President Joe Biden’s 2023 budget proposal calls for $813 billion in total national security spending, a significant rise from current year levels. The total, which includes $773 billion for the Department of Defense, plus smaller amounts for the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons activities and the FBI’s national security functions, is $31 billion more than the Biden administration had set aside for the 2023 fiscal year in its previous budget.
The president’s budget proposal would hike defense spending at the rate of inflation plus 1.5%, but U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants an even bigger increase in defense spending. Republicans are calling for an increase that would raise last year’s defense spending number by the rate of inflation plus at least 5%. Much of the impetus for increased spending demands is the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, but events in Eastern Europe suggest that the U.S. may have less to worry about than previously thought when it comes to Russia specifically.
This is true for at least three reasons. First, the Russian army’s poor performance in Ukraine shows that it is not nearly as formidable as we may have feared. Instead, the Russian army appears to suffer from low morale and an inability to handle complex logistics. Corruption and a top-down command structure are hampering its ability to respond to changing battle conditions.
Second, it now appears that a portion of Russia’s military could be tied down in Ukraine for an extended period, further reducing its ability to project power against North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. Even if a peace agreement can be achieved, it appears that Russia may need to commit troops to Donbas or just over the border from Donbas for several years.
Finally, Russia’s action has encouraged NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe to increase their own military preparedness. For example, Germany increased its defense budget to €100 million and committed to spending at least 2% of its gross domestic product (GDP) going forward. Poland plans to spend 3% of its GDP on defense going forward and will double its army to 300,000 soldiers within five years. Taken together, European NATO allies have more people and far more economic output than Russia and its ally, Belarus. By devoting more of these resources to defense, they’d be more likely to be able to counter a conventional threat from Russia, with or without help from the United States.
Some advocates of increased defense spending also cite potential threats from China, but there is really nothing new on that front to justify additional spending by American taxpayers in the Biden budget. In fact, China’s real estate collapse and renewed COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns in the country will limit Chinese economic growth and thus its ability to augment its own defense spending this year. In the long term, China may conceivably become a military threat to US allies, such as Japan and South Korea, but these countries should have the economic resources necessary to pay for their own defenses.
While it is true that the defense budget has declined as a share of GDP, and as a share of federal spending since the end of the Cold War, this yardstick is not necessarily relevant. As with all government programs, we should endeavor to limit military spending to only what is needed. From ineffective weapons and defense systems that cost taxpayers billions to paying contractors exorbitant prices for basic equipment, the military budget includes many questionable items. One prime example: Does the nation really need to continue to pay between $110 million and $136 million for each F-35 fighter jet, especially in light of its design flaws and high operational costs, reportedly over $7 million a year per jet?
Also, defense spending trends should be considered in light of the country’s current political and fiscal realities. While it is well known that entitlement programs, especially Social Security and Medicare, account for most federal spending, they also enjoy very strong popular support and are difficult to cut. Instead, as the current rate of inflation drives increased cost-of-living adjustments for retirees and higher medical prices, these programs can be expected to become even more costly to taxpayers in the coming years.
The best opportunity for spending restraint in the near term would be to limit the growth of discretionary spending. Unfortunately, the current political dynamic in Congress makes this difficult. Both major political parties have driven up debts and deficits. Democrats call for higher domestic spending, which Republicans often oppose when they are not in control of the White House. But Republicans consistently call for more defense spending. Some Democrats call for cuts in defense spending to offset the other spending increases they want. And, in the end, there is typically a bipartisan compromise to increase spending in defense and non-defense categories. This dynamic will likely play out again in the current budget cycle, with Republicans already calling for more defense spending and both parties ultimately agreeing on more spending increases that set an even higher baseline for future budgets.
Thus, it’s important to look at how the ever-increasing defense spending contributes to the nation’s $30 trillion debt. In addition to large parts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan being financed by adding trillions in debt rather than paid for through annual budgets, the unnecessary annual increases in defense spending are set to continue to help drive up federal deficits through the 10-year budget window and beyond.
The nation’s fiscal trajectory is on such a dangerous track that Congress needs to get serious about slashing deficits and economies must be found across the budget. The massive defense budget is one prime place to start cutting federal spending and acting responsibly. Otherwise, the United States may eventually face the risk of a severe fiscal crisis in which the federal government may have to suddenly curtail federal spending or destroy the value of the dollar through runaway monetary inflation. This would leave Americans vulnerable to threats that few of us can now imagine.