In a word, “no.” At more than $700 billion per year, consuming around three percent of America’s gross domestic product (GDP), employing millions of people, and possessing immense power, the US military establishment is ubiquitous in Washington, D.C., and highly influential.
That doesn’t stop the various generals and admirals, though, from trundling over to Congress every year to beg for more money and then fearmonger America’s elected officials about possible geostrategic threats that would necessitate greater military spending than what we have now.
Only recently has both parties in Congress started pushing back on the Pentagon.
Yet, the reason that the Pentagon keeps asking for money (other than the fact that there is abject graft in Washington’s power centers, including the military) is because it cannot conduct its operations and prepare to fight the wars of the future under current funding. The solution, though, is not to start printing more money that we don’t have to give the brass at the Pentagon what they claim they need.
America, after all, spends more on its national defense than the next ten countries combined!
What America’s leaders must do is force the Pentagon to prioritize what they are spending on, based not on theoretical future threats but on the threats US military personnel face daily.
In this case, we are moving from having to worry predominantly about Islamist terrorism and are now staring down the barrel of a great power war, with either China and/or Russia. Such a conflict would be more expensive and unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
And America’s $32 trillion (and counting) of national debt makes blindly raising the Pentagon’s budget impossible.
Instead, what the Department of Defense must do is to review its yearly budget and reallocate funds away from legacy programs and missions that are no longer vital to the new priority for the US military: countering near-peer rivals, notably China and Russia.
Most defense officials would argue that the United States is underfunding its military.
As a former congressional staffer who understands how the military is funded, I can tell you that I believe the biggest issue facing the Pentagon is not a lack of funds.
Rather, it is a bloated, bureaucratic system that stifles innovation (thereby reducing efficiency and increasing wasteful spending) that blows all its money on programs that do not need the level of funding they currently receive (or programs that should be cut outright).
Pentagon funds are simply poorly allocated to the programs that should be a priority in this new strategic environment.
Of course, the conversation in Washington is akin to toddlers fighting in a sandbox. There is no place for nuance. You are either for increased defense spending or you’re not. And woe betide anyone who takes either of these positions.
It’s a false choice, though.
Building the Wünderwaffe Will Destroy Readiness
How can it possibly be that the Pentagon’s current budget is insufficient when few other nations even come close to the level of defense spending that Americans engage in?
For too long, Pentagon planners and over-the-top defense contractors have dreamed about the wünderwaffethe United States would need to fight a way 50 years out.
Rarely, however, have these visions of extraordinary weapons been useful.
Consider the costly Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).
Back in the 1990s, the Navy envisioned using the LCS as the next generation of destroyer. It would have a stealthy profile to allow for the warship to operate close to enemy shores.
The warships would also be able to deliver surgically placed missiles at terrorist redoubts located deep within enemy territory.
The LCS was the product of defense officials taking whatever trends were currently occurring in warfare at the time and wildly extrapolating from there where they thought the American military needed to be.
The LCS never achieved any of its goals. It consistently ran over its massive budget, used up far more resources than it should have while it was being designed and built, and it never performed as expected.
What’s more, the advent of near-peer competitors investing copiously into what’s known as anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities essentially made the LCS useless, as it could be sunk by anti-ship missiles, as it needed to get closer to enemy shores to have maximum impact on the battlefield.
These shortcomings were well-known early in the life of the LCS.
Yet, the Pentagon persisted in spending vast sums of taxpayer dollars on a system that not only has never seen combat but that is now being decommissioned.
Imagine if the Navy had not been consumed by the fanciful notions of money-hungry defense contractors in Northern Virginia, but instead actually assessed the battlefield needs of their forces, not 25 or 50 years from that point.
But, five-to-ten years from that point.
There are plenty of examples showing how the Pentagon wastes money. If the people running the DOD aren’t picking boondoggles, like the LCS, the Pentagon is utilizing antiquated acquisitions processes that haven’t been relevant or useful in decades.
The Acquisitions Process is Flawed
Until very recently, the way that the Pentagon procured, developed, and deployed satellites was so cumbersome that the military preferred to not upgrade its satellites because the cost involved was too great.
This “vicious circle of space acquisition,” as former Air Force Brigadier General Thomas Taverney labeled it, helped to create the critical gaps in America’s satellite constellations that American foes today are actively exploiting.
