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Reining In the Pentagon

The Pentagon
The Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. (Touch Of Light/CC BY-SA 4.0)

By Mandy Smithberger and William Hartung / TomDispatch

Even as Congress moves to increase the Pentagon budget well beyond the astronomical levels proposed by the Biden administration, a new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has outlined three different ways to cut $1 trillion in Department of Defense spending over the next decade.  A rational defense policy could yield far more in the way of reductions, but resistance from the Pentagon, weapons contractors, and their many allies in Congress would be fierce.

After all, in its consideration of the bill that authorizes such budget levels for next year, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives recently voted to add $25 billion to the already staggering $750 billion the Biden administration requested for the Pentagon and related work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy. By any measure, that’s an astonishing figure, given that the request itself was already far higher than spending at the peaks of the Korean and Vietnam Wars or President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup of the 1980s. 

In any reasonable world, such a military budget should be considered both unaffordable and deeply unsuitable when it comes to addressing the true threats to this country’s “defense,” including cyberattacks, pandemics, and the devastation already being wrought by climate change. Worst of all, providing a blank check to the military-industrial-congressional complex ensures the continued production of troubled weapon systems like Lockheed Martin’s exorbitantly expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is typically behind schedule, far above projected costs, and still not considered effective in combat.

Changing course would mean real reform and genuine accountability, starting with serious cuts to a budget for which “bloated” is far too kind an adjective.

Three Options for Reductions

At the request of Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the CBO devised three different approaches to cutting approximately $1 trillion (a decrease of a mere 14%) from the Pentagon budget over the next decade.  Historically, it could hardly be a more modest proposal. After all, without any such plan, the Pentagon budget actually did decrease by 30% between 1988 and 1997.

Such a CBO-style reduction would still leave the department with about $6.3 trillion to spend over that 10-year period, 80% more than the cost of President Biden’s original $3.5 trillion Build Back Better proposal for domestic investments. Of course, that figure, unlike the Pentagon budget, has already been dramatically whittled down to half its original size, thanks to laughable claims by “moderate” Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) that it would break the bank in Washington.  Yet such critics of expanded social and economic programs rarely offer similar thoughts when it comes to the Pentagon’s far larger bite of the budgetary pie.

The options in the budget watchdog’s new report are anything but radical: 

Option one would preserve the “current post-Cold War strategy of deterring aggression through [the] threat of immediate U.S. military response with the objectives of denying an adversary’s gains and recapturing lost territory.” The proposed cuts would hit each military service equally, with some new weapons programs slowed down and a few, as in the case of the B-21 bomber, cancelled. 

Option two “adopts a Cold War-like strategy for large nuclear powers of making aggression very costly and recognizing that the size of conventional conflict would be limited by the threat of a nuclear response.” That leaves nearly $2 trillion for the Pentagon’s planned “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal untouched, while relying more heavily on working with allies in conventional war situations than current strategy allows for.  It would mean that the military might take longer to deploy in large numbers to a conflict.

Option three “de-emphasizes use of U.S. military force in regional conflicts in favor of preserving U.S. control of the global commons (sea, air, space, and the Arctic), ensuring open access to the commons for allies and unimpeded global commerce.” In other words, Afghan- or Iraq-style boots-on-the-ground U.S. interventions would largely be avoided in favor of the use of long-range and “over-the-horizon” weapons like drones, naval blockades, the enforcement of no-fly zones, and the further arming and training of allies.

But looking more broadly at the question of what will make the world a safer place in an era of pandemics, climate change, racial injustice, and economic inequality, reductions well beyond the $1 trillion figure embedded in the CBO’s recommendations would be both necessary and possible in a more reasonable American world.  The CBO’s scenarios remain focused on military methods for solving security problems, assuring an all-too-narrow view of what might be saved by a new approach to security.

Nuclear Excess

The CBO, for instance, chose not to look at possible savings from simply scaling back (not even ending) the Pentagon’s $2-trillion, three-decades-long plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and submarines, complete with accompanying new warheads. Scaling back such a buildup, which will only further imperil this planet, could easily save in excess of $100 billion over the next decade.

One significant step toward nuclear sanity would be to adopt the alternative nuclear posture proposed by the organization Global Zero. That would involve the elimination of all land-based nuclear missiles and rely instead on a smaller force of ballistic missile submarines and bombers as part of a “deterrence-only” strategy.

