Vol. 56, No. 6

In this edition

by LOU ZICKAR After the worst year for military recruiting since the start of the all-volunteer force in 1973, the latest edition of The Ripon Forum focuses on U.S. military readiness at a time of rising tensions around the globe. 

The Ultimate Weapon is in Short Supply

The Army only made 75 percent of its recruiting quota in fiscal year 2022, and other services have also been strapped to meet their targets. Why the shortfall, and what can be done to reverse it?

Saving Ukraine: The Evolution of Aid and What the Future May Hold

Without the rapid delivery of weapons and munitions from the United States, NATO, and others, Ukraine would have been overwhelmed in two or three weeks. What comes next?

The National Defense Stockpile is Small but Important — and Should Be Bigger

Today, the stockpile is but a fraction of its former self; its cache of materials is valued at less than $1 billion. Corrected for inflation, that’s less than 1/40th of its value in 1952.

Reagan’s Vision and the State of U.S. Missile Defense Today

The missile threat environment is far more perilous than at any other time in history. China, Russia, North Korea, and potentially Iran are deliberately developing strategies to threaten the U.S. homeland.

Ensuring Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century

At a time when Vladimir Putin is making irresponsible threats to use nuclear weapons in its conflict with Ukraine, the U.S. nuclear arsenal is currently supported by last century’s equipment.

Back to the Future for Defense

Republicans ought to take a page from the Reagan playbook and insist that we can defeat inflation and control federal spending without weakening our military.

After Failing Five Straight Audits, the Pentagon Should Not Get a Funding Boost

You don’t need to be a budget hawk to recognize it is past time to end budget increases for the Department of Defense and impose some fiscal discipline on the agency.

The Space Force Turns Three

With the U.S. Space Force marking its third anniversary, now is a good time to examine not only some of its key accomplishments, but some of the key challenges it faces in the years ahead.

Viewing Border Security as an Ecosystem

If the number of individuals arrested along our southern border were to form their own city, it would be the fifth largest city in the United States.

Ripon Profile of Julia Letlow

The Representative of Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District discusses her background in education and which federal agency she believes is in most need of reform.

After Failing Five Straight Audits, the Pentagon Should Not Get a Funding Boost

The United States spends, by far, more on its military than other nations. U.S. military spending is more than the next nine countries combined; it is 12 times the amount Russia spends. 

Yet demands persist from the military-industrial complex to spend ever more. For fiscal year 2023, the Biden Administration has requested a $31 billion increase in Pentagon spending, to $813 billion. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees in July authorized an additional $37 billion and $45 billion. The final total will likely be resolved in December; if anything, it may jump even further toward the $900 billion mark, with the trillion-dollar threshold in view for fiscal year 2024. 

The fact that the United States spends so much more than all other countries on the military should, at bare minimum, be an enormous warning sign suggesting that further increases are not needed.  But if that spending discrepancy is a warning sign, the pervasive and systemic waste at the Pentagon should be a five-alarm notice to stop spending more – and begin looking at cuts. 

The Pentagon announced in November that it failed its fifth consecutive audit, its latest since the agency was first required to start auditing itself in 2018. Although agency officials have repeatedly promised improvements, this year’s audit made little progress from last year’s. 

Back in 2015, the Pentagon completed – and then buried — a report identifying a “clear path” to $125 billion in savings on administrative waste over five years. 

Pentagon spending is replete with waste and fraud both small (a spare parts maker with a 3,800 percent profit level) and large (the defective and dysfunctional F-35 program that will cost more than $1.7 trillion over its projected 50-year lifespan, according to the Project on Government Oversight). The Pentagon, in fact, is seeking an extra boost in the current budget for even more on the F-35, as well as other purported needs, according to a Pentagon wish list sent to Congress and obtained by Bloomberg.  

The Pentagon itself knows that waste and fraud is rampant – but it fails to exert basic controls. Back in 2015, the Pentagon completed – and then buried – a report identifying a “clear path” to $125 billion in savings on administrative waste over five years. 

Why in the world should we keep throwing money at an agency with a record like this? Would Republicans or Democrats or anyone with common sense tolerate this kind of waste at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Department of Labor? Actually, it’s a trick question. That level of waste – the $25 billion annually identified by the Pentagon itself, all the way back in 2015 and not even tallying the waste on failed systems like the F-35 – is more than the ENTIRE budget of the EPA or Department of Labor. 

Why do we in fact spend so much on the military, given the widespread waste and the fact that U.S. vastly outspends all other rivals and allies? The short answer is: the corrosive power of the military-industrial complex. About half the Pentagon budget is spent on military contractors. Those contractors prop up think tanks that concoct rationalizations for why we must always spend more. The leading contractors and the Pentagon itself strategically deploy their production and subcontracting so that almost every congressional district has some number of jobs attributable to the Pentagon.  

And, of course, the military contractors lather spending on members of Congress, focusing on the military spending committees. A July Public Citizen study found that contractors contributed $10 million in the 2022 election cycle – with final numbers for the cycle certain to be far higher – to the members of the armed services committees. Members who supported increasing the military budget over and above the increase requested by the Biden Administration received three times the amount of contributions as those who opposed the extra increase. 

Why in the world should we keep throwing money at an agency with a record like this? 

But while it is conventional wisdom inside the Beltway that more military spending is the politically smart play, the American people don’t agree. Polling from Data for Progress and Public Citizen in May 2022 indicates that spending more on the military than requested by President Biden would be out of step with public sentiment. A strong majority of voters oppose an increase in military spending above Biden’s request. Sixty-three percent of those polled say the military’s budget should remain at the level that Biden and the Department of Defense requested. For good reason, opposition to raising Pentagon spending still further is bipartisan. When informed about how much the military is poised to receive as compared to other agencies, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all strongly agree the military budget should not be raised further (among Republicans: 51 percent vs. 37 percent who think too little is spent). 

Yet no matter the waste, amount spent compared to other countries, or public attitudes, those arguing for more Pentagon spending always have a single demand — more.  Now the military-industrial complex is claiming still more increases in Pentagon outlays are necessitated by inflation. This argument ignores the fact that the Biden request already accounted for inflation and the fact that the Pentagon does not experience inflation in the same way as the general economy, in part because many of its costs are set by long-term contracts. Others say the Ukraine war necessitates more spending. But the U.S. already spends far more than Russia, and Ukraine-specific expenses are being funded by supplemental spending bills and should not be incorporated into the Pentagon’s base budget.   

U.S. military spending is now greater than the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam Wars or the Reagan build-up in the early 1980s. You don’t need to be a budget hawk – just someone who believes in the prudential management of taxpayer dollars – to recognize it is past time to end Pentagon budget increases and impose some fiscal discipline on the agency. 

Robert Weissman is the president of Public Citizen.