As the US defense budget inches closer to $800 billion, critics say more money doesn't buy what the military really needs

House Armed Services Committee NDAA markup hearing
The House Armed Services Committee at the start of the markup hearing of the National Defense Authorization Act, September 1, 2021. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
  • The defense budget emerged from the House Armed Services Committee this month with an extra $23.9 billion.

  • That pushes the total in the bill to nearly $778 billion, a 5% increase over what was enacted last year.

  • Democrats and others balked at the increase, arguing more money won't solve US national-security challenges.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The National Defense Authorization Act emerged from the House Armed Services Committee this month with a major addition: $23.9 billion for more weapons, research and development, and maintenance.

The House version of the annual defense budget now totals nearly $778 billion, $738 billion of it for the Pentagon, well above the Biden administration's proposed $753 billion, $715 billion of it for the Pentagon.

Rep. Mike Rogers, the committee's top Republican, added the funds in an amendment adopted by a bipartisan 42-17 vote.

In addition to boosting the total 5% over last year's bill, Rogers said the money authorizes all combatant commanders' unfunded priorities - the "wish lists" submitted alongside budget requests.

"Most importantly, this amendment ensures we have the resources necessary to counter the growing threat from China and other adversaries," Rogers said.

Both chambers must reconcile their versions and then pass a final bill, but the Senate Armed Services Committee already added a similar amount to its version.

The increases aren't unexpected - Republicans and hawkish Democrats criticized Biden's proposal for months - but they come amid growing calls for smaller defense budgets better tailored to the challenges the US faces.

'A blanket increase'

Rep. Ro Khanna

After the war in Afghanistan and other overseas interventions, "it would be logical that we shouldn't have a defense budget that is more than Donald Trump's budget and more than the height of the Cold War," Rep. Ro Khanna told Insider on September 2, hours after voting against advancing the NDAA.

"Progressives already were compromising" on Biden's budget, Khanna said, "but then to have the Republicans add $23.9 billion in addition to that when we have control the House, the Senate, and the presidency, that's just unacceptable."

Khanna and Rep. Sara Jacobs were the only two of the committee's 59 members to vote against advancing the NDAA.

"It's remarkable to me that as we end our long and expensive campaign in Afghanistan, so many are concluding that what we need is more war, more weapons, and billions of dollars more than even what the Pentagon is asking for," Jacobs said during debate on Rogers' amendment.

Jacobs and Khanna both said the NDAA had worthwhile initiatives. Jacobs, who represents part of San Diego, touted measures to support military families. Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, cited investments in cybersecurity and advanced technology.

"The way we're going to compete with China is doing things that increase our technology lead," Khanna said, citing cybersecurity, space technology, and "the effective use of AI and quantum computing."

Naval Base San Diego
Naval Base San Diego, January 7, 2021. US Navy/MCS2 Austin Haist

"But to just provide a blanket increase, as $23.9 billion did, without any consideration of all of the sole-source contracts [and] without any consideration of the excessive profits that defense contractors' executives are making is not positioning us to have a strong, modern military," Khanna told Insider.

Giveaways to defense contractors and political concerns, such as supporting programs in a member's district, are often cited as reasons for bloated defense budgets.

The 14 Democrats who supported Rogers' amendment together received at least $135,000 from political action committees representing the 10 biggest defense firms in the first half of 2021, according to Federal Election Commission data cited by The Intercept. (Khanna and Jacobs received nothing from those PACs during that period.)

"I think too often there's this view that if I just help the big corporation in my district and those executives that somehow that will actually help with job creation in the community, and that's not the case," Khanna said.

"A lot of local economies are intertwined with the defense community," Khanna added. "We ought to provide the right economic opportunities [for] those jobs, and there are a lot of ways that we can do that in our military budget ... but that's not what's going on. What's going on is the money is going to these contractors who've got a huge lobbying presence."

Throwing money at the problem

Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle
An Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle at Camp Pendleton in 2010. The EFV was cancelled 2011, after roughly $3 billion was spent on it. US Marine Corps/Sgt. Marcy Sanchez

Committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith, who voted against Rogers' amendment, said during debate on it that "the single most important thing" the Pentagon "needs to do right now is spend its money wisely."

The department should improve its acquisition process and better assess future threats, and an additional $23.9 billion "makes it easier for them to just keep doing what they've been doing," Smith said.

This year's budget process has seen more debate over spending on "legacy systems" and on new platforms. Some older systems remain useful, but Smith criticized continued investment in projects that don't pay off.

"We have too many programs over the course of the last 20 years that we've spent billions of dollars on and gotten nothing for the taxpayer out of it," Smith said. "Simply throwing more money at the problem does not solve it."

That view is shared by some in the Pentagon.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week that 3% to 5% annual increases might not be needed if inefficiencies in the budget process were eliminated.

icbm minuteman
US airmen monitor a test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, March 27, 2015. US Air Force

Buying platforms the military doesn't need and paying contractors when they can't work because the budget isn't passed before the fiscal year starts both increase costs, Hyten said at a Brookings Institution event.

"If we could just get that [budget] stability, if we could make sure we focus our investments on what's required for the threat only, then we can actually do it with $700 billion a year," Hyten said. "If we continue to do it the same way we are, we have to have bigger budgets."

The NDAA faces further debate in the House later in September. Khanna and fellow California Democrat Rep. John Garamendi have already introduced an amendment prohibiting funding for a new nuclear-armed ICBM.

With that and other efforts, Democrats should make the case a better defense doesn't require bigger budgets, Khanna said.

"In politics, you're either making an argument on the offense or you're losing, and I think that Democrats are too defensive about this," Khanna told Insider.

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