Opinion | Let’s Cut Our Ridiculous Defense Budget

President Biden wants to change the paradigm. That may be easier than changing the Pentagon.

Credit…Illustration By Nicholas Konrad / The New York Times; Photograph By Getty Images

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By Peter Beinart

Mr. Beinart is a contributing opinion writer who focuses on politics and foreign policy.

President Biden loves spending money. Last month, he signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to stimulate the economy. Now he’s pushing the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. He vows to follow that with the American Families Plan to improve health care, child care and education, which could cost billions or trillions more.

The more money Mr. Biden tries to spend, the more loudly critics ask where he’s getting it. He borrowed the funds for the stimulus. He wants corporations to pay for the infrastructure plan. With every legislative battle, finding the money grows harder. All of which raises a question: Will Mr. Biden try to cut defense?

Early reporting suggests that his administration’s first budget, which is expected later this spring, may not reduce military spending at all. That’s particularly remarkable given that, according to the Center for International Policy, today’s military budget, adjusted for inflation, is far higher than the post-World War II average.

It’s not as if there aren’t places to cut. In 2016, Bob Woodward and Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post disclosed that, according to an internal study, the Defense Department could save $125 billion over five years simply by trimming its distended bureaucracy. The department, the study found, employed close to 200,000 people in property management alone. After a summary of the report became public, Mr. Woodward and Mr. Whitlock noted, the Pentagon “imposed secrecy restrictions on the data making up the study, which ensured no one could replicate the findings.” It remains the only federal agency that has never passed an audit.

Mr. Biden could also save large sums on nuclear weapons. In the coming years, the military plans to develop and purchase more than 600 new nuclear missiles at a potential cost of over $100 billion. But as Elisabeth Eaves has detailed in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, these missiles aren’t just wildly expensive. They’re dangerous. Because they are designed to fire while enemy missiles are still in the air, former Defense Secretary William Perry warns that they “could trigger an accidental nuclear war.” Mr. Perry has proposed phasing out America’s land-based nuclear weapons and relying on a safer air- and sea-based deterrent. If Mr. Biden followed Mr. Perry’s advice, he could save more than enough money to prepare vaccines for the 50 to 100 viruses most likely to cause the next pandemic.

Advocates of America’s mammoth defense budget claim it generates jobs. But academic studies reveal that it does so far less efficiently than government investment in education, clean energy, transportation and health care. Defense hawks also insist that without increased spending, the United States will lose its military primacy. In 2018, the Trump administration warned that America’s “competitive military advantage has been eroding,” especially in relation to China and Russia. In his confirmation hearing, Mr. Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, called China “a pacing challenge for our department.”

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