In an era of pandemics and climate change, we need to reconsider what “national security” means
Elliott Negin / The Scientific American
(September 24, 2020) — The devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout provide ample reason to reconsider what truly constitutes national security.
Such a reassessment is long overdue. Despite the trillions of dollars Congress and successive administrations have lavished on the Pentagon since the turn of the century, the massive US arsenal and fighting force deployed worldwide are powerless against grave, nonmilitary threats to national security — from a raging pandemic to the fact that tens of millions of Americans breathe foul air, drink tainted water, and struggle to pay for food, housing and health care.
When it comes to US spending priorities, the numbers seem especially misguided in an era of tight budgets to come. By the Department of Defense’s own accounting, taxpayers spent $13.34 trillion on the US military from 2000 through fiscal year 2019 in inflation-adjusted 2020 dollars. Add to that another $3.18 trillion for the Veterans Administration, and the yearly average comes to a whopping $826 billion.
No other country’s military outlays come close. In FY 2019, the Pentagon’s budget was nearly three times bigger than China’s defense spending and more than 10 times larger than Russia’s. All told, the US military budget in 2019 exceeded the next 10 countries’ defense budgets combined and singlehandedly accounted for a hefty 38 percent of military spending worldwide.
While the Pentagon budget routinely eats up more than half of annual US discretionary spending, a host of other interrelated threats that undermine national security writ large go chronically underfunded, including the current public health, environmental and climate crises, all of which disproportionately harm low-income communities and communities of color.
Certainly, these crises predate the Trump administration. But in its zeal to dismantle government regulations and slash critical programs, it has greatly exacerbated them. At the same time, its fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget calls for spending $740.5 billion on the Pentagon, $100 billion more than when President Trump took office and the most since World War II. In late July, both houses of Congress approved that request.
THE PENTAGON WASTES YOUR MONEY
There are plenty of reasons to cut the Pentagon’s budget, but its track record of profligate spending is among the most obvious. If the Pentagon were a private corporation, gross mismanagement would have forced it into bankruptcy years ago. Dysfunctional internal controls, aided and abetted by years of lax congressional and administration oversight, have enabled it to waste tens of billions of dollars annually, and the last 20 years are littered with a parade of overpriced, botched and bungled projects.
In just the first decade of this century, the Pentagon was forced to cancel a dozen ill-conceived, ineffective weapons programs that cost taxpayers $46 billion. They included the Future Combat Systems program, a fleet of networked high-tech vehicles that did not work; the Comanche helicopter, which — after 22 years in development — was never built; and the 40-ton Crusader artillery gun, which never even made it to the prototype stage.
To put this example of managerial malfeasance in context, these canceled programs collectively cost more than the federal government spent on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the last five years.
At least the Pentagon killed those projects before they wasted any more money. All too often, it does not know when to pull the plug. The Army’s attempt to replace its outmoded Bradley tank is a case in point. Over the last 17 years, it has blown an estimated $22.9 billion on three flawed prototypes, but in February — just three weeks after rejecting the third failed design — it issued yet another request for proposals from defense contractors.
Then there are programs the Pentagon continues to green-light with zero assurance they will ever perform as advertised. Exhibit A: The Pentagon has wasted more than $67 billion since the late 1990s on a ballistic missile defense system that has never been demonstrated to work in a real-world situation. A spawn of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy, the system — based in Alaska and California — will never be able to defend the continental United States from a limited nuclear attack. Any country capable of launching a ballistic missile could easily foil the system with decoys and other countermeasures.
Another prime example is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Expected to cost $1.5 trillionover its lifespan, it has the dubious distinction of being the Department of Defense’s most expensive weapons program of all time. The 490 F-35s built since the first prototype flew 20 years ago continue to be plagued by a dozen serious flaws and nearly 900 software defects, and roughly half of the fleet in 2017 and 2018 was grounded for maintenance. Regardless, the Pentagon still plans to buy 2,400 more F-35s over the next 25 years.
The F-35 is just one of the malfunctioning weapons systems on the Pentagon’s current $1.8-trillion shopping list of overpriced aircraft, missiles, ships, satellites and tanks. Other poor performers include the $22-billion Zumwalt destroyer, a warship without a mission; the $30-billion littoral combat ship, which the Navy is already mothballing because it is virtually unusable; and the Air Force’s problem-plagued $43-billion KC-46 refueling tanker, which offers little improvement over current refuelers.
But it is not only exorbitant hardware that picks taxpayer pockets. Pentagon administrative costs are also out of control. A January 2015 report by a federal advisory panel found that the Pentagon could save $125 billion in administrative waste by streamlining its bloated bureaucracy. That sum alone is 15 times more than the $8.3 billion the Trump administration proposes to spend in the next fiscal year to fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during one of the worst pandemics in modern history.