Land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles were accurately described by former Secretary of Defense William Perry as “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world.” The reason: a president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them upon being warned of an oncoming nuclear attack by an enemy power. That would, of course, greatly increase the risk of an accidental nuclear war and the potential destruction of the planet prompted by a false alarm (of which there have been several in the past).  Eliminating such missiles would make the world a far safer place, while saving tens of billions of dollars in the process.

Capping Contractors

While most people think about the Pentagon budget in terms of what it spends on new guns, ships, planes, and missiles, services are about half of what it buys every year. These are the contracts that go to various corporate “Beltway bandits” to consult with the military or perform jobs that could often be done more cheaply by federal employees. Both the Defense Business Board and the Pentagon’s own cost estimating office have identified service contracting as an area where there are significant opportunities for large-scale savings.

Last year, the Pentagon spent nearly $204 billion on various service contracts. That’s more than the budgets for the Departments of Health and Human ServicesState, or Homeland Security. Reducing spending on contractors by even 15% would instantly save tens of billions of dollars annually.

In the past, Congress and the Pentagon have shown that just such savings could easily be realized. For example, a provision in a 2011 defense law simply capped such spending at 2010 levels. Government spending data shows that, in the end, it was reduced by $42 billion over four years.

Closing Unneeded Bases

While the Biden administration seeks to expand domestic infrastructure spending, the Pentagon has been desperate to shed costly and unnecessary military facilities. Both the Obama and Trump administrations asked Congress to authorize another round of what’s called base realignment and closure to help the Defense Department get rid of its excess capacity. The Pentagon estimates that it could save $2 billion annually that way.

The CBO report cited above explicitly excludes any consideration of such cost savings as politically unfeasible, given the present Congress. But considering the ways in which climate change is going to threaten current military basing arrangements domestically and globally, that would be an obvious way to go.

Another CBO report warns that the future effects of climate change — from rising sea levels (and flooding coastlines) to ever more powerful storms — will both reduce the government’s revenue and increase its mandatory spending, if its base situation remains as it is now. After all, ever fiercer tropical storms and hurricanes, as well as rising levels of flooding, are already resulting in billions of dollars in damage to military bases. Meanwhile, it’s estimated that, in the decades to come, more than 1,700 U.S. military installations worldwide may be impacted by sea-level rise. Future rounds of base closings, both domestic and global, should be planned now with the impact of climate change in mind.

Turning Around Congress, Fighting Off Lobbyists

So far, boosting Pentagon spending has been one of the only things a bipartisan majority of this Congress can agree on, as indicated by that House decision to add $25 billion to the Pentagon budget request for Fiscal Year 2022.  A similar measure is included in the Senate version, which it will debate soon. There are, however, glimmers of hope on the horizon as the number of members of Congress willing to oppose the longstanding practice of shoveling ever more funds at the Pentagon, no questions asked, is indeed growing.

For example, a majority of Democrats and members of the leadership in the House of Representatives supported an ultimately unsuccessful provision to strip some excess funds from the Pentagon this year. A smaller group voted to cut the department’s budget across the board by 10%. Still, it was a number that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. That core group is only likely to grow in the years to come as the costs of non-military challenges like pandemics, climate change, and the financial impact of racial and economic injustice supplant traditional military risks as the most urgent threats to American lives and livelihoods. 

Opposition to increased Pentagon spending is growing outside of Washington as well. An ever wider range of not just progressive but conservative organizations now support substantial reductions in the Pentagon budget. The challenge, however, is to translate such sentiments into a concerted, multifaceted campaign of public pressure that will move a majority of the members of Congress to stop giving the Pentagon a yearly blank check. A new poll from the Eurasia Group Foundation found that twice as many Americans now support cutting the Pentagon budget as support increasing it.

Any attempt to curb Pentagon spending will run up against a strikingly powerful arms industry that deploys campaign contributions, lobbyists, and promises of defense-related employment to keep budgets high. In this century alone, the Pentagon has spent more than $14 trillion, up to one half of which has gone to contractors. During those same years, the arms industry has spent $285 million on campaign contributions and $2.5 billion on lobbying, most of it focused on members of the armed services and defense appropriations committees that take the lead in deciding how much the country spends for military purposes. 

