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Why is US military spending increasing to new, outlandish levels?

October 26, 2021

Although critics of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan to increase funding for US education, healthcare, and action against climate catastrophe say the United States can’t afford it, there are no such qualms about ramping up funding for the US military.

This May, the Pentagon asked Congress to fund a $715 billion budget for Fiscal 2022—an increase of $10 billion over the previous year.  Together with another $38 billion requested for military-related programs at other government agencies, this would bring total US military spending to $753 billion. 

But from the standpoint of most Republicans and many Democrats in Congress, this was not enough.  In September, by an overwhelming margin, the House passed a $768 billion military spending bill.  When the Senate votes, it is likely to raise that figure, for two Senate committees have already approved $778 billion for US military programs—a 5 percent increase over the preceding year.  These actions were taken despite the fact that, except for military spending at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, current US military spending, after adjusting for inflation, is the highest since World War II.

Indeed, even without any increase, annual spending on the US military would be more than double the proposed $350 billion annual spending on the Build Back Better plan.

But isn’t this massive military spending necessary to prevent Chinese aggression?

China, although recently quite assertive in world affairs and repressive toward internal dissent, has not been at war with another nation since 1979, when it fought a brief but bloody conflict with Vietnam.  Furthermore, even though China has engaged in a military buildup in recent decades, its military spending increases have often lagged behind those of the United States.  In 2020, China’s military spending rose over the preceding year by 1.9 percent, whereas US military spending increased by 4.4 percent.

Furthermore, if Chinese aggression isn’t already deterred by the current level of US military spending, it’s hard to imagine that increased funding for the US military will be more effective.  After all, the United States is currently the biggest military spender in the world, accounting for 39 percent of the global total.  China, the number 2 nation in military expenditures, spends only a third of that amount.  When it comes to nuclear weapons, the United States has 5,500 nuclear warheads to China’s 350, providing the United States with an almost 16-to-1 advantage. 

Given the enormous superiority of current US military power, is more really useful?  Indeed, isn’t increased US military spending actually counterproductive—provoking China to engage in an expensive and dangerous arms race with the United States and squandering US tax dollars that could be spent more productively?  Wouldn’t both countries be better served by an agreement between them to freeze military spending at current levels and to transfer responsibility for the enforcement of international security to a strengthened United Nations?

Why, then, is US military spending increasing?  One reason is an inflamed nationalism—the widespread assumption that, as US politicians like to say, the United States is “the greatest country in the history of the world.”  This belief in the superiority of one’s own nation, shared by people in many lands, is played upon by demagogues like Donald Trump, who talk glibly of “America First” and send their audiences into rapturous chants of “USA, USA.”  In these circumstances, citizens of powerful nations slip easily into what US Senator J.W. Fulbright once called “the arrogance of power”—the assumption that their country should play a dominant role in world affairs.  Little wonder, then, that many members of Congress, although skeptical of the necessity for rising military budgets, tamely vote for them lest they be portrayed as “soft on defense.”

But this is only part of the story, for, although many Americans support ramping up US military spending, most Americans don’t.  A July 2020 opinion survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that only 23 percent of US respondents favored increasing US military spending, while 66 percent either favored maintaining the current level (38 percent) or cutting it (28 percent).  A February 2021 Gallup Poll revealed similar opinions.

A more powerful driver of military spending increases lies in the enormous influence of self-interested corporate contractors.  These private companies work hard to ensure that the US military budget—and thus their income—keeps rising.  Over the past two decades, US weapons makers have spent $2.5 billion on lobbying, employing over 700 lobbyists per year to sell new, immensely expensive high-tech missiles, warplanes, warships, and other implements of destruction to the US government.  Most of these corporate lobbyists have moved through a revolving door of jobs at the Pentagon, the National Security Council, Congress, and other key agencies.  Indeed, four of the past five US Secretaries of Defense have come from one of the top five arms contractors.  Military contractors also copiously fund major think tanks and, of course, make very substantial campaign contributions to friendly politicians—an estimated $285 million over the last two decades.

Such investments have paid off handsomely, enabling military contractors to rake in roughly half of the Pentagon’s lavish annual spending.  Since Fiscal Year 2001, US weapons manufacturers have secured $4.4 trillion in US government contracts, with a quarter to a third of all Pentagon contracts in recent years going to just five major weapons companies:  Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman.  In Fiscal 2020, Lockheed Martin alone received $75 billion from the Pentagon.  Furthermore, enormous Pentagon contracts are also handed out to military logistics, reconstruction, and “security” corporations.

