The Magnitude of U.S. Military Spending

The Air Force online magazine published an article in the October 2000 issue which did a backward projection of military spending, starting with President Carter. Spending was shown in FY 2001 dollars. Seven of President Ronald Reagan’s eight budgets totaled at least $390 billion and four exceeded $400 billion, with a high of $436.40 billion in FY 1985. None of the other three presidents in the Air Force survey — Carter, Bush I and Clinton —  had military budgets in the $400 billion or higher range; futhermore, none of President Bill Clinton’s charted budgets exceeded even $300 billion, based on FY 2001 dollars.

The decade of the 1990s saw some cutting back in military spending under George Herbert Walker Bush, and, especially, Bill Clinton. Due to the demise of the Soviet Union, the 1990s saw a number of long-term projections of military spending. Notable among these projections was that of the defense analyst Randall Forsberg. Forsberg published two military budget models in 1992, designed to be phased in over ten years. When fully phased in, one model totaled $79 billion and the other, $86 billion. Forsberg’s more costly model would have reduced FY 2003 military spending by about 75 percent. 

Forsberg’s fully phased-in $86 billion budget called for a fairly robust military, with 10 strategic submarines carrying 240 nuclear weapons; five active and three reserve Army divisions; eight tactical air wings, with three of them the U.S. Navy’s; and over 130 ships and submarines. 

The new century ushered in George W. Bush and a sizable uptick in the base Pentagon budget. The Congressional Budget Office calculated a 74 percent increase in the base Pentagon budget, or an average of 8.22 percent a year in President Bush’s two terms.

Finally, we come to President Barack Obama. Although Obama promised in the presidential campaign that he would include Iraq and Afghanistan in the base Pentagon budget, he has continued to finance them through supplementals, as did his immediate predecessor. President Obama’s first two fiscal year budgets more than halved the average annual increase found under George W. Bush.

As for the Pentagon’s future funding under President Obama, it appears that it will never need to hold a yard sale. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates could find only $78 billion in miscellaneous savings through 2015 and another $100 billion in reduced war costs and having military personnel pick up more of their medical costs. Obama’s ten-year projection of the base Pentagon budget, submitted with the FY 2012 budget, called for accumulated spending of $6.5 trillion.

When President Obama rolled out his 12-year budgetary plan to cut the deficit by $4 trillion, he counted only $400 billion in Pentagon budget savings. Later, however, when he endorsed the plan of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he also accepted the $1 trillion is estimated war savings. It is not certain if the $400 billion in Obama’s 12-year plan is in addition to the $1 trillion in war savings. Either way, the cuts would not be a significant percentage of projected military spending over a 12-year period.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute put global military spending at $1.6 trillion for 2010. U.S. military spending was put at $698 billion. or 43.6 percent of global military spending by a nation that has about five percent of the world’s population.

The Stockholm group considered only the base Pentagon budget and the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some defense spending analysts contend that a category called militarily-related spending is a more accurate indicator of total military spending. These analysts would include the cost of the nuclear weapons complex, which is partly in the Department of Energy budget; the part of the intelligence budget that services military needs; that part of the State Department budget devoted to security at U.S. embassies and other security needs; national security components of the Homeland Security budget; interest on the national debt caused by unfunded past wars; and healthcare costs of war-related injuries.

The annual cost of this militarily-related spending is put in a range of $800 billion to $1.2 trillion — this latter figure comes from the National Priorities Project, Inc. The $1.2 trillion figure would be 75 percent of the Stockholm group’s $1.6 trillion global spending figure. This $1.2 trillion figure, if projected forward with an annual three percent increase, would total $17.5 trillion over the course of Obama’s previously mentioned 12-year plan.

Those commentators who focus almost exclusively on cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as the best ways of cutting the deficit, are ignoring the frightful costs of military and militarily-related spending. If we had followed the Randall Forsberg ten-year phased-in military spending plan, we undoubtedly would not have had the overkill capacity to invade Iraq and fight the long and ongoing war in Afghanistan. Thus, we would have saved the projected long-term $3 trillion or more cost of those two wars.

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