Biden is thinking big on jobs. On the Pentagon, he should think smaller.

NPP Pressroom

Lindsay Koshgarian

The last weeks have brought a flurry of major proposals from President Joe Biden, from his $2 trillion jobs plan still hot off the presses to a plan to finally withdraw troops from Afghanistan—and an strangely incongruent request for a bigger military budget. 

With domestic needs running high and America’s longest war at long last scheduled to end, it’s puzzling that the president would also call for an increase in the military budget—from $740 billion this year to $753 billion next year. At more than twice the roughly $280 billion annual cost of the infrastructure plan, the last thing the Pentagon budget needs is a lift—especially with the savings that should result from a full troop withdrawal from an endless and costly war.

Missing clarity and boldness

To its credit, the administration’s new jobs plan and the budget request for domestic spending are built around clear intentions to address our thorniest problems—climate change, economic inequality, racism—but the same clarity and boldness are missing when it comes to the far larger military budget. With this latest increase, we could end up spending several times as much to make all those problems worse.

Through the Trump years, the annual military budget expanded by more than $60 billion after adjusting for inflation. Rather than returning to a saner budget, or even the still-high levels we saw during the Obama administration, the new request keeps the Pentagon on the same path of never-ending increases.

We’re spending more on the military now (in inflation-adjusted terms) than we were at the height of the Korean War, Vietnam War, or Cold War. The lion’s share of that money doesn’t go to the troops or their families. Instead, it goes to private contractors—and fuels a more-is-better attitude toward military intervention.

In 2020, private military contractors took in $422 billion from the Department of Defense. In a typical year, military contracts amount to more than half of the military budget, and account for everything from major weapons systems and private security contractors to catering and telecommunications. In one case last year, the Pentagon nearly spent $1 billion budgeted for COVID-19 protective equipment on jet parts and body armor instead.

Expensive boondoggle

Feeding frenzies for Pentagon contractors tend to be a bipartisan affair, especially when it comes to juggernauts such as the F-35 jet fighter. Lockheed Martin LMT, 0.93% has all but guaranteed the continuation of the disaster-plagued F-35 by placing F-35 contracts in 46 states—which gives members of Congress a vested interest in spending that money in their districts. 

Costing over $1.7 trillion—almost as much as Biden’s entire infrastructure package—this plane is the most expensive weapons program in history. After decades in development, it still doesn’t work. But Congress has repeatedlytacked extra F-35s onto the Pentagon’s orders. Similar political dynamics protect a vast array of bases, service contracts, and weapons systems—regardless of their value for national security.

The insistence on feeding the military-industrial complex is tragic because it revs up demand for weapons, which find their way into conflict zones all around the world. And it’s foolhardy. Studies have shown that the same amount of money invested in clean energy, education, or infrastructure—key areas for the new jobs plan—would create more jobs, dollar for dollar.

The underlying national-security vision underlying all this seems stuck in a 20th century vision of imperialism, characterized by the 800 U.S. military installations around the world. The dangerously mistaken faith that massive military investments can solve any problem is what ensnared the U.S. in two endless and costly Middle East wars that have arguably made the world more dangerous. Those wars and bases have also given the Pentagon a larger carbon footprint than many industrialized countries.

Search for new villain

Even as those wars drag on, the U.S. security state is now in search of a new villain, and the emerging consensus in Washington is that China should fill the role. Of course, acting on this panic would result in even bigger Pentagon splurges. 

Fortunately, more outside experts are criticizing this approach as dangerously shortsighted, threatening our ability to work with China on public health and climate change, while stoking anti-Asian racism and violence here at home. We would be better off with a cooperative relationship with China, even while acknowledging and creating accountability for their human-rights abuses (and ours). 

Biden’s relatively moderate infrastructure plan would do more for our security by restoring clean water, mitigating climate change, and investing in communities than the vast majority of the military’s budget, at less than half the annual cost. Increasing the budget for the polluting, destabilizing, and profligate Pentagon undermines our ability to create true security by creating jobs, rebuilding infrastructure, ending racism and stopping climate change.

Biden has correctly read the moment by declaring a bold vision for domestic policy. He needs to do the same for the Pentagon.

Lindsay Koshgarian directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.