Proponents of perpetual budget increases for the Department of Defense argue that the Pentagon is being “crippled” by spending caps implemented under the 2011 Budget Control Act. Indeed, congressional Republicans are currently trying to evade those caps by stuffing $96 billion in defense funding for fiscal year 2016 into the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, which isn’t subject to the caps.
Regardless of how the money is ultimately budgeted, it is important to note that Pentagon’s current total budget is still high relative to post–World War II levels, including the Cold War.
This week’s chart shows total funding for the Department of Defense from fiscal year 1948 to fiscal year 2015 in inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars. Funding for the OCO account, first delineated following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is separated out.
Funding for Department of Defense is scheduled to be a combined $569 billion for fiscal year 2015, which would be down from a peak of $756 billion in fiscal year 2010. That figure is still considerably higher than the post–World War II annual average of $412 billion and is also higher than peak Cold War funding of $551 billion in fiscal year 1985.
Hawkish members of Congress claim that the Department of Defense does not have sufficient funding to meet potential threats to US interests. That gets the problem backward: massive Pentagon budgets lead to US military adventurism, which generate the alleged threats that will then be used to justify further funding increases.
Until the “Global War on Terror,” the Pentagon budgets toward the end of the Cold War in the 1980s were the largest since World War II. In his 2013 book, The Great Deformation, former Reagan budget director David Stockman argued that those massive Cold War budgets helped set the stage for future military interventions, which in turn led to the wars in the Middle East:
"At the heart of the Reagan defense buildup, therefore, was a great double shuffle. The war drums were sounding a strategic nuclear threat that virtually imperiled American civilization. Yet the money was actually being allocated to tanks, amphibious landing craft, close air support helicopters, and a vast conventional armada of ships and planes.
These weapons were of little use in the existing nuclear standoff, but were well suited to imperialistic missions of invasion and occupation. Ironically, therefore, the Reagan defense buildup was justified by an Evil Empire that was rapidly fading but was eventually used to launch elective wars against an Axis of Evil which didn’t even exist."
One could argue that history is repeating itself in the push to maintain permanently elevated levels of Pentagon funding. It is not a coincidence that the proponents of continuing to fund the Pentagon at historically high levels also seemingly see a potential role for the US military in every hot spot on the planet. Thus, if these proponents for massive Pentagon budgets get their way, the stage could be set for future military interventions that would be costly in terms of taxpayer dollars and individual liberty.