THE PENTAGON OFFERS LITTLE DEFENSE AGAINST HEALTH THREATS
Speaking of the pandemic, while the Pentagon’s budget is bursting with overpriced, ineffective weapons systems and programs, US health care providers were caught without an adequate supply of ventilators, respirators, masks and other protective equipment to respond to COVID-19. With 190,000 deaths (and counting) in the US — more than 20 percent of the reported world total — there is no question the extent to which the coronavirus presents an incalculable threat to national security.
Notwithstanding efforts by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s National Center for Medical Intelligence, which warned the White House in late February that the coronavirus would likely become a global pandemic, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is researching vaccines and funding clinical trials, the military was unable to prevent the pandemic and—aside from treating veterans with COVID-19 — has been of little use to the civilian health care system in combating it.
Granted, the military dispatched 740 military doctors, nurses and support staff to hospitals in Texas and California to help with coronavirus patients, and earlier this year, the Navy sent hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles. However, during the month the 1,000-bed, 1,200-person crew USNS Comfort was docked in midtown Manhattan, it treated only 182 patients, 70 percent of whom had COVID-19, before returning to its Norfolk, Virginia, home port.
Meanwhile, the 1,000-bed, 900-person crew Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy visited Los Angeles in late March, but by mid-April, the ship had treated just a few dozen patients while more than half dozen crew members tested positive for COVID-19. All told, Mercy doctors took care of only 77 patients, and, after a seven-and-a-half-week stay, the ship returned to its home port in San Diego.
These vignettes are just small pieces of a bigger story. More significant, the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government spends on the military every year siphons away money that could be spent to address serious flaws in the US health care system.
Somehow, the US manages to spend more on its military than the next 10 countries combined, but it is the only member of the 36-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that does not provide universal health care coverage. The result represents an undeniable threat to public health. In the United States, more than 27 million people lacked health insurance before the pandemic, and nearly the same number lost their job-based health insurance between February and mid-May because of layoffs.
Prepandemic US health care statistics are sobering enough. The United States has been spending an estimated $3.6 trillion annually on health care — nearly twice as much as the average OECD country as a share of its economy — but less than 3 percentof that spending goes to public health and prevention. The result? The US has a lower life expectancy and a higher suicide rate than 10 other wealthy countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Americans also have the highest rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart and lung disease, and an obesity rate that is double the OECD average — the very underlying medical conditions that increase vulnerability to COVID-19 — and the numbers are proportionately higher for US Black and Latinx populations.
Regardless, the Trump administration FY 2021 budget would slash funding for leading public health agencies by hundreds of millions of dollars. The National Institutes of Health stands to lose $3 billion, for instance, and the administration budget also calls for cutting $500 billion from Medicare and $1 trillion from Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act over the next decade.
THE PENTAGON WORSENS ENVIRONMENTAL THREATS
Environmental hazards pose an undeniable threat to national security that we largely know how to combat. Thanks to the landmark environmental laws administered by the EPA and other agencies, the nation’s air and water is considerably cleaner than in the 1960s, when rivers caught fire and cities were choked with smog. Even so, US environmental standards need to be strengthened.
Today, at least 150 million people live in US counties with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution and nearly 200,000 people die every year from heart, lung and other diseases caused by microscopic air pollutant levels below EPA standards. This microscopic particulate matter, measuring 2.5 microns or smaller (PM2.5), inordinately harms low-income communities and communities of color.
After a steady seven-year decline, fine particle pollution increased 5.5 percent on average between 2016 and 2018 nationwide, leading to nearly 10,000 additional premature deaths. Researchers have identified a number of culprits, including increased driving, greater use of natural gas to produce electricity, and the Trump EPA’s lax enforcement of environmental laws. Compounding the problem, the EPA refused to strengthen its inadequate PM2.5 standards in April, just a week after a studyfound that COVID-19 causes a significantly higher death toll in areas with only slightly higher PM2.5 levels.
While most US residents have access to safe drinking water, Flint, Michigan’s lead problem is hardly an isolated case. Dangerous contaminants — including arsenic, copper and lead — can still be found in tap water nationwide. Community water systems serving nearly 30 million people, for example, violated the EPA lead and copper rule between January 2015 and March 2018. Another 16 million people across 35 states drink water contaminated by perchlorate, a rocket fuel component used on US military bases that can cause neurological damage in infants and young children. Regardless, in June, the Trump EPA defied a court order and finalized its decision to forego a standard limiting perchlorate’s concentration in drinking water.
