The United States spends more on national defense than the combined spending of China, Russia, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Japan, France, S. Korea, and Brazil. The defense budget for 2021 is $716 billion. Given the defeat of a mainly draftee army in Vietnam and a volunteer army buoyed with mercenaries in the Middle East, the United States needs to assess the purpose and nature of its massive military spending.
Any serious evaluation of defense spending must cope with the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of in his farewell address. Now operative in every state and many Congressional districts, the military-industrial complex makes politicians loath to curb costs that affect bases and factories in their districts. The military-industrial complex also provides well-paying jobs for retired military professionals and for politicians who had been involved in national defense while in office. This has created a self-feeding bureaucracy with overstaffing, favoritism, cost-overruns, nepotism, and inefficiencies of many kinds.
Any politician who dares speak of military overspending is immediately charged with being an isolationist or soft or naïve about national defense. Incumbents are often challenged by primary opponents, usually with a military background, who run as genuine patriots defending national security.
The inefficiency of the Department of Defense (DOD) became public this past November when the prestigious Ernest Young accounting firm reported to Congress that the DOD’s financial records had so many technical errors, deficiencies, and irregularities that a reliable audit was impossible! Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders angrily noted, “the Defense Department remains the only federal agency in America that hasn’t been able to pass an independent audit twenty-eight years after Congress required it to do so.” Sanders’ outrage echoed the sentiments of conservative Republican Charles Grassley (IA) expressed two years earlier when he declared, “there has been 26 years of hard-core foot-dragging by the DOD” where “there is internal resistance to auditing that runs deep.”
One of the economic ploys of the DOD involves its annual budget. Defense money allocated but not spent must be returned to the Treasury. The DOD has defied this legal mandate by sending unspent funds to operations not included in the original authorization. Over the decades, this chicanery has allowed the DOD to retain $21 trillion that should have been returned to the Treasury. The DOD then claims it needs an annual increase in its budget to maintain a viable national defense.
Despite ample funding, the DOD has not offered presidents a viable strategy for dealing with the religious and ethnic movements in the Middle East and North Africa. The military could not even manage an efficient Afghan pullout even though it had more than a year to organize the kind of orderly withdrawal the USSR had achieved in 1989.
The military is replete with state-of-the-art weapons, but it has not fully accepted that air power will not suffice in stemming ideological insurgencies practicing asymmetric warfare. Moreover, some of the military strategies appropriate for the 1950s have become outdated. President Trump boisterously complained that the United States still has over 40,000 troops in Germany. He thought an industrial powerhouse such as Germany, now generations past its Nazi madness, should totally finance its own national defense, not spend less than the agreed on 2% contribution in the NATO treaty. Trump ordered a withdrawal of some American troops, but President Biden has since reversed that decision.
Another 55,000-65,000 troops remain in Japan, a nation with ample resources to attend to its national security. The American troops were originally posted to discourage provocations by North Korea, but North Korea’s military strategy has been built on guided missiles. The threat of a conventional invasion no long exists, but our troops remain in place.
Over 5,000 American troops and advanced military hardware are stationed at the Incirlik air base in Turkey. The co-managed base was created to facilitate a rapid response to any regional conflicts, especially those involving Russia. New technology has eliminated the need for a base so geographically close to Russia. More pertinent is that Turkey would not allow Incirlik to be used by the United States to launch a third front in the invasion of Iraq in 2001, a refusal that prolonged the war and its attendant causalities.
The United States currently has 800 military bases in 70 countries. This involves 165,000 troops (plus families in some cases) and all the gear needed to sustain them. Many of the bases could be consolidated, reduced in size, or eliminated in what would be a rare case in which spending less more wisely offers better security than persistently spending more on policies proven to be inadequate. The strategic problem at hand is pragmatic in nature, not ideological. A bonus for a political leadership daring to address that administrative challenge would be that the potential financial savings could significantly lower the national debt and/or provide funds to deal with our decaying social services and infrastructure.