What the “Defunding the Pentagon” Articles Don’t Tell You


What the “Defunding the Pentagon” Articles Don’t Tell You

Jul 28, 2020 7 min read
Thomas Spoehr

Director, Center for National Defense

Thomas W. Spoehr conducts and supervises research on national defense matters.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrives for a House Armed Services Committee hearing on July 9, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Pool / Pool / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

National defense now consumes the smallest portion of the U.S. federal budget in a hundred years—15%—and continues to shrink.

Our defense responsibilities include security commitments to NATO, Japan, South Korea, international sea lanes, and other areas.

If the nation is going to effectively counter China, Russia and others, continued military rebuilding following years of budget cuts is necessary.

Recently Politico published two opinion pieces claiming that it’s time to “defund” national defense: “Defund the Pentagon: The Conservative Case by Andrew Lautz and Jonathan Bydlak, and “Defund the Pentagon: The Liberal Case by Sen. Bernie Sanders. A provocative suggestion, but both pieces lack some information that would contribute to a richer, more informed discussion of this critically important topic.

Although sharing similar headlines, the articles advance different arguments for why defense spending should be reduced. The self-described “conservative case” argues Pentagon spending has become “bloated” and “wasteful” and that Americans can no longer afford national security at the level currently funded. The other, “liberal view” proposes that instead of funding national defense, America should focus inwardly and take care of pressing internal problems.

Let’s examine their arguments to see if they hold up and then examine the case for modest growth as proposed by both Secretaries of Defense Jim Mattis and Mark Esper.

Lautz and Bydlak argue that Pentagon spending has grown unchecked, becoming the “largest part of the federal discretionary budget” and that this growth has gone unexamined. Most damningly, they charge, the Pentagon and the U.S. military aren’t “making us any safer.”

Left unmentioned is that national defense now consumes the smallest portion of the U.S. federal budget in a hundred years—15%—and continues to shrink. What’s causing this? The unchecked spending on federal programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which are pressuring all elements of the federal budget. Also conveniently absent from the discussion is the fact that, except for a brief moment in 1999, spending today on national defense now consumes the smallest percentage of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product in modern history.

Bottom line: America definitely has a budget problem, but the Pentagon isn't causing it.

The authors for the “conservative case” insist the Pentagon is racked with fraud and waste. But they offer no proof for that allegation. Also missing is any mention of the numerous reform efforts that the DoD has undergone in recent years, from converting its defined benefit plan to a hybrid defined contribution plan, and cutting headquarters sizes by 20%. They ignore reform efforts such as the Defense Wide Review under Secretary Mark Esper and the famous “Night Court” review in the Army, each of which identified billions of dollars of savings.

In addition, every year, Congress piles on dozens of new reform initiatives. It’s altogether likely the Pentagon is the most scrutinized and “reformed” agency in the federal government.

Both articles point to the Pentagon’s inability to pass an audit as prima facie evidence that the Pentagon is unworthy of the funding it is provided. Congress imposed the requirement for the DoD to pass a financial audit back in 1990, even though passing an audit is no guarantee an organization is well managed. Indeed, Enron, the poster child for corporate abuse, managed to pass all its financial audits, right up until the moment it imploded as a result of massive fraud. The Pentagon is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to pass its audits, and although it has yet to pass due to its enormous complexity, thus far, auditors from major U.S. accounting firms have found zero evidence of mismanagement or fraud.

Sen. Sanders, meanwhile, argues that the dollars spent on defense are better used to “invest in communities that have been ravaged by extreme poverty, mass incarceration, decades of neglect and the Covid-19 pandemic.” Those are worthy priorities, but through all the various entitlement programs, they already command the overwhelming majority of spending in the federal budget and the various 2020 stimulus bills.

The term “strategic restraint” in regards to U.S. foreign policy has become fashionable, and the authors of the "conservative case" waste no time employing it as justification for why the U.S. should reduce defense spending. Adherents to the "restraint" school of thought argue for a less assertive U.S. foreign policy for America to end its "endless wars" and to "bring the troops home." But this is already happening. From troop levels of over 100,000 in 2011, the U.S. now has around 8,000 troops in Afghanistan, with their primary mission to assist the government there, not to fight an “endless” war. Helping a fledgling government stand up its security forces is an appropriate and wise use of U.S. military power. Troop levels in Syria and Iraq are also coming down.

But there’s more. Sen. Sanders states the DoD’s budget is bigger “than the next 11 nations’ military budgets combined.” While factually incorrect—on a straight unadjusted dollar-for-dollar comparison, the U.S. defense budget is equal to the top eight spending countries—that’s not the biggest problem with this canard.

When adjusted for purchasing power parity, an internationally recognized method of equating economies, comparisons of national defense spending show U.S. defense spending is roughly equal to that of two countries (China and Russia), not eleven. The second and more significant overlooked fact is that the U.S. for better or worse is a global power, with global responsibilities, and our defense responsibilities include security commitments to NATO, Japan, South Korea, international sea lanes, and other areas. Other countries don’t share those responsibilities, and it’s misleading to compare the U.S. to others without them.

In addition to the authors of the two cited opinion pieces, others have also pointed to the COVID-19 crisis as reason to question the funds we invest in our national defense. Why, they ask, should we invest in the military when our great country can be laid low by a microscopic bug? Again, absent from the discussion is the major role the U.S. military has played in responding to the crisis by building hospitals, developing vaccines, deploying over 50,000 National Guard troops and sending hospital ships.

But more than that, it’s a false choice. As a world power, the United States must be prepared to defend against both internal and external threats. While the U.S. already spends about $13 billion a year to prepare against infectious disease, we may find that in the final evaluation, more needs to be spent, or what we spend should be spent differently. And we should be prepared to make those choices.

Finally, and most dismayingly, neither article mentions the serious challenges that threaten our national interests. Shouldn’t that, after all, be the overriding criteria on which we base decisions on defense funding levels? Do North Korean ICBM and nuclear weapon programs matter in that discussion? Of course. What about Iranian aggression throughout the Middle East? Cyber threats? Certainly.

Strikingly, neither China nor Russia are even mentioned in either of these two pieces, despite the fact that these two countries represent major powers diametrically opposed to our system of democracy and interests. Oh, by the way, the Chinese Communist Party has decided to increase defense spending by 6.6% in 2020.

In January 2017, when he took over as Secretary of Defense, James Mattis testified he was "shocked" at the poor state of U.S. military readiness. The Army, which I was a member of in 2016, had "historically low levels" of readiness, and its end strength was being rapidly cut to accommodate a plummeting budget. When the commander of the Japan-based 7th Fleet, took over in 2015, he found a “fleet was short of sailors, and those it had were often poorly trained and worked to exhaustion. Its warships were falling apart, and a bruising, ceaseless pace of operations meant there was little chance to get necessary repairs done.”

Military readiness has since improved due to the efforts of Congress and the Administration. But if the nation is going to effectively counter China, Russia and others, continued military rebuilding following years of preoccupation with the Middle East and budget cuts is necessary. To accomplish that task Mattis, followed by Secretary Esper, stated that DoD needed real growth of 3-5% (meaning on top of inflation) from 2017 until 2023. The bipartisan National Defense Commission endorsed that goal in November 2018 as “generally reflective of the level of resources” required to execute the National Defense Strategy. That level seems about right.

Debating the levels of funding provided for national defense, as well as all the other federal programs, are appropriate and necessary. But to have that discussion, decision-makers must have all the facts, not just a few select. Too much is riding on the decisions they make.

This piece originally appeared in RealClear Defense