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The Nuances of the United States Military Budget: What to Cut?

The United States’ military is massive, demanding, and extraordinarily powerful. To some, its strength is synonymous with American patriotism. To others, it is excessively funded and a symbol of American arrogance. Both viewpoints likely hold merit. With a national defense budget of $732 billion, the United States spends more on its military than do the next ten nations combined, and its defense budget constitutes over one-third of all global military spending. These statistics are staggering, and they have led a variety of politicians to claim that the military budget is far too high. Particularly given the country’s comparably low allocation of funding to causes such as the environment, public health, and education — and especially considering the government’s flawed and underfunded response to the COVID-19 pandemic — these concerns seem more pressing than ever. Further, studies have exposed monetary waste by the Pentagon in unnecessary bureaucratic functions, a finding that fuels the idea that significant portions of taxpayer dollars are failing to benefit the American people. 

However, simply advocating for cuts to military spending on this basis lacks the nuance that is necessary for an analysis of the national budget. In its current form, the American military assumes responsibilities that are fundamentally intertwined with vital domestic concerns, from preempting global conflicts, to supporting veterans, to helping with disaster relief and innovating life-changing technologies. Of course, overspending and inefficiency within the military must be addressed, but to treat the military as separate from domestic concerns is to misunderstand the myriad ways in which our troops, enabled by federal funding, enhance the well-being of the citizens they have sworn to protect. 

The elimination of monetary waste within the Pentagon is popular amongst Republicans and Democrats alike. According to a January 2015 Defense Business Board report, over five years, the Defense Department could save $125 billion — without reducing the number of civil servants or military personnel — simply by cutting back on business operations like logistics and human resources. This is not the only instance of potential misuse of the national defense budget: from 2000 to 2010, cancelled military programs have cost taxpayers $46 billion, a number that exceeds the amount of federal money spent on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over five years. At the same time, the Pentagon continues to approve programs even if they are extraordinarily expensive and have little hope of succeeding. For instance, since the 1990s, $67 billion has been spent on a ballistic missile defense system that has never been proven to work. While experimentation and innovation are necessary, these expensive findings do lend legitimacy to the idea that the Pentagon should be held more accountable for its uses of federal funds.

Nevertheless, none of these examples alone can explain why the national defense budget is so large. That credit belongs to the American military’s foreign presence, rendering the issue exponentially more muddled. Since the end of World War II, the United States has essentially adopted the role of conflict management in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Global security commitments have led to a variety of treaties involving the United States and over 67 countries across the world, requiring the American military to defend and sometimes station troops in numerous locations abroad. In some countries, it is not a treaty but rather close relationships or security interests that have led to the presence of American troops. For example, South Korea and Taiwan face perpetual security threats from North Korea and China, respectively, so the United States has resources positioned for ready response at all times. But fighting wars overseas is hardly the military’s only foreign activity. Given the United States’ powerful global position, it is often expected to respond to natural disasters or humanitarian crises across the world. Over the past few years, the American military has intervened to combat the Ebola outbreak concentrated in West Africa, helped with disaster relief after Hurricane Matthew ravaged Haiti, and opposed violence against refugees in Kosovo

Given its scope, the military’s foreign presence overseas is unsurprisingly a point of contention. Some advocate the closing of the United States’ 800 military bases in over 70 countries, maintaining that they are risky and ineffective. Others feel that with 210,000 troops deployed overseas, the United States military assumes the arrogant position of “the policeman of the world,” at the same time as millions of its own citizens live in poverty or lack health insurance. Former President Trump, in fact, was particularly isolationist, ending what he said was the costly and ineffective US presence in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as greenlighting a particularly controversial decision to withdraw American troops from Syria where they were helping preempt an attack by Turkey on the Kurds. 

Why are so many federal funds dedicated to the protection of foreign countries? The answer is far from simple. For one, the United States’ presence abroad helps maintain a very fragile global order. A US withdrawal from places like South Korea or the Middle East would create a power vacuum that could swiftly be filled by countries with divergent interests, such as Russia, China, or Iran. Thus, by positioning itself abroad, the military works to stave off the possibility of a far more massive war at home. Beyond this concern, the United States receives a variety of benefits in return for its overseas presence: hundreds of billions of dollars in trade with the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and others; information vital to counterrorism efforts; access to 34 percent of global oil exports; and a variety of other perks that improve the situation within US borders. This global marketplace is stabilized in large part by the army’s ability to anticipate international conflicts. Due to these factors, 70 percent of Americans believe that the country will be better off in the future if it takes an active role in foreign affairs. 

A secondary, though still significant reason the military budget is so large is the ways in which it pays current and past soldiers. 10 percent of the national military budget is dedicated to Veterans Affairs, which provides health care, educational and vocational assistance, burial and memorial benefits, and a variety of other services to former soldiers. The VA has faced significant criticism for its backwards spending system and inadequate health care services, but given that it can hardly meet the needs of the number of veterans in the nation, it would seem to  require more funding, not less. Additionally, the United States’ military has been voluntary since 1973, and though most would agree that it should stay that way, it costs more to attract soldiers voluntarily than it does to draft them. American soldiers also receive a variety of fringe benefits for their service, and because the military is so large, these costs add up. Yet, veterans and soldiers are citizens themselves, and their sacrifices deserve compensation. 

Finally, the ways in which the military impacts our daily lives cannot be underestimated. Seventy thousand soldiers were deployed after Hurricane Katrina (though the military response was highly flawed), National Guard members are often called upon to combat wildfires, and soldiers frequently act as supplemental first responders any time significant disaster relief is needed within the country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, though derided by many for its inadequate response, the military did deploy 740 military medical staff to hospitals in Texas and California, while the Navy sent hospital ships to New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. However, it should be acknowledged that nearly everyone understands the necessity of these services. Rather, it is the portion of military funding that is dedicated to technological innovation that is more often overlooked. In 2020, the Department of Defense asked Congress for $104 billion of its $750 billion budget to be put toward its research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) fund. This fund is not just for the development of new tanks and aircrafts. In fact, the American military has facilitated some of the world’s most influential everyday innovations: advancements in wireless networking, breakthroughs in battery life, treatments for PTSD, advanced and responsive prosthetics, translation devices, techniques to track, contain, and eventually develop a vaccine for the Ebola virus, and many more. 

The United States’ military is far from perfect. In some ways, it is bloated and inefficient, and many of its actions abroad have ranged from misguided to morally reprehensible. And yes, it is valid to suggest that spending on domestic programs should increase, or that certain sections of the military budget should be cut. It is even fair to say that the American military should not play such an active role on the world stage. But there is no changing the fact that the United States occupies an exceptionally involved position in the global order—as such, to cut our military budget could cause massive upheaval abroad, abandoning some of our allies and enabling some of our enemies. The military is not a traditionally domestic program, but it is domestically vital. By traversing the world, soldiers protect their home. By sacrificing their own safety, they safeguard ours. This service is undoubtedly expensive, but it is indispensable. More should and must be done to protect and improve the lives of American citizens. But politicians and citizens alike must recognize that the American military and the funding it requires run not counter to, but alongside this goal.

Photo: Image via Adobe Stock (Caitlin)