In response to these pressures, the US government all too often bypasses other approaches to international security—including forging cooperative agreements with other nations and strengthening multilateral institutions—while increasing its military spending to new, outlandish levels.

[Dr. Lawrence S. Wittner ( ) is Professor of History Emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).]

One Comment
  1. November 4, 2021 12:17 am

    Sanity VS Doomsday

    (sung to Lilly of the West)
    (chords: Am, C, G, Am / C, G, Am // Am, G, Am)

    Lyrics by Richard Ochs

    Catastrophic climate change is our enemy.
    Greater than all foreign threats. That is plain to see.
    Floods and fires, droughts and storms destroy many lives.
    We cannot afford more wars, the future to survive.

    The only one thing that is worse / is nuclear holocaust.
    Miscalculation or mistake: many billion people lost.
    Blocked out sun will kill the crops so no one would be fed.
    Sick and cold and cancered folks would envy all the dead.

    With missiles on hair-trigger / with little warning time,
    Launch them or lose them / condemns us to this crime.
    Compared to climate chaos, where people slowly cope,
    Abrupt extermination abolishes all hope.

    China’s not our enemy and Russia is not too.
    With cooperation / a peace race will ensue.
    Tit-for-tat disarmament to save humanity,
    To save the climate and our health and ending poverty.

    We are threatened by the greatest war machine on earth,
    Contaminating air and soil unmindful of their worth,
    Squandering our resources while waging wars for more.
    The ultimate climate catastrophe is nuclear war.

    Military contractors pay Congress to play ball.
    A Pentagon revolving door is open to them all.
    Profiteering warmakers own TV and the press,
    Lying for all the wars, their stockholders invest.

    Climate fixes can be funded taking cash from nukes.
    Both the existential threats cut with one fell swoop.
    Canceling nuclear weapons can fund the Green New Deal.
    Transferring 2 trillion will make survival real.

    The uppermost priority for humanity
    Must make nuclear doomsday an impossibility.
    A Resolution to declare there is nothing worse
    Is needed by Congress to rid this awful curse.

    Nuclear Posture Review and Congressional Resolution
    WHEREAS the Nuclear Posture Review may recommend new nuclear weapons; and
    WHEREAS a nuclear war can occur by miscalculation, mistake, upon perceived grave threat or by first-strike calculation; and
    WHEREAS a nuclear holocaust will end civilization, kill billions of people, and destroy the biosphere of all living things; and
    WHEREAS even a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could create a nuclear winter, killing crops worldwide, starving billions of people and contaminating the earth with long-lived radioisotopes; and
    WHEREAS other existential threats to humanity can be reduced by transferring the nuclear weapons budget to climate and disease solutions;
    WHEREAS the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has been ratified by 56 nations and the only nation ever to have used atomic bombs on people has a special responsibility to lead in nuclear disarmament; THEREFORE:
    BE IT RESOLVED that the Congress of the U.S. recognizes and calls on all people to recognize that the highest priority of humanity must be to prevent a nuclear holocaust; and
    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Congress recognizes there is no threat to humanity and the biosphere greater than a nuclear holocaust; and
    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Congress recognizes there is no institution, entity or government more important than preventing a nuclear holocaust; and
    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Congress recognizes only by total nuclear disarmament by all nations and entities can nuclear holocaust be positively prevented; and
    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Congress recognizes that chemical and biological weapons have been eliminated and outlawed by international agreement with mutual verification, establishing a precedent for nuclear disarmament; and
    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Congress instructs the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and the Executive Branch to immediately invite their Russian counterparts to join the U.S. in mutual verification of the safe destruction of nuclear warheads down to a level no greater than of any of the remaining nuclear powers, who will be invited to follow suit.
    This Resolution is endorsed by the following individuals, stating memberships:
    Gwen DuBois, Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility
    Richard J Ochs, Board Member, Maryland Peace Action
    Charlie Cooper, Director, Money Out of Maryland
    Bob Prokop, Veterans for Peace, Philip Berrigan Chapter
    Mary Elieisar, Baltimore Peace Action
    Janice Sevre-Duszynska, Baltimore Non-violence Center
    Ronda Cooperstein, retired librarian, rights activist
    Cindy Farquhar, CPUSA
    Barbara Larcom, Casa Baltimore/Limay
    Edwin L. Smith, Property Line Surveyor, Professional Engineer
    Louise Coleman, Massachusetts Peace Action
    Paula Brown-Williams, Peace Action Affiliates
    Barry Kissin, Esq., free lance commentator for Frederick News-Post
    Lucy Duff, Prince George’s County Peace & Justice Coalition

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