Porkfest! Tallying How Much the Pentagon Really Costs

Yves here. While Mandy Smithberger does a great job of aggregating all the different buckets of spending by the Pentagon and its friends, it’s even worse than this picture suggests. In addition to the official black budget, the Overseas Contingency Operations account, my understanding is there are are also truly hidden funds.

By Mandy Smithberger, the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO). Originally published at TomDispatch

Hold on to your helmets! It’s true the White House is reporting that its proposed new Pentagon budget is only $740.5 billion, a relatively small increase from the previous year’s staggering number. In reality, however, when you also include war and security costs buried in the budgets of other agencies, the actual national security figure comes in at more than $1.2 trillion, as the Trump administration continues to give the Pentagon free rein over taxpayer dollars.

You would think that the country’s congressional representatives might want to take control of this process and roll back that budget — especially given the way the White House has repeatedly violated its constitutional authority by essentially stealing billions of dollars from the Defense Department for the president’s “Great Wall” (that Congress refused to fund). Recently, even some of the usual congressional Pentagon budget boosters have begun to lament how difficult it is to take the Department’s requests for more money seriously, given the way the military continues to demand yet more (ever more expensive) weaponry and advanced technologies on the (largely bogus) grounds that Uncle Sam is losing an innovation war with Russia and China.

And if this wasn’t bad enough, keep in mind that the Defense Department remains the only major federal agency that has proven itself incapable of even passing an audit. An investigation by my colleague Jason Paladino at the Project On Government Oversight found that increased secrecy around the operations of the Pentagon is making it ever more difficult to assess whether any of its money is well spent, which is why it’s important to track where all the money in this country’s national security budget actually goes.

The Pentagon’s “Base” Budget

This year’s Pentagon request includes $636.4 billion for what’s called its “base” budget — for the routine expenses of the Defense Department. However, claiming that those funds were insufficient, Congress and the Pentagon created a separate slush fund to cover both actual war expenses and other items on their wish lists (on which more to come). Add in mandatory spending, which includes payments to veterans’ retirement and illness compensation funds and that base budget comes to $647.2 billion.

Ahead of the recent budget roll out, the Pentagon issued a review of potential “reforms” to supposedly cut or control soaring costs. While a few of them deserve serious consideration and debate, the majority reveal just how focused the Pentagon is on protecting its own interests. Ironically, one major area of investment it wants to slash involves oversight of the billions of dollars to be spent. Perhaps least surprising was a proposal to slash programs for operational testing and evaluation — otherwise known as the process of determining whether the billions Americans spend on shiny new weaponry will result in products that actually work. The Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation has found itself repeatedly under attack from arms manufacturers and their boosters who would prefer to be in charge of grading their own performances.

Reduced oversight becomes even more troubling when you look at where Pentagon policymakers want to move that money — to missile defense based on staggeringly expensive futuristic hypersonic weaponry. As my Project On Government Oversight colleague Mark Thompson has written, the idea that such weapons will offer a successful way of defending against enemy missiles “is a recipe for military futility and fiscal insanity.”

Another proposal — to cut A-10 “Warthogs” in the Pentagon’s arsenal in pursuit of a new generation of fighter planes — suggests just how cavalier a department eager for flashy new toys that mean large paydays for the giant defense contractors can be with service members’ lives. After all, no weapons platform more effectively protects ground troops at a relatively low cost than the A-10, yet that plane regularly ends up on the cut list, thanks to those eager to make money on a predictably less effective and vastly more expensive replacement.

Many other proposed “cuts” are actually gambits to get Congress to pump yet more money into the Pentagon. For instance, a memo of supposed cuts to shipbuilding programs, leaked at the end of last year, drew predictable ire from members of Congress trying to protect jobs in their states. Similarly, don’t imagine for a second that purchases of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the most expensive weapons system in history, could possibly be slowed even though the latest testing report suggests that, among other things, it has a gun that still can’t shoot straight. That program is, however, a pork paradise for the military-industrial complex, claiming jobs spread across 45 states.