The hundreds of billions the US spends on the military annually do nothing to address these and other environmental threats. What’s worse, the Defense Department is one of the world’s worst polluters. Besides its perchlorate problem, its more than 4,000 installations across the country are home to 39,000 contaminated sites, 141 of which are listed among the EPA Superfund sites that are among the most polluted in the nation. Likewise, the US military’s nearly 800 installations overseas, which range from small radar stations to major airbases in more than 70 countries, have many of the same environmental problems as its domestic sites.
Compared to the Pentagon, the federal agencies charged with safeguarding the environment are barely scraping by. In FY 2020, for example, the EPA’s budget was a measly $9 billion, practically a rounding error on the Pentagon’s ledger. The agency’s budget has already shrunk by a quarter in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2010, and now the Trump administration is proposing to cut the agency’s current budget by another 26 percent, eliminating 50 agency programs, including ones that address air and water pollution.
THE PENTAGON EXACERBATES CLIMATE CHANGE
Any assessment of threats to national security must include the danger posed by human-caused climate change. Marked by heat waves, droughts, wildfires, extreme precipitation, flooding and other severe weather events, global warming intensifies the health and environmental crises described above.
For example, the higher temperatures and increased rainfall brought on by climate change amplify the threat of infectious diseases such as Zika and Ebola, allowing parasites, viruses and bacteria transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks, flies and fleas to spread diseases to areas that did not experience them before.
Like infectious diseases, heat waves can kill. From 2004 through 2018, an average of 702 US residents died from extreme heat every year. Meanwhile, the number of annual heat waves in 50 US cities has tripled on average since 1960, and in August, the Western half of the country baked. More than 140 weather stations recorded record highs, California’s Death Valley hit 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat advisory for 80 million people. September has been just as bad, at least for Californians. Los Angeles County set a record temperature of 121 degrees F on Labor Day weekend, while the mercury in San Francisco hit 100 degrees F.
Scientists predict it will only get worse unless we take dramatic steps to slash carbon emissions. The 2018 National Climate Assessment, a collaboration of 14 federal agencies, forecast that heat stroke and similar heat-related illnesses will kill tens of thousands across the country every year by the end of the century.
Wildfires, drought and hurricanes — intensified by climate change — are also wreaking havoc. This year alone, more than 7,000 wildfires, fueled by record heat and drought, have burned in California, destroying some 2.5 million acres. Besides California, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa and parts of Connecticut, Nevada and New Hampshire have faced severe drought conditions. And in the Atlantic Ocean, a marine heat wave is triggering an an unusually active hurricane season.
To its credit, the Pentagon — unlike President Trump and 150 members of Congress — officially recognizes the climate threat. A January 2019 Pentagon report on the subject, for instance, found that 46 of the US military’s 79 high-priority installations are vulnerable to climate change–related flooding, drought, desertification, wildfires and thawing permafrost.
Unfortunately for the planet, however, global warming is not an enemy the Pentagon is prepared to fight. According to a June 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office, an independent congressional watchdog, military facilities are not moving quickly enough to address climate threats, and the Pentagon is not providing enough guidance on how to use climate change projections to protect bases or the personnel on them.
Worse yet, the Pentagon is also is a major part of the problem. Although it significantly reduced its fossil fuel consumption over the last two decades, the US military is still the world’s top petroleum consumer and largest carbon polluter. Between 2001 and 2017, the five military branches collectively emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon emissions, twice the annual output of all the passenger vehicles nationwide.
Left unchecked, the costs of the climate crisis will be astronomical. Extreme weather events and other climate change–related impacts are already costing billions of dollars a year in property damage. From 2017 through 2019, there were 44 unique extreme weather and climate events across the country with damages of $1 billion or more, amounting to a total of more than $460 billion.
Despite the undeniable risks, the Trump administration has targeted the Obama administration’s signature climate change efforts, seeking to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement, replacing the Clean Power Plan, which would have dramatically curbed power plant carbon pollution, and attempting to roll back the Obama administration’s groundbreaking vehicle fuel economy standards, which already have significantly cut carbon emissions from cars and trucks.
The cost of meeting the Paris climate agreement’s goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees F) is estimated to run $1.6 trillion to $3.8 trillion a year. Imagine the boon to national—and international — security if the United States invested the $1.8 trillion the Pentagon plans to spend on new weapons systems in clean energy, advanced batteries and related technology to curb the carbon emissions that drive climate change.
FIRST STEP: CUT NUCLEAR SPENDING
In late July, both the US House and Senate failed to keep military spending in check. Their respective versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) received quite a bit of media attention for defying President Trump by calling for removing Confederate names from military bases, but in the end, both chambers signed off on the administration’s bloated top-line budget request.
Perhaps the least deserving of these expenditures is the $44.5 billion budget for nuclear weapons programs at the Department of Defense and at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)—a 19-percent increase over last year’s allocation. If there is any place to start cutting the military budget, it is the nuclear arsenal.
