The Defense Dilemma

As I write this, our second blizzard this week has sidelined even the snowplows. I was supposed to be giving a speech in sunny Florida but moved to Plan B. Instead we are listening to endless silly jokes from our kids, and I am reading a good drama: the Quadrennial Defense Review and the federal budget.

The Q.D.R. is mandated by Congress to set the military’s strategic direction for the next four years. Its simple prose masks the battle of competing interests that goes into it and its implementation. This Q.D.R. could be renamed “Plan B.” A funny thing happened on the way to U.S. military domination: After the cold war and the first Persian Gulf war, other countries did not want to fight the U.S. military conventionally anymore.


U.S. forces fight insurgents and terrorists while rebuilding states and providing humanitarian and disaster relief, but these missions are largely not the traditional tasks the troops were trained or equipped for—namely, conventional war against peer militaries. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates notes, “We have learned through painful experience that the wars we fight are rarely the wars we plan.”

This promising Q.D.R. tries to change that, moving military strategy toward current threats and nontraditional operations. It stresses conflict prevention, including bolstering the capacity of others; working with allies and international institutions; working with civilians; carrying out what are called Stabilization, Security, Transition and Reconstruction operations; and securing materials for weapons of mass destruction through an expansion of the successful Cooperative Threat Reduction program. For the first time, the Q.D.R. officially recognizes climate change as a security threat because of the instabilities it can cause. The plan also focuses on the care of military personnel and their families.

The problem is the mismatch between this strategic document and the budget. The dirty secrets of increased U.S. military spending since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are that military spending is much higher than most Americans are aware and that most of that money does not go toward fighting terrorism or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but is wasted on unnecessary pork-barrel spending.

U.S. defense spending is now over a trillion dollars, almost a third of the budget, more than military spending in the rest of the world combined and more than our adversaries spend by many orders of magnitude. Yet that spending is not focused on the threats we currently face, but goes to expensive legacy military platforms and weapons programs (especially by the Air Force and Navy, despite the fact that neither Al Qaeda nor the Taliban has an air force or a navy). Those purchases are made on a “credit card,” with money borrowed from other countries.

Lives are on the line in these spending decisions. As Secretary Gates notes, every dollar spent on the futuristic “quixotic pursuit of high-tech equipment” is not available for today’s needs: body armor, armored tanks, care of our wounded veterans and a host of domestic needs. Who opposes this shift to Plan B to “prevail in today’s wars?” The “iron triangles” do: defense contracters, Congressional representatives and military services that profit from military spending on equipment we do not need for conflicts that do not exist.

Faux fiscal conservatives moralize against government deficit spending to get the economy moving again while hypocritically using the Pentagon budget as an inefficient government jobs program. This program does not create products, services or skills that benefit the civilian population and economy at large. And they deceive the American public into believing that this spending is somehow necessary in the fight against terrorists.

Members of Congress want defense dollars for their districts; defense companies want taxpayer money; the military services want expensive military platforms not used in warfare. As long as we shift the burden of this spending to future generations, the United States is not forced to make hard choices and give up our illusion that spending money we do not have on military hardware we don’t use somehow makes the U.S. homeland safer. As Pope Benedict XVI, among others, has noted, economic decisions are moral decisions.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Leonard Villa
8 years 10 months ago

I don't doubt you can criticize defense spending and you can find waste, pork etc.  But you never hear calls to review the money spent on entitlements and social programs as if these are models of frugality and fiscal responsibility without pork or ear-marks.  You can just do a study on the amount of waste and fraud with medicare.  It is however clear that the national government is responsible for the defense of the Nation and we have faced continuing enemies: Nazism, Communism, now organized terrorism along with threats from Russia, China, Iran, Korea and similar hostile States.  It is not clear or the case that the Federal government is the answer to every social problem.  The Catholic principle of subsidiarity militates against this.  How about an analysis by  Maryann Love on the spending of the Health and Human Services Department for example?

lLetha Chamberlain
8 years 10 months ago

I'm sorry about the above comment... I'm sorry to see these "fighting" words from a supposedly Catholic (I can only assume-but he did not identify himself).  As someone who is dependent on these "pork programs"-being unemployable after working for forty years (hit by an uninsured driver to the tune of one million dollars in medical care and losses)... he obviously is not in touch with "normal life" that President FDR tried to help because of the lack of help from citizens and family for the elderly and impaired.  If this one (above) thinks, however, we (the aforementioned people being helped by "pork barrel" programs) are not worth anything-he does not believe in the Catholic faith, or the ability of these people to transform the world, as Jesus did.  Thank God, for this money-from it, we try (against the cultural biases and the medical system "take-over" of our lives) to do what Jesus did: give our sufferings for the good of the world and ourselves.  In the end-that is all anyone has, even the above commenter.

War, war, war!  Terrorism, smercherism... there is no terror, except the inner battle of each and every person dealing with their own alienations from this great God, Who loves us so much.

C Walter Mattingly
8 years 10 months ago

It is perplexing to see Franklin Roosevelt, who dragged this country into war, even provoking Geman uboat attacks (similar to what President Johnson did in the Tonkin incident), singled out as one to oppose fighting of any kind. And the article is correct to credit Defense Secretary Gates and his courageous stand against corporate and union forcesand the Dodds, Shelbys, and Murthas seeking to continue to lard their pork barrels, the outcome of which is by no means certain in the long run. But the true great cost of our defense is the compensation and especially the pensions, education benefits, and health insurance of veterans. A person who enters the service at 18 will receive retirement pay at 38 for what could be 3/4 of his adult life. Add to that the education and health care benefits, etc, and to really slow down our defense spending, it is obvious the personnel legacy costs will have to be addressed. This is not to say any of this is undeserving, only to suggest where the greatest cost issues reside.

8 years 10 months ago
Maryann Cusimano Love justifiably points out the incredible waste in Defense programs. And, to her credit she allots that blame not just to the Military and their contractors but also to the Legislators. I would be interested to know what her solution is to the issue.

Bureaucracies are inherently wasteful and inefficient. The Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Serivces are bureaucracies. Waste of tax payer dollars should be investigated wherever it exists. Talking about it is easy; doing something about it is an entirely different story. In my (perhaps unenlightened) opinion, the root of the problem with defense spending rests with the congress, not with the military.

Let me try to illustrate how difficult this problem is. Take as an example, the F-35 program. It is unnecessary and should be replaced with considerably less expensive UAVs. But, the problem is that the productions of the aircraft is spread over 44 states. Which congressman or Senator is going to blink?


The latest from america

I have found that praying 15 minutes every day is an important form of self-care.
Michael R. Lovell January 16, 2019
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Washington's retired archbishop, apologized Jan. 15 for what he called a "lapse of memory," clarifying that he knew of at least one abuse allegation against former U.S. Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, but he had "forgotten" about it.
Pope Francis meets with the leadership of the Chilean bishops' conference at the Vatican on Jan. 14 to talk about the sex abuse crisis affecting the church in Chile. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
The pope wants the February summit “to be an assembly of pastors, not an academic conference—a meeting characterized by prayer and discernment, a catechetical and working gathering.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 16, 2019
This week on “Inside the Vatican,” we explore the topic of women deacons.
Colleen DulleJanuary 16, 2019