Many such proposals for cuts are nothing but deft deployments of the “Washington Monument strategy,” a classic tactic in which bureaucrats suggest slashing popular programs to avoid facing any cuts at all. The bureaucratic game is fairly simple: Never offer up anything that would actually appeal to Congress when it comes to reducing the bottom line. Recently, the Pentagon did exactly that in proposing cuts to popular weapons programs to pay for the president’s wall, knowing that no such thing would happen.

Believe it or not, however, there are actually a few proposed cuts that Congress might take seriously. Lockheed Martin’s and Austal’s Littoral Combat Ship program, for instance, has long been troubled, and the number of ships planned for purchase has been cut as problems operating such vessels or even ensuring that they might survive in combat have mounted. The Navy estimates that retiring the first four ships in the program, which would otherwise need significant and expensive upgrades to be deployable, would save $1.2 billion.

The Pentagon’s Slush Fund: the Overseas Contingency Operations Account

Both the Pentagon and Congress have used a war-spending slush fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations account, or OCO, as a mechanism to circumvent budget caps put into place in 2011 by the Budget Control Act. In 2021, that slush fund is expected to come in at $69 billion. As Taxpayers for Common Sense has pointed out, if OCO were an agency in itself, it would be the fourth largest in the government. In a welcome move towards transparency, this year’s request actually notes that $16 billion of its funds are for things that should be paid for by the base budget, just as last year’s OCO spending levels included $8 billion for the president’s false fund-the-wall “national emergency.”

Overseas Contingency Operations total: $69 billion

Running tally: $716.2 billion.

The Nuclear Budget

While most people may associate the Department of Energy with fracking, oil drilling, solar panels, and wind farms, more than half of its budget actually goes to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the country’s nuclear weapons program. Unfortunately, it has an even worse record than the Pentagon when it comes to mismanaging the tens of billions of dollars it receives every year. Its programs are regularly significantly behind schedule and over cost, more than $28 billion in such expenses over the past 20 years. It’s a track record of mismanagement woeful enough to leave even the White House’s budget geeks questioning nuclear weapons projects. In the end, though — and given military spending generally, this shouldn’t surprise you — the boosters of more nuclear weapons won and so the nuclear budget came in at $27.6 billion.

Nuclear Weapons Budget total: $27.6 billion

Running tally: $743.8 billion

“Defense-Related” Activities

At $9.7 billion, this budget item includes a number of miscellaneous national-security-related matters, including international FBI activities and payments to the CIA retirement fund.

Defense-Related Activities total: $9.7 billion

Running tally: $753.5 billion

The Intelligence Budget

Not surprisingly, since it’s often referred to as the “black budget,” there is relatively little information publicly available about intelligence community spending. According to recent press reports, however, defense firms are finding this area increasingly profitable, citing double-digit growth in just the last year. Unfortunately, Congress has little capacity to oversee this spending. A recent report by Demand Progress and the Project On Government Oversight found that, as of 2019, only 37 of 100 senators even have staff capable of accessing any kind of information about these programs, let alone the ability to conduct proper oversight of them.

However, we do know the total amount of money being requested for the 17 major agencies in the U.S. intelligence community: $85 billion. That money is split between the Pentagon’s intelligence programs and funding for the Central Intelligence Agency and other “civilian” outfits. This year, the military’s intelligence program requested $23.1 billion, and $61.9 billion was requested for the other agencies. Most of this funding is believed to be in the Pentagon’s budget, so it’s not included in the running tally below. If you want to know anything else about that spending you’re going to need to get a security clearance.

Intelligence budget total: $85 billion

Running tally: $753.5 billion

The Military and Defense Department Retirement and Health Budget

While you might assume that these costs would be included in the defense budget, this budget line shows that funds were paid by the Treasury Department for military retirement programs (minus interest and contributions from those accounts). While such retirement costs come to $700 million, the healthcare fund costs are actually a negative $8.5 billion.

