2023 NDAA will be wasted.  Well over $10 billion will go towards the F-35 combat aircraft, which the Project on Government Oversight has determined may never be fully ready for combat, even as it represents the most expensive weapons program in the history of the Pentagon, at a projected $1.5 trillion over the lifetime of approximately 2,400 of the planes. 

The budget plan also doubles down on building aircraft carriers, which can cost up to $13 billion each but are extremely vulnerable to modern high speed missiles. And there are billions more set aside for a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), dubbed the Sentinel. But as former Secretary of Defense William Perry has noted, ICBMs are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because a president has only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them on warning of an attack, thereby increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war triggered by a false alarm. We’d be safer without them.

To make matters worse, a full $45 billion of the funds authorized by the new bill are for items the Pentagon didn’t even ask for: extra combat ships, planes, and helicopters built in factories of primary and secondary contractors spread across the country for the greatest political effect. No member wants to vote against jobs in their district — hence the penchant for buying weapons we don’t need at prices we can’t afford.

A particularly interesting — and potentially troubling — section of the bill is the one entitled "Temporary Authorizations Related to Ukraine and Other Matters.” If bought in the quantities authorized, the weapons listed in this section would require a permanent expansion of U.S. weapons manufacturing capability. And once the new factories exist, there will be pressure to keep them open in perpetuity, at a cost of untold billions of dollars.  

The figures authorized are astonishing: 700 HIMARS rocket systems, 5,600 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 28,300 Javelin anti-tank missiles, and more. By contrast, the United States has so far supplied Ukraine with 38 HIMARS, 1,400 Stingers, and 8,500 Javelins. If even a portion of these authorized systems are funded, it will dramatically expand U.S. weapons production capacity, much to the benefit of firms like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. It’s not just about Ukraine — it’s about building a bigger, but not necessarily better, military-industrial complex.

Not only are the numbers enormous, but the weapons involved will be permitted to be built under multi-year procurement contracts, a longtime wish of the arms industry. Weapons makers argue that more reliable funding streams will enable them to expand more smoothly to meet increasing demand. But multi-year contracts can also squelch competition and drive up prices. As House Armed Services Committee chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said, “There is always going to be a balance between giving the demand signal that encourages the manufacturing and not pissing money away because defense contractors would like you to.”

Even when the Pentagon tries to make real choices — like retiring old aircraft and ships to make way for new versions — Congress stands in the way. As an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense points out, “provision after provision in the final bill prevents the Secretaries of the Air Force and Navy from retiring legacy weapon systems. B-1s, F-22s, F-15s, tanker aircraft, C-130s, C-40s, E-3s, HH-60Ws, and Littoral Combat Ships are all sheltered from any service actions to retire, realign personnel, [or] reduce inventory.”

This is no way to make a budget — or defend a nation. Charting a new course will require the “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” President Dwight D. Eisenhower referenced in his famous military-industrial complex speech over 60 years ago, as well as wide-ranging reforms aimed at stemming the political clout and economic power of the arms sector. It’s not the work of a year or two, but it needs to start now if we are to head off year after year of spiraling Pentagon spending with diminishing returns for the safety and security of America and the world.

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