The arms industry’s lobbying efforts are especially insidious. In an average year, it employs around 700 lobbyists, more than one for every member of Congress. The top five corporate weapons makers got a return of $1,909 in taxpayer funds for every dollar they spent on lobbying.  Most of their lobbyists once worked in the Pentagon or Congress and arrived in the world of arms contractors via the infamous “revolving door.”  Of course, they then used their relationships with their former colleagues in government to curry favor for their corporate employers.  A 2018 investigation by the Project On Government Oversight found that, in the prior decade, 380 high-ranking Pentagon officials and military officers had become lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for weapons contractors within two years of leaving their government jobs.

A September 2021 study by the Government Accountability Office found that, as of 2019, the top 14 arms contractors employed more than 1,700 former military or Pentagon civilian employees, including many who had previously been involved in making or enforcing the rules for buying major weapons systems.

The revolving door spins both ways, with executives and board members of the major weapons makers moving into powerful senior positions in government where they’re well situated to help their former (and, more than likely, future) employers. The process starts at the top.  Four of the past five secretaries of defense have also been executives, lobbyists, or board members of Raytheon, Boeing, or General Dynamics, three of the top five weapons makers that split tens of billions of dollars in Pentagon contracts annually. Both the House and Senate versions of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act extend the periods of time in which those entering the government from such industries have to recuse themselves from decisions involving their former companies. Still, as long as the Pentagon continues to pluck officials from the very outfits driving those exploding budgets, we should all know more or less what to expect. 

So far, the system is working — if you happen to be an arms contractor. The top five weapons companies alone split $166 billion in Pentagon contracts in Fiscal Year 2020, well over one-third of those issued by the Department of Defense that year.  To give you some sense of the scale of all this — and our government’s twisted priorities — Lockheed Martin alone received $75 billion in Pentagon contracts in Fiscal Year 2020,  nearly one and one-half times the $52.5 billion allocated for the State Department and the Agency for International Development combined.

Which Way Forward?

The Congressional Budget Office’s new report charts a path toward a more rational approach to Pentagon spending, but the $1 trillion in savings it proposes should only be a starting point. Hundreds of billions more could be saved over the next decade by reassessing our national security strategy, cutting back the Pentagon’s nuclear buildup, capping its use of private contractors, and scaling back the colossal sums of waste, fraud, and abuse baked into its budget. All of this could be done while making this country and the world a significantly safer place by shifting such funds to addressing the non-military risks that threaten the future of humanity.

Whether our leaders meet the challenges of today or continue to succumb to the power of the arms lobby is an open question.

Copyright 2021 William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).


  1. “From your mouth to God’s ears” is my first thought. We definitely need to do this cutting and making more accountable. I hope that the shift in public awareness that the spending of our tax money is also a moral issue, and that we should be working to find diplomatic solutions to the problems we face, rather than obliterate the planet with nuclear weapons which already are more than enough to do it.

  2. How about opposing the deadly toxic jab Mandate Regime?
    You and Hedges and Paul Jay have so far failed to stand with
    RFK,JR and the ChildrensHealth Defense.
    You have each failed to confront the biggest threat to humans
    in our mutual life spans(my DOB APRIL 1947)
    Please wake up to how your failure to engage on the Clampdown
    Masquerade has helped big Pharma kill tens of thousands with
    the toxic jabs.
    Max Blumenthal gets it, Jimmy Dore gets it.
    When are you going to get with it?

  3. OK…. Say we take this seriously…. rather than as rube-bait… (designed to keep the stupid rubes hoping for the impossible)…

    Reign in the Pentagon…. Ohh… OK then… Sounds great…. That’s what, a $1.2 TRILLION lb. dragon? Okey doke…. Let’s get right on that… Will this be right after we’ve kilt’ that other dragon over there, the $3.5 TRILLION lb. Health Industry Racket dragon?… We maybe oughta plan t’ give ourselves a breather here and there, eh?…. How many minutes between rounds?…. That’s yer plan… We go around killing each dragon one at a time?…. Uhhhh…… Welllll….. Hmmm……

    When I read stuff like this… I look at the writer(s)… best I can…. I ALWAYS find a picture if I can… There is SO much information in a picture. One can ‘see’ people’s character on their faces…. We ALL involuntarily wear the masks that we’ve earned….

    Well…. I haven’t found pictures of these two writers, but I do have an image in my mind. Straight ahead…. but Diplomatic. ..(Catch more with honey that vinegar). But plain speaking. Honest enough… (Yea… A hidden agenda… but don’t we all?… Looks t’ me like these folks are as honest as po’folks oughta be in this nasty-ass world we still are forced to live in.

