Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., left, and ranking member Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., arrive for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on June 15, 2021.

Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., left, and ranking member Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., arrive for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on June 15, 2021. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images / Shutterstock

Boost Defense Spending? Congress Owes Us a Better Explanation

The proposed 2022 budget plus-ups add to a long history of hiding flimsy arguments behind dramatic rhetoric.

In 1968, the United States entered negotiations to return control of Okinawa to Japan. The U.S. occupation of Okinawa had become deeply unpopular in Japan, and leaders from both countries feared it might jeopardize the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Within the U.S. government, the central friction point was the Defense Department’s unofficial “blue sky” policy, which favored maintaining control of Okinawa in order to continue stationing nuclear weapons there for deterrence against China and the Soviet Union.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara appointed Morton Halperin, then a Defense Department special assistant, to represent the department on a task force to manage the transition. Halperin quickly became convinced that the Okinawa nuclear weapons were of little strategic value. “Nobody ever had a debate about whether we really needed them there,” he recalled in a 2020 interview, “or what the implications for Japan were — they were just there.”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, had convinced themselves the weapons were crucial to national defense. So Halperin engaged the JCS in an “iterative process” to scrutinize the strength of their arguments. It was, Halperin recalled, “the first time the Chiefs were forced to articulate” their position, and their arguments proved so flimsy that Halperin concluded there’d been “nothing to articulate” all along. Halperin’s skepticism led to a diplomatic breakthrough, but it also revealed an uncomfortable reality: U.S. military leadership had convinced itself its wants were actually needs. 

The Okinawa Reversion case is hardly anomalous: the tendency to overstate or gloss over the case for the U.S. military’s preferred outcomes has become a central recurring theme in U.S. national security. Said Halperin of the Joint Chiefs: “They never wanted to say, ‘We don’t need this’.”

This year, both the Senate Armed Services Committee and House Armed Services Committee have displayed a similar unwillingness to distinguish between needs and wants in their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, which recommend adding $25 billion and $24 billion, respectively, to President Biden’s recommended $715 billion Pentagon budget. The most frustrating aspect of both the Senate and House markups is not the exorbitant toplines, but the casual lack of any substantive strategic justification for the increased spending in either authorization. The SASC’s markup of the authorization act, for example, provides ample detail as to what the Senate’s recommended spending increase would buy: it would head off proposed cuts to procurement, personnel levels, and research and development. But a concerned citizen would not be able to find in the Senate’s budget documents (or the President’s budget request, for that matter) a single compelling, detailed explanation of why avoiding any given cut is strategically necessary. In other words, there has been no effort to demonstrate that the Senate’s billions are funding needs instead of wants.

It is difficult to imagine how either the SASC or HASC could convincingly demonstrate the necessity of such military spending increases when none of the most urgent crises facing the United States today have military solutions. Furthermore, the credibility of both the Pentagon and Congress on this subject is, to put it mildly, underwhelming: one has an extensive history of budgetary boondoggles, and the other is openly cozy with the U.S. arms industry

Luckily for perennial supporters of increased defense budgets, legislators are not obligated to explain or defend their reasoning to the public. Instead, the current budget process allows budget hawks to obscure the opportunity cost of increased military spending with appeals to vague platitudes (great power competition, the rules-based order, American leadership, and the like). Such opacity forces dissenters to debate military spending in abstract terms, which enables D.C. hawks, freed from the burden of specificity, to frame every piece of pork as a must-have. The resulting outcomes have become so absurd that even some senior military leaders cannot stomach them. Last month, Adm. Michael Gilday told an arms industry conference to stop lobbying Congress for “the ships that you want to build” and “aircraft that we don’t need.”

It is time to stop assuming legislators have thought carefully about the public interest when crafting the defense budget. Policymakers in the executive and legislative branches owe the public thorough, compelling justifications for increased spending in official budget documents. To be sure, the process of codifying such a requirement in the budget process would need to address difficult questions about implementation and oversight, particularly regarding the government’s need for secrecy and the costs in manpower. A congressionally mandated commission, similar to the one recommended in the SASC NDAA to explore creating a more “agile” budget process, could begin to consider these questions. The House, where legislators like Barbara Lee, D-Calif.; Cori Bush, D-Mo.; Mark Pocan, D-Wisc.; Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Ro Khanna, D-Calif., have long discussed reining in defense budgets, would prove fertile ground for exploring such requirements.

In a functional government, Congress would act not as handmaiden to the arms industry, but as the first and strongest line of defense against its insatiability. Deference to military leaders, pork-barrel politics, and careerist self-preservation have all undermined Congress’s inclination to provide effective oversight of the Pentagon; and in the Pentagon, the mission is and will continue to be “don’t interrupt the money flow; add to it.” A single bureaucratic measure cannot address these pathologies. Sadly, stronger budget justification requirements cannot act as a substitute for effective oversight. But properly implemented, they could provide a forum for legislators and government leaders to do the thankless, unfashionable work of providing that oversight.

Billy Ostermeyer is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School and a researcher with the Security Assistance Monitor (SAM) at the Center for International Policy. He is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College and a veteran of the U.S. Army.