Opinion | The United States should reduce its defense budget, focus on real security issues

By Grant Van Robays, Staff Columnist

The new year tends to bring a sense of hope and renewal. It’s a time to make resolutions — a time for personal improvement and change. But no matter how much change the year brings, Americans can take solace in the three eternal constants — death, taxes and an overinflated defense budget. 

President Joe Biden signed a whopping $858 billion defense budget in December, despite requesting $813 billion. The U.S. is not fighting a war in Afghanistan anymore, nor is the military engaged in direct combat that would necessitate a packed military budget. How, then, did the Pentagon get the largest defense budget since World War II? And while it is true that the U.S. is a key provider of military assistance to Ukraine, only $800 million of the Pentagon’s allowance — a mere 0.09% — is going toward that conflict. 

The government could justify the ungodly military allotment if it made the country safer. In reality, writing blank checks to the U.S. military — an institution that supposedly makes us safe — ignores and perpetuates the vulnerabilities that make our country less secure. 

There are many bones to pick with the defense budget, but let’s start with the Pentagon often failing its audits and only accounting for roughly 40% of its assets. A sizable band of defense lobbyists push Congress to ensure their companies get deals. These lobbyists certainly earn their keep, as the major contractors for whom they work like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon annually rake in hundreds of billions of dollars from the defense budget. 

It’s not new that the Department of Defense consistently has too much money. The U.S. spends more on defense than the next nine countries with the highest defense budgets combined. Some features of the current budget are noteworthy, such as a 4.6% increase in basic pay for service members and requirements for the Pentagon to examine rising suicide rates across the service. These admirable, perhaps even necessary, policies do not give the DOD a pass for its bloated budget, though. 

Congress always passes a massive defense bill, regardless of the excessive spending. Members of Congress want campaign donations from the defense industry, and they want the defense industry to do business in their districts. But Congress and the policy community must reconsider how they allocate the limited supply of government revenue. The opportunity costs of continuing along this dangerous path of senseless overspending are simply growing more severe and consequential.  

Every dollar spent toward wasteful weapons programs is a dollar that could’ve gone to an impactful social program. Building public housing for the entire homeless population in the U.S. could cost around $20 billion. We could give 4 million teachers in the U.S. a $5,000 raise with $20 billion. We could dedicate more research to disease prevention and treatment. We could secure the power grid and invest in clean, renewable energy sources that combat climate change. We could use those funds to feed the 34 million Americans suffering from food insecurity. 

Prioritizing defense spending over other domestic projects, such as job creation programs or economic stimulus efforts, are detrimental to the country’s long-term economic security. In recent discourse surrounding the government deficit, Republicans appear content with cutting entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare instead of curtailing defense spending, even though the latter seems more politically and economically tenable. The fact that major defense contractors are considered high-risk business partners for the DOD by the Government Accountability Office further shows that the massive defense budget is an economic impracticality. 

What makes people safe and secure is not an F-22 fighter jet. Rather, it is freedom from poverty and protection from climate disasters and pandemics that truly protect people from modern threats. Pandemics and climate change-induced disasters are becoming a greater part of the national security radar. The DOD even recognized the severity of the climate crisis as a threat multiplier in the security domain. The public, for its part, highlights cybersecurity, misinformation, the economy, climate change and global diseases as major threats that lie outside the military domain. 

The U.S. can’t defend people from insecurities by siphoning public revenue into the coffers of contractors. A step in the right direction would entail lobbying restrictions across industry — not only for defense contractors. Congress should stop rubber-stamping unfunded priorities lists, the Pentagon’s wish lists for extra weapons and programs that unnecessarily add billions to the budget. 

Inequalities and discord in our politics and society will not sort themselves out through arms manufacturing. While reorienting government funding priorities is a much-needed goal in the long term, fixing complex issues such as climate change, misinformation, global diseases and domestic inequalities isn’t as simple as shifting a billion dollars from DOD towards another department.

We need a cultural shift in the policymaking and governance institutions that pass self-interested legislation. The next time the military budget comes up for debate, the government must evaluate the degree to which “defense” programs across the military and police communities actually make people safer. Such programs deserve the strictest of scrutiny due to their impact on American lives, and it’s time to act like it. 

Grant Van Robays writes primarily about international affairs, social issues and basic human rights. Write to him at [email protected].