Military and Department of Defense Retirement and Health Costs total: -$7.8 billion

Running tally: $745.7 billion

The Veterans Affairs Budget

The financial costs of war are far greater than what’s seen in the Pentagon budget. The most recent estimates by Brown University’s the Costs of War Project show that the total costs of the nation’s main post-9/11 wars through this fiscal year come to $6.4 trillion, including a minimum of $1 trillion for the costs of caring for veterans. This year the administration requested $238.4 billion for Veterans Affairs.

Veterans Affairs Budget: $238.4 billion

Running tally: $984.1 billion

The International Affairs Budget

The International Affairs budget includes funds for both the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Numerous defense secretaries and senior military leaders have urged public support for spending on diplomacy to prevent conflict and enhance security (and the State Department also engages in a number of military-related activities). In the Obama years, for instance, then-Marine General James Mattis typically quipped that without more funding for diplomacy he was going to need more bullets. Ahead of the introduction of this year’s budget, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Admiral Mike Mullen told congressional leaders that concerns about great-power competition with China and Russia meant that “cutting these critical investments would be out of touch with the reality around the world.”

The budget request for $51.1 billion, however, cuts State Department funding significantly and proposes keeping it at such a level for the foreseeable future.

International Affairs Total: $51.1 billion

Running tally: $1,035.2 billion

The Homeland Security Budget

The Department of Homeland Security consists of a hodgepodge of government agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, and the Coast Guard. In this year’s $49.7 billion budget, border security costs make up a third of total costs.

The department is also responsible for coordinating federal cyber-security efforts through the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Despite growing domestic cyber concerns, however, the budget request for that agency has fallen since last year’s budget.

Homeland Security total: $52.1 billion

Running tally: $1,087.3 billion

Interest on the Debt

And don’t forget the national security state’s part in paying interest on the national debt. Its share, 21.5% of that debt, adds up to $123.6 billion.

Interest on the debt total: $123.6 billion

Final tally: $1,210.9 billion

The Budget’s Too Damn High

In other words, at $1.21 trillion, the actual national security budget is essentially twice the size of the announced Pentagon budget. It’s also a compendium of military-industrial waste and misspending. Yet those calling for higher budgets continue to argue that the only way to keep America safe is to pour in yet more tax dollars at a moment when remarkably little is going into, for instance, domestic infrastructure.

The U.S. already spends more than the next seven countries combined on a military that is seemingly incapable of either winning or ending any of the wars it’s been engaged in since September 2001. So isn’t it reasonable to suggest that the more that’s spent on what’s still called national security but should perhaps go by the term “national insecurity,” the less there is to show for it? More spending is never the solution to poor spending. Isn’t it about time, then, that the disastrously bloated “defense” budget experienced some meaningful cuts and shifts in priorities? Shouldn’t the U.S. military be made into a far leaner and more agile force geared to actual defense instead of disastrous wars (and preparations for more of the same) across a significant swath of the planet?

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  1. divadab

    Ain’t no use
    Nobody can stop them now
    And it seems like
    Total destruction’s the only solution.


  2. John B

    If we realize that the purpose of Pentagon spending is not to fight wars but to distribute federal spending across 435 congressional districts, then oversight is indeed a waste of money — what matters is how much money is spent and where; what it pays for is irrelevant. I think most senior generals and members of Congress realize this. Problems arise because every four years a president is elected by people not in on the secret, who demand a display of military prowess in return for their taxes.

    Fortunately, the Pentagon has done a sufficiently good job over the last 18 years of lowering expectations that even the Trump Administration, which one might expect to be militaristic, is realizing that wars are best left to those with fanatical determination to fight them.

    1. Steve Ruis

      Re “what matters is how much money is spent and where; what it pays for is irrelevant” So if that money were to be used to repair our failing infrastructure instead of the purposes outlined, you know roads, power grid, etc. it wouldn’t matter? As long as the money goes to American companies, we’re good?

