ESSAY: What Austerity? America’s $1 Trillion $ecurity $tate. (Updated)


Hawkish lawmakers and analysts contend there’s no answer to the question of how much money is enough for American national security because no one looks at it that way. Well, one Washington contrarian has done some math that conjures up another question that might be more important: Is $1 trillion a year enough?

Austere. Crimped. Constrained. Limited. Dangerous. All are words prominent members of the defense-industrial-congressional complex regularly use to describe America’s national defense and security budgets in the age of spending caps and automatic across-the-board cuts.

Winslow Wheeler once bragged to me that he enjoys causing trouble. But causing trouble can also mean forcing  people think a little. And that has value.

This sector, perhaps more than many in Washington, can benefit from thinking beyond its bureaucratic-checklist-of-the-day. Wheeler’s latest work should do just that.

The Center for Defense Information director conducted a deep dive into budget documents released this week by the White House to answer a question some in the Defense Establishment don’t want answered: Just how much is Washington spending on security?

Wheeler found, if the Obama administration’s various budget requests for all national security agencies and functions are fully approved by Congress, the security establishment’s collective budget “will exceed $1 Trillion,” he wrote in a Thursday email.

“Scarcity of money is not their problem,” Wheeler wrote of Defense Department officials. “Pentagon costs, taken together with other known national security expenses for 2015, will exceed $1 Trillion. How can that be? The trade press is full of statements about the Pentagon’s $495.6 billion budget and how low that is. 

“There is much more than $495.6 billion in the budget for the Pentagon, and there are piles of national security spending outside the Pentagon-all of it as elemental for national security as any new aircraft and ships and the morale and well-being of our troops,” he wrote.

Wheeler sent out a chart that shows, in his words, “the various ways the Pentagon augments its own budget well above the $495.6 billion that is frequently cited by the people seeking more money.”

To Wheeler, and others who dare question the Defense Establishment, as he puts it, “the problem is not scarcity of money.” Rather, “the problem is how it is being spent,” Wheeler said.

“We are getting very little defense — training, maintenance, hardware, and troops — for a gigantic amount of money,” Wheeler wrote. “By virtue of how they characterize $1 trillion dollars as penury, our national security leaders in the Pentagon and Congress are clearly incapable of dealing with the problem.”

There will be many who quibble with — or simply ignore — the wider boundaries Wheeler has drawn around the cost of national defense. But when it comes to how taxpayers’ money is spent, and what they are receiving on their investment, it’s important to listen to all sides.

(Editor’s Note: This entry was updated at 9:54 a.m. on Monday, March 24.)

(Image: Flickr)

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett