America’s Real National Security Budget—A Trillion Dollars a Year
You’ve got to count nukes, veterans and the Coast Guard
On Feb. 2, the White House rolled out its military and intelligence budget proposal for 2016—and it’s a doozy. The administration wants $534 billion for the Pentagon’s normal “base” budget plus another $51 billion for combat operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
That’s $585 billion combined, $25 billion more than Congress approved last year. Washington conceals spending on the country’s 16 spy agencies—as much as $80 billion—largely inside the main Pentagon budget.
But the official numbers don’t reflect the true cost of America’s wars and national defense. In reality, the United States spends closer to trillion dollars a year on its current and former soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, intel agents and their equipment—and also the paramilitary “homeland security” personnel whose equivalents in many other countries are uniformed troops.
Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information—part of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, D.C.—has helpfully crunched some of the numbers.
Smithberger counts $1.003 trillion in national security spending in the administration’s 2016 budget proposal. That includes the Pentagon’s $534-billion base budget and the $51-billion war fund, which Smithberger points out “is traditionally used as a slush fund to pay for [Defense Department] priorities that couldn’t make it into the base budget.”
Just last year, the Pentagon tried to sneak into the war budget eight new F-35 stealth fighters and 21 Apache helicopters—a combined $2-billion add-on that Congress rejected.
Smithberger also includes in her count the $21 billion the Department of Energy wants to spend on nuclear weapons in 2016, as well as the $8-billion “defense-related activities” fund that pays for, among other things, the pensions of retired CIA spies.
She also adds in the $17 billion in military pensions that aren’t part of the Pentagon’s base budget plus the Department of Veterans Affairs’ $166-billion budget. “These [VA] costs are projected to increase to $253.9 billion in 2025 as the human costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to grow,” Smithberger warns.
Don’t forget the Department of Homeland Security’s $50-billion budget proposal, which would pay for—among other things—the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and the Transportation Security Administration.
And the so-called “international affairs” budget—$47 billion for the Department of State and the Agency for International Development, which according to the State Department “makes strategic investments to protect Americans and promote our values and interests abroad.”
U.S. international affairs spending can include direct support to foreign governments and their own armies.
Now, Smithberger also counts the national security establishment’s 24-percent share of the more than $400 billion the federal government shells out every year to service its $18-trillion debt. That would amount to $107 billion and bring Smithberger’s count of military spending to $1.003 trillion.
But we at War Is Boring don’t count interest as a military expense, since government debt isn’t like personal debt.
We’re not alone in believing this. Governments “can fail, yes, but they don’t need to pay off their mortgage to enjoy a comfortable retirement,” Josh Zumbrun pointed out in The Wall Street Journal. “The goal is for the government to be a going concern.”
So let’s omit the $107 billion in interest. Our new total is $896 billion. That’s still nearly a trillion dollars—and an accurate price tag for the United States’ efforts to protect itself, spy on its enemies, maintain its military, care for veterans and wage wars of choice in 2016.