The United States far outspends every other member of the nuclear club. The US FY 2019 outlay of $35.4 billion, for instance, accounted for nearly half of the $72.9 billionthe nine nuclear-armed countries collectively spent on nuclear weapons that year, three times the $10.4 billion China spent and four times the $8.5 billion Russia spent. US allies France, India, Israel, Pakistan and the United Kingdom, meanwhile, combined to spend $18 billion, roughly half of the US nuclear weapons budget.
There is no legitimate security justification for maintaining the outsized US arsenal. A single US nuclear-armed submarine, for instance, is capable of carrying warheads that are collectively nearly 10 times more powerful than all the bombs dropped during World War II, including the two atomic bombs. One full salvo from a single sub could wipe out two dozen cities — and the Navy has a fleet of 12 at sea.
Top Pentagon officials concede that the US nuclear arsenal could be trimmed considerably without jeopardizing security, according to Fred Kaplan, a longtime military affairs reporter and author of The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War. “During the Obama administration,” Kaplan wrote in a May column, “after a deep analysis of the nuclear war plan and its requirements, senior officials, including the four-star head of Strategic Command, agreed that the nuclear arsenal could be cut by one-third without any damage to US security.”
The first to go should be the 400 US intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) currently siloed in five Great Plains states. Russian missiles could reach them within a half hour, giving a president 10 minutes or less to decide whether to launch them before they can be destroyed by a perceived attack. That increases the possibility of mistaken nuclear war triggered by a false attack warning. Indeed, there have been a number of close calls over the last six decades due to human and technological errors.
While ICBMs are sitting ducks, nuclear-armed submarines are virtually undetectable when they are at sea. ICBMs also are superfluous. They may have made sense 60 years ago, when they were more accurate and powerful than submarine-launched ballistic missiles and communications links with subs were unreliable. But, today, sub-launched missiles are as accurate as ICBMs — if not more so — and the Navy has secure submarine communication links, making the ICBMs unnecessary. The other two legs of the nuclear triad — subs and bombers — are more than adequate to deter a nuclear attack or, in the unlikely event of a nuclear attack, to retaliate.
Nevertheless, both the House and Senate bills include $1.5 billion for research and development (R&D) of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent — the new missiles intended to replace the current fleet of Minuteman III ICBMs at an estimated cost of $100 billion.
According to the Air Force itself, however, there is no reason to buy new missiles. Between 2002 and 2012, it spent some $7 billion to upgrade the ICBMs to the point where an Air Force ICBM program analyst confirmed that they were “basically new missiles except for the shell.” Five years later, commenting on a successful ICBM missile flight test, the Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs Office boasted: “Through continuous upgrades, including new production versions, improved targeting systems, and enhanced accuracy, today’s Minuteman system remains state of the art and is capable of meeting all modern challenges.” Nothing has changed since then. On August 4, the Air Force conducted yet another successful ICBM flight test and proclaimed that it “demonstrates that the United States’ nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, reliable and effective to deter twenty-first century threats and reassure our allies.”
That $100 billion for 600 new — and unnecessary — ICBMs is only one item on the Pentagon’s nuclear procurement list. The United States plans to spend more than $1.5 trillion over the next 30 years to completely replace the entire nuclear triad with new weapons and delivery systems. Other items on the list include 12 new nuclear ballistic missile submarines at $109.8 billion; new, nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missiles at $16–18 billion; and 100 B-21 Raider stealth long-range bombers at $55 billion.
Given that the Pentagon and NNSA have routinely upgraded ICBMs, bombers and other key elements of the triad through what they call “service-life extension programs,” there is no pressing need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new versions of weapons that even former Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell says are “useless” and “must never be used.”
A MOVEMENT TO REIN IN SPENDING?
Congress may have rubber-stamped the Trump administration’s military budget, but there were some glimmers that priorities may be starting to shift. In May, 27 House members sent a letter to their Armed Services Committee urging it to reduce military spending to free up funding to combat what they called our “greatest adversary” — the pandemic.
In mid-July, the Congressional Progressive Caucus called for an amendment to trim the proposed military budget by 10 percent — $74 billion — and repurpose that money to fund healthcare, housing and education initiatives in marginalized communities. The amendment lost, but received 93 yea votes in the House and 24 in the Senate — a level of support that would have been implausible not that long ago.
Among the elected officials supporting the cuts was California Representative Ro Khanna. “Lawmakers must view issues like climate change, biosecurity, cybersecurity and this pandemic as serious and real national security threats facing our nation,” Khanna told The Hill, a political trade publication, in May. “For too long, we were myopically focused and spending trillions on traditional national security issues like terrorism and ‘great power’ politics. These