The satellite example is a good one because it shows the Pentagon acquisitions process at its absolute worst and very best. Former President Barack Obama started to allow Elon Musk’s SpaceX to competitively bid for launch contracts.
Despite having to sue his way into the Pentagon’s elephantine, opaque contracting process, once Musk got those contracts and proved that SpaceX could deliver—and at cost—it inspired greater innovation.
Once Donald Trump became president and created the Space Force, more innovation in America’s ailing national security space sector occurred.
Speaking of which, the way that the various branches are organized and funded also contributes to the misallocation of funds.
Going back to the infamous “Revolt of the Admirals” in which leaders of the US Navy resisted the Truman Administration’s efforts to lower defense spending and divide the proverbial pie between the Navy and the other branches, such as the Air Force, more fairly, the military leaders of the various branches do not like giving up a penny of the Pentagon’s budget allocated to their branch.
What is often forgotten, though, is that it is well-known among American defense planners just what, precisely, kind of threats our forces face (or are likely to face). In today’s context, the major threats posed to US forces can be found in cyberspace, across the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum, as well as above our heads in space (enemy countries targeting our satellites).
There are also economic challenges, such as China’s egregious, ongoing trade wars upon America along with challenges from China in the race to develop and dominate new technological fields. America needs a better way to rapidly produce submarines, too.
So, it strains credulity that our military would not fixate on these areas, even at the expense of others to ensure that they are best prepared to deter future threats from China, Russia, or even North Korea or Iran.
The Space Force is Key
The Pentagon should redirect its money toward the United States Space Force, which has the smallest budget of all the major branches. What’s more, the Pentagon should plan to combine management of the EM spectrum over to the Space Force along with ultimate control over Cyber Command to the US Space Force.
The Pentagon should move elements of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), too, over to the Space Force. After all, the US today is again threatened by nuclear war. The old concept of space-based missile defense has never been more important. The Space Force should pioneer this project.
Basically, the Space Force is the most important element of America’s defense apparatus and it is woefully underfunded and its mission is far too narrow.
But because the other branches do not want to have to share their slice of the pie with this new, technical branch, Space Force is hemmed in and prevented from fully achieving its great promise.
The longer Space Force is prevented from maturing quickly into the most important branch, the more vulnerable America is.
Where We Should Be Investing
Blowing our budget on building a sixth-generation warplane for the Air Force might sound cool—and it might bring in gobs of money for defense contractors—but does that really make a key difference, when we’ve got both fourth-generation and fifth-generation warplanes still operating with no problems today?
Especially when greater investments in space, cyber, and EM capabilities and defenses are needed?
Or more investments in the Navy’s ailing submarine program?
These factors are not unknown, yet the military refuses to audit itself and figure out where best the massive trove of tax dollars they receive yearly should be spent. They simply spend until their budgets are gone and then demand more.
And if any elected representative dares try to hold the military accountable for its reckless spending practices, they’re subjected to a borderline unconstitutional media attack meant to pressure the elected representatives challenging increased spending into bending to the demands of the military bureaucracy for more money, no questions asked.
The Soothsayers of the Defense Industry Are Usually Wrong
Consider this: in the Global War on Terror, the Americans entered that conflict with hugely expensive F-35 and F-22 warplanes and other strategic platforms meant to fight a near-peer adversary.
Yet, the ubiquitous weapons of the conflict were drones (and the improvised explosive devices that America’s enemies used).
Sure, drones aren’t as cheap as IEDs are, but they are far cheaper than an F-35 or F-22.
Another system that the Air Force has wanted to cut was the old A-10 Warthog. Although an older craft, no other platform can perform the missions that the A-10 can in the kind of combat zones that American forces presently wage wars in.
The point is that defense planners, despite their best efforts, have yet to be correct in their predictions for the kind of wars America will need to fight in the future.
Thus, they spend money on systems that we ultimately don’t need.
The Pentagon doesn’t need any more money. It just needs to spend what it has more wisely and modernize the way it purchases platforms for future wars.
A 19FortyFive Senior Editor, Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as at the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (Encounter Books), and The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (July 23). Weichert occasionally serves as a Subject Matter Expert for various organizations, including the Department of Defense. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.