    2. NotTimothyGeithner

      The US military isn’t fit for a hit conflict that lasts more than two weeks. Then there are logistical concerns. Access and so forth. The Iraqs are off the board, and after Iraq ’03 and Libya after Gaddafi disarmed, there won’t be mass defections as people saw what the US leaves behind. Slave markets, terror, and civil wars.

      My guess is every one of the flag officers is terrified of over seeing anot operation that results in a few hundred dead servicemen. There are so many generals and admirals these days they can be replaced and select to ignominy. There will be no Theranos Boards in their future.

      Defense is handled by two oceans and two wastelands and a lack of naval competitors, though the Russians and Chinese probably can handle regional issues.

  3. The Rev Kev

    I saw the following line in this article-

    The Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation has found itself repeatedly under attack from arms manufacturers and their boosters who would prefer to be in charge of grading their own performances.

    This sounds like when the FAA let Boeing be responsible for testing and signing off on a lot of aircraft production. How well did that work out for Boeing? And the FAA internationally for that matter?

  4. Off The Street

    Afghan peace is one small shot across the bow of the defense armada, one giant leap for taxpayer humankind. While still very early in the process, the prospect of a slightly more rational approach to engagement and disengagement in foreign entanglements can be seen as progress. Whether that progress is due to many budgetary, political or other reasons, publicity could help shift such questions away from the tunnel vision, Washington Monument tactics or other impediments.

      1. Off The Street

        First step is the agreement announced yesterday with various timelines, leading to withdrawal in 14 months. There may be many obstacles and distractions however wrapping up that mess would do the world some good.

        1. wilroncanada

          I believe this PR exercise, called an agreement, is already on shaky ground. according to the Taliban, the afghan government was supposed to release some 5000 prisoners as a precondition for ongoing talks. The Afghan government, having not been part of the so-called agreement, has said that was never to be a precondition, but a part of the ongoing talks.

          One suspects that the US, as usual, has not been an honest broker here, playing both sides for fools, telling one side one thing, and the other side something completely different. Meanwhile the PR, that the Trump administration has ended the war in Afghanistan, has swept the world. Look for a Nobel Peace Prize for DT.

          Since the fighting will inevitably continue, the US has won ITS war. Meanwhile they are of course saying nothing about double-dealing, basking in the glow of their accomplishment. Afghans of all stripes need to read the tea leaves:the US is not agreement capable.

          Now, having said that: how many readers here believe the US will have withdrawn all its troops and support services in 14 months?

  5. carl

    I believe the word for this is malinvestment. As the article notes in passing, infrastructure spending has been screaming for attention for at least the last 20 years or so. People go bankrupt for getting sick, and younger folks impoverish their futures trying to get a college degree. I’m sure there’s about 20 other needs we could think of that would be better than flushing the money down the military toilet. Late stage empire; prelude to collapse.

  6. Mike

    Ahhh, but we’re so desperately afraid of the Russkies…

    Let’s add to the amount shown above: 1) payoffs to spokespeople in the media; 2) under-the-table payoffs to our “allies” and their “representatives”; 3) any other “black book” expenses, like our teams sent to assassinate, our economic hit-men undermining whole economies, payoffs to military auditors of the past (who did not much for it), etc. etc. I’m sure others can think of more specifics.

    Yet, we cannot afford fixing the hole where the rain gets in?

  7. Off The Street

    Useful explications to be found in a column about food. Many of the same neo-liberal factors are at work.

