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Does war in Ukraine justify an even bigger U.S. military budget?
Mike Bebernes, Senior Editor – April 3, 2022
The Biden administration asked Congress to approve $813 billion in defense spending in its budget for next year, $30 billion more than lawmakers allocated for 2022. The request came as part of President Biden’s sprawling $5.8 trillion budget proposal for 2023 that was released earlier this week.
“This will be among the largest investments in our national security in history,” Biden said in a speech outlining the proposal, pointedly mentioning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Some people don’t like the increase, but we’re in a different world today.”
For the most part, presidential budgets are a political messaging document, since Congress has sole authority to approve government spending. Key measures in a president’s proposal are trimmed or cut out entirely by the time a final bill emerges. When it comes to defense spending, though, Congress typically meets or exceeds the presidential request. This year’s budget, for example, provided about $30 billion above what Biden requested last year.
America’s defense budget dwarfs that of any other nation and accounts for roughly 35% to 40% of all defense spending worldwide. In 2020, the U.S. spent more on defense than the next 11 highest-spending countries combined.
Why there’s debate
Defense spending proposals can be something of a no-win situation for presidents. Whatever number they put forward, it will be criticized as both wildly inflated and woefully insufficient. Biden’s budget inspired that familiar dynamic this week, but the war in Ukraine has added a new wrinkle into this well-worn debate.
Many Republicans in Washington made the case that Biden’s request is far too small to meet the challenges currently facing the U.S. around the world. They argue that competitiveness with Russia and China requires an even greater investment to ensure the U.S. has a modern military capable of winning a major war. Biden’s critics also say that his numbers are a lot less significant once last year’s inflation is taken into account.
Those calling for less military spending say the war in Ukraine is no reason to continue pumping more money into what they see as a bloated defense budget. They argue that huge portions of that money get wasted on technology that never reaches the battlefield, are diverted to private contractors or are used to fund misguided interventions abroad like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Nobody doubts, nobody, that there are tens of billions of dollars in waste and fraud and cost overruns,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said on Wednesday.
Many progressive Democrats also say it’s dishonest for Congress to keep increasing military spending year after year while at the same time claiming that critical programs like COVID funding, the Child Tax Credit and climate initiatives are too expensive.
Congress has made a habit in recent years of running right up to, sometimes past, the deadline to reach a budget deal. The most recent spending bill funds the government through September, so it will likely be several months before it becomes clear how closely next year’s military budget reflects Biden’s proposal.
The U.S. spends more on its military because it does more than any other nation
“In post-Cold War America, it’s simply a myth that the Pentagon has had a bottomless pit of funding from which it can buy new weapon systems and capabilities. The United States, unlike our adversaries or individual allies, has global commitments and interests in two hemispheres, in four oceans, and on six continents.” — Editorial, National Review
The war in Ukraine shows how critical a dominant military is
“The West’s response to Ukraine is a reminder that economic and financial sanctions can be powerful, and the same is true of soft power and moral umbrage. Yet what is happening on the ground this week is also a reminder that there is no substitute for hard power—for having the men and materiel to deter and, if it comes to that, defeat a foreign adversary.” — Rich Lowry, Politico
Our current military isn’t strong enough to win wars against China, Russia, or both
“The military scarcity we now face is most acute and consequential in our ability to fight major wars with China and Russia in anything like concurrent timeframes. As a practical matter, we lack enough of the key capabilities—such as penetrating bombers, attack submarines, advanced munitions, and the right reconnaissance platforms—to defeat them both at the same time.” — Elbridge A. Colby, Time
Operating a military is more expensive than it has ever been
“Inflation makes the military poorer overnight. Price increases are affecting military commodities like steel for weapons and building materials for base upgrades, fuel and electricity, and general maintenance and parts for equipment. … Similarly, military construction has seen a triple whammy of price hikes due to lingering national supply chain challenges, labor shortages affecting many industries, contracting uncertainties, and now inflation.” — Mackenzie Eaglen, Dispatch
Biden’s reluctance to emphasize military power makes U.S. less safe
“What the Biden administration has done with its policies, strategy, and budget is demonstrate that it doesn’t understand how to integrate all the elements of national power; it is so reluctant to use military force that both allies and adversaries will wonder whether there is anything the U.S. will actually fight for.” — Kori Schake, Atlantic
The argument that Ukraine means we must spend more makes no sense
“Ask yourself: What precisely is the question the Ukraine war raises for which the answer is, ‘We have to spend more money’? What would we like to do that we don’t currently have the budget for? … Most of the time these days, there are no specific ‘gaps’ mentioned when we debate the military budget. The arguments we get are a series of grunts referring vaguely to threats to our dominance. China bad! Must be strong!” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post
The defense budget can’t get a rubber stamp when so many other programs go unfunded
“With Ukraine in turmoil thanks to a Russian war of aggression and the world’s stability threatened by an ascendant China, it makes sense that Biden would need a well-funded military. What makes less sense, though, is such robust military spending coupled with claims that the country can’t afford robust and necessary social welfare programs — a claim we often hear from Republicans and conservative Democrats alike.” — Jill Filipovic, CNN
A larger defense budget just means more profits for unaccountable military contractors
“The only winners are for-profit military contractors. It’s tempting to think — as many in Congress and the military brass would have us believe — that the more money we give to the Pentagon, the safer the world will be. But it was never that simple. Colossal military spending didn’t prevent the Russian invasion, and more money won’t stop it.” — Lindsay Koshgarian, Newsweek
No one wins, and plenty suffer, when nations compete to be the biggest military spender
“How this self-defeating feedback loop plays out is like this: If my adversary increases its military expenditure, then I must also increase mine or accept a security cost, which forces my adversary to increase its expenditure even more. In the end, costs increase for all parties without any of them gaining the slightest competitive advantage; at the same time, humanity as a whole suffers from underinvestment in the areas that are truly essential to its survival.” — Carlo Rovelli and Matteo Smerlak, Scientific American
It’s a myth that more defense spending automatically makes the U.S. safer
“Providing military defense is a valid function of the federal government. However, that doesn’t give license to Congress to simply pile on more spending, even when there are dangers out there. Nor does it mean that more spending will result in a completely safe world for us Americans. That’s in part because that world doesn’t exist. There’s only so much safety money can buy.” — Veronique de Rugy, Orange County Register