Zbigniew Mazurak's Blog

A blog dedicated to defense issues

How big is the US defense budget in reality?

Posted by zbigniewmazurak on August 3, 2012


How big is the US defense/military budget, really?

That question is often a matter of dispute between advocates and opponents of robust funding for defense. Determining the answer to that question is slightly complicated by the fact that a) there is a difference – sometimes a big one – between the budget that the President requests and the one that the Congress passes; b) defense budgets differ from one year to another; c) there are different metrics that one can use.

None of these metrics, however, support a conclusion that the defense budget is “bloated”, or that the Pentagon is engaged in “runaway spending”, as the POGO, other liberal organizations, and liberal bloggers have falsely claimed.

A look at today’s defense budget

Let’s look at today’s (FY2012) DOD budget. It consists of the base defense budget, the OCO supplemental, and the DOE’s defense-related programs. All three are authorized by a single piece of legislation – the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act – although the final spending amounts are determined by a later bill, the Defense Appropriations Act (in FY2012, this is determined by an Omnibus Appropriations Act because the Senate refused to pass any Approps bill for FY2012).

The FY2012 NDAA authorized a grand total of $645 bn for military programs. That amounts to just 4.21% of America’s GDP (which is $15.29 trillion according to the CIA World Factbook) and 16.82% of the total federal budget ($3.833 trillion). The base defense budget, $531 bn, amounts to just 3.47% of GDP and 13.85% of the total federal budget.

Those shares are the lowest since FY1948, if you except the mid-to-late 1990s and the early 2000s.

The opponents of robust defense funding often try to mislead the public by including budgets for other national-security-related (or not related) agencies in the total and calling it “military spending” or “national security spending”. They routinely include the budgets of the DOS ($56 bn in FY2012), the DVA ($67 bn in FY2012), and the DHS ($49 bn in FY2012) and claim that this is “military spending” or national security spending”. They then claim that this figure is huge and excessive.

Not only is this deceptive, it’s also false. Even adding the budgets of all of these agencies – and the DVA has nothing to do with national security, let alone the task of providing for national defense – does not significantly increase the share of the GDP or the federal budget claimed by “national security” programs. It is just 5.58% of GDP (less than the US spent on the military throughout most of the Cold War) and 21.31% of the total federal budget.

So even adding all of these programs doesn’t change the picture significantly. Even all of these programs added together amount to just 21.31% of the total federal budget and just 5.6% of GDP – less than what the US spent on its military  alone throughout most of the Cold War. And these other agencies’ budgets do not qualify as “military spending” or “defense spending” in any true sense of the term.

The opponents of defense spending are simply lying through their teeth, as usual.

HuffPo bloggers’ lies

But they will never admit that. In fact, two liberal Huffington Post bloggers recently lied that opponents of defense spending sequestration are trying to “undo any attempt to rein in runaway Pentagon spending.”

There are actually four blatant lies in that one sentence alone:

1) that DOD spending is “runaway”/out of control/too high;

2) that the sequester is merely an attempt to “rein it in”;

3) that opponents of sequestration are trying to “undo any attempt to rein in runaway Pentagon spending”, not just sequestration;

4) that military spending needs to be reined in.

As for lies #1 and #4, these have already been refuted above. America’s military spending is not “bloated”, “runaway”, or “out of control”, and does not need to be reined in. It amounts to just 4.21% of GDP and just 16.82% of the total federal budget. And it’s not “out of control” – it is authorized and appropriated by Congress every year, after long hearings, careful analysis of the DOD’s proposals, long and intense debate, and consideration of the Nation’s overall fiscal situation. It is not spent automatically, never grows automatically, and has to be reauthorized every year. The Congress can grow, freeze, or cut the military budget year from year, as it wishes to.

From FY2001 to FY2012, the base defense budget has grown by only 36% (from $390 bn to $531 bn); even the total military budget has grown by only 65% since FY2001 (from $390 bn to $645 bn).

As for the lie that the sequester is merely an attempt to “rein it in”, the sequester would be much more than that. It would be a huge, disproportional cut in defense spending, to the tune of $600 bn over a decade, i.e. $60 bn per year, coming on top of the $487 bn in cuts mandated by the first tier of the BCA and all previous defense cuts already implemented or scheduled.

And the opponents of sequestration do not oppose ANY attempt to limit defense spending. Most of us (excluding myself) are not calling for overturning of the first tier BCA-mandated budget limit, or for overturning Secretary Gates’s Efficiencies Initiative, which will save taxpayers $178 bn when fully implemented.

What we oppose is the draconian, deep defense cuts – to the tune of $600 bn over a decade – which will totally gut the military if implemented.

If these cuts go through, defense spending will decline to less than 3% of GDP in FY2016 and a paltry 2.5% of GDP by FY2021 – the lowest level since FY1940, as the graph below from the Bipartisan Policy Center proves.

In short, America’s defense spending is already at a historic low, there is no need to rein it in, and sequestration would not be a mere “attempt to rein it in”, it would be a deep, draconian cut which would totally gut the military. It must be prevented at all costs.

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2 Responses to “How big is the US defense budget in reality?”

  1. Shangehy B. said

    “sequestration would not be a mere “attempt to rein it in”, it would be a deep, draconian cut which would totally gut the military. It must be prevented at all costs.”

    Spending cuts must be prevented “at all costs”?
    Really? Why do you say that?
    Where are you getting your stats from? You don’t cite ANY SOURCES. Just pulling them out of your ass?

    • zbigniewmazurak said

      No. This is a conclusion that I have come after a rigorous, holistic analysis of sequestration, the results of which I have published here among other articles and posts. Many experts, including all of the Joint Chiefs, veteran budget expert and now-SECDEF Leon Panetta, OMB Chief Jeffrey Zients, Heritage Foundation and AEI experts, and the vast majority of members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – have come to a similar conclusion.

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