  8. Felix_47

    South Carolina has a large number of military bases from Fort Jackson to the Naval Power School to Joint Base Charleston to Parris Island and many more. Blacks are well taken care of by the military and military service is one of the best ways for black people to enter the middle class and stay there after retirement which is often in the early fourth decade. There is a large number of veterans in South Carolina as well and many other military industrial complex facilities that hire veterans preferentially….meaning largely black people. And serving in the military or in a support role provides well paid jobs that are not subject to competition from Latino migrants. These government jobs provide educational benefits that are generous. Agricultural and construction work in South Carolina is done by Latino migrants not American blacks. Government service has a large number of blacks such as Congressman Clyburn who seems to have been working for the government from the time he graduated from college. So one explanation for the devastating beating Sanders took, despite his relatively sensible goals for blacks and whites, is that the voting black population in South Carolina is substantially dependent on the status quo military industrial complex and they see no rational alternative presented by the progressives. Shrinking the complex could directly impact their and their childrens futures. In return for a middle class life they are happy to send their kids periodically into a stupid war killing brown people. I think it is a rational decision given the paucity of opportunity in the rest of the US economy for blacks and whites for that matter. Voting for Biden and the Democratic establishment is a no brainer. I say this as a veteran of three wars and over 30 years. I have dealt with thousands of soldiers and airmen and seamen over the years. As I look around my community there is little available outside of healthcare, largely low paying unless one is a doctor, law, again low paying and insecure outside of being a lawyer, accounting or government work, which is far easier to get with a veteran background and a security clearance and generally requires no special training.. So given the current structure of the MIC I see a long, tough road ahead for Sanders and any candidate that wants to take the food from middle class babies mouths. There are very few in the middle class who were not part of the military industrial complex. We are socialists with an endless war time economy.

    1. GramSci

      We travel across SC and frequently we frequently stop there to see friends, both black and white, on our way to and from family in DC. This analysis makes sense to me, but it is the first I have seen along these lines. Do others concur.?

        1. Rod

          you have stated a lot of obvious–but unspoken–truth in your thoughtful analysis.
          Even as a Veteran, I have found it dicey to discuss what you have candidly and thoughtfully broached.
          Lot of Vets taking 20 and out–lot taking a disability out early.
          Law enforcement( and other Gov’t agencies) has open arms for that employee stream–often with the 20 yr full retirement package.
          Often this is beneficially compatible and positive for both–sometimes meh.
          Mid forties with Guaranteed Income and Medical Care for the rest of your life is a very stable platform to help your family stabilize in this 21st century economy. It is a status you would want to maintain.
          I have read that The Tip of the Spear is now supported by 7 in the rear+ private contractors.

  9. notabanktoadie

    Besides being the just way to create fiat beyond that created by deficit spending for the general welfare, an equal Citizen’s Dividend would have the very subversive property that the LESS wasted on military and other boondoggles, the MORE that could be distributed equally to all citizens as a deflation fighting measure.

    1. notabanktoadie

      In other words, the “camel’s nose under the tent”, the “slippery slope”, etc. but for a good thing: ethical finance.

  10. Culp Creek Curmudgeon

    Is there an addition problem in this article or am I missing something? The running tally seems the same. Does the Intelligence budget just disappear?

    Defense-Related Activities total: $9.7 billion

    Running tally: $753.5 billion

    Intelligence budget total: $85 billion

    Running tally: $753.5 billion

  11. GramSci

    The Military and Defense Department Retirement and Health Budget

    Did I read this section correctly? The author deducts $7.8 billion because some military “healthcare fund” realizes a profit of $7.8 billion?? Or–perhaps the same thing–does the author deduct $7.8 billion because it is somehow paid to some Medical Industrial Complex? Shouldn’t we by this logic deduct [almost] all of the military’s expenditures that are paid to some third party like Boeing et al?

    Is this why the Pentagon can’t be audited? That it all simply makes no sense? Or what am I missing here? Are these medical dollars Yves’ “truly hidden funds”?

    This is truly MMT gone over to the dark pork side.

  12. Dick Swenson

    This entire blog should be sent to every candidate for federal office.

    One answer to a question: As all transactions by the US Gov are denomiated by dollars, the US cannot go bankrupt unless the Congress decides to do so. Simply create some $1tr coins and deposit them in a Treasury account at the Fed.

    1. GramSci

      The proper sentiment, but is the Fed the proper vehicle? It is perhaps a necessary vehicle, given the current rules, but a Job Guarantee, other than the Military, seems to more directly answer the need.

  13. nietzsche1510

    please, stop calling taxpayer dollars, taxpayer dollars. time is to name the effective name: printed dollars—-with a gun!

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