    They are NOT, (methinks), ‘operatives’ whose hidden agenda is to keep the rubes’ heads spinning with false hope placed in a hopelessly corrupt system.

    This is the Bacevich School… Like Caliban said…. watch the heck out fer them ‘schools’. Andy Bacevich is one HELL of a human being. And not just that, THERE walks a helluva Man.. (That’s spelled M-A-N, fer all you purty young ladies seem t’ have forgotten)… This man has known fire and ice…. This man’s heart has soared to the greatest joy, and also been tortured with the greatest possible pain…. There walks a man so goddam strong that he can carry a heart so heavy, yet still his eyes always seek to remember the joy, (that moment when he was born)…. [“Twas so good to be young then.. to be close to the Earth, and to stand by your wife, at the moment of birth..”]

    Yea… This Bacevich fella’s no ‘snitch’, else I never learned a thing… all these years.. eh?… Ah… but looky there… Look who signs his paychecks… Hmmm…

    I personally don’t think the ‘reform’ route is promising. In fact, not meaning to be insulting, just calling spades, I think it’s bozo-the-clown ridiculous….

    ‘Member ‘dat old boy Cato? (We’re talking The Elder…. His kid was even nuttier…) “Carthage deleda est!”… something like that… “Carthage must be destroyed”…. (This was not all that long after Hannibal (Quaddafi’s great great great (etc) grandpappy), moved to Italy and stayed for 17 years…)..

    That’s what they ended up doing…. Rendered it stone from stone, plowed salt into the very dirt, to make it a barren desert…. Yea… Read all about it… (EXTRA! EXTRA!)…

    We must ‘see’ from that perspective. like we were alien creatures studying this odd species of upright apes… Alien creatures with ‘magic history vision’…. Our History Vision needs to be our Marvel Superpower… Oh wait… It’s so easy anyone can do it… Well.. Anyways..

    Thomas Wolfe wrote about this… Kerouac picked it up from him… America was always destined to be Humanity’s Final Crucible. This once was Humanity’s foolish hope… A New Land…. Can you imagine?….. People over there never even seen a musket fire, let alone a cannon…. They never even imagined a boat that could cross the “big watah”, (that’s what my Dyi-dyi (grandfather in Ukrainian) always called it… he never spoke more than pid’gin English).. It’s like free wealth, just ‘a lyin’ there, all over the place, for the taking… Just pick it up…. Stuff yer pockets full….

    America was Humanity’s steam pressure relief tank… But then… with so much steam pressure being released…. well… it didn’t take long… the pressure in the pressure relief tank started rising…

    ‘See’? Ya think that ruckus over in Russia, what?.. October ’17?, didn’t shake them to their bones ‘Over There’? (Send the word send the word…,Over There… Now THERE was some masterful propaganda,… I can hear Goebbels’ evil chortling laugh from here)…

    But ‘over here’, back here in the good ole ‘land o’ the free, (that Goebbels, always such a rascal, eh?), ‘they’ have found their final shelter…. And wouldn’t ya just know… they use the cunning guise of ‘human freedom’ to do their nasty bloody unspeakably evil deeds… Unspeakable? Ya mean like intentionally starving millions of little babies and children so they can get richer? Yea…. Just EXACTLY like that….

    These people now got nowhere else to go. Kicked out of the Old World…. With working people in Europe now getting free health care, 30 days paid vacation, paid maternity, subsidized child care, etc, etc ….

    But they’re sure ‘dug in’ here.


    Kerouac talked about how Humanity’s flotsam and jetsam, (all foamy yucky slimy brown, layered all over brightly colored useless things), washed up on America’s shores, then kept washing westward, ’till that great wave broke itself on the California shores.

    That was The End…. No more frontier…. Humanity must turn and face itself… It will possibly be a battle that is fatal to not just all combatants, but to all Humanity….. But if we survive this battle, a very promising horizon will great us on every new day….

    Anyways…. Sorry to get into ‘all that’… An old man’s mind is always ‘a wandering, ya know….

    Bill Hartung… I did just look at his picture… Yea… I remember that guy… Mandy looks like a girl on a mission….

    Awright…. I’ll take this proposal seriously….. So… the surviving Koch brother, (old Kansas boys, like Caliban), and the shriveled old Jew that seems to think he’s Moses himself, (awww… that’s SO nice of him, to finance crazy fuckers like BLM, and pay for joyous street parties all over the nation, with all the nice bonfies… Never mind clean-up… we’ll leave that ton the poor suckers, mom and pop.

    So…. The oligarch energy baron, and the evil mega-maniacal old Jew, sign AndyBoy’s (Colonel/Professor Bacevich’s) paychecks, probably Hartung’s, too, And Mandy’s… Well… When ya sniff around, heck, don’t those old boys send OldBob a check now and again?

    Well…. Ya know old Caliban… always nosin’ around… walkin’ down every dark alley… (‘Member that time?… 3:17 AM it was, WAYY down deep, where even the cops are too scared t’ go…. There was Caliban… Loaning some friends some tools, in an alley, trouble ahead, trouble behind, at their ‘mercy’, which they, of course, respected. (Remember when old TommyBoy Jefferds, (wan’t he old Bill Jefferds boy?), went to see Cochise, alone, in his Stronghold?….. Caliban met lotta folks, jes’ like that…. I been down a couple alleys, boys and girls. (Thanks fer the tip, TommyJ…. Been usin’ it since I wuz a kid…)

    Okey doke then, enough ‘a all the bladder….
    Reign in the Pentagon…. I’m sure on board… I will swallow my laughter…. But you STILL gotta face my scientific skepticism….

    What’s yer plan?…

    “All of this could be done while making this country and the world a significantly safer place by shifting such funds to addressing the non-military risks that threaten the future of humanity.”

    THAT is yer plan?…. LOL… ‘Scuse my bad manners…

    Okey doke then…. Sigh…. These two major brainiacs are just a couple more dream-hucksters sellin’ a whole bunch ‘a ‘what’.

    Listen, boys and girls… ‘List well… We already got PLENTY ‘a ‘what’.

    Ain’t ANYBODY got any ‘how’? Idn’t THAT what we NEED? Lb. or two ‘a HOW?

    (Cue Caliban whistling like the Gypsy Rover, pretending he don’t know ‘how’).

  4. Thank you for some objective and sensible observations about the fact that a huge part of the Pentagon budget is simply stolen due to the inherent corruption of our political system. You close with the following question: “Whether our leaders meet the challenges of today or continues to succumb to the power of the arms lobby is an open question”. I wish I could agree that that is an open question. However, I do not see any possibility of any significant reduction in the existing system of fraud and theft unless the existing totally corrupt electoral/political system (a system of legalized bribery) is destroyed. This rot is not limited to military spending. It has also destroyed democracy itself and, with it, all confidence of the people in all branches of government. As you point out, most recently it was the Democratic Congress which authorized, yea demanded, the obscene increase in Pentagon spending. The duopoly is in full agreement on rubber stamping any and all demands made by the 1% in all its forms (military, medical, pharmaceutical, big ag, fossil fuel companies, Wall Street, etc.). Both parties are full time servant of the 1% (whom I just call the “thieves”. Theft of Pentagon money is indeed a high priority, but let us not forget the huge handouts (socialism) to big ag, the periodic blank checks to Wall Street following the economic crashes caused by its own fraud, etc. What do we hear in response from “our” government and the duopoly? As Greta Thunberg recently described the word salad plan of non-action proposed by the U.S. (and other so-called “world leaders” with regard to the impending climate catastrophe….”blah, blah, blah.”

    1. well spoken and written. The only thing that I might add is that a significant cut in military spending would certainly inhibit the imperialism and meddling in other countrys for Capitalistic purposes. It probably would not be good for Israel,not thats a bad thing

  5. we must cut military spending to the bone so the rest of our population can live fruifull lives.

  6. I am so sick of war and aggression. We as a species need a major paradigm shift toward compassion, caring, love and acceptance for all of humanity. I was born in 1958 and I never agreed with any war, was never asked my opinion on any such spending, and always had it foisted upon me regardless of my position. We do not live in a Democracy. President Eisenhower was right. The military industrial complex is the bastion of misplaced power and corruption and I cite 900 military bass around the world as evidence. The killing machine always grows bigger, and our rights and income grow smaller. What is wrong with this picture? The system is meant to result in this as opposed to supporting the people. False flag operations, fear etc,, have kept the war machine running on all cylinders.

  7. I would like to know how much they spend on contract mercenaries, how much Eric Prince rakes from that budget and why aren’t our regular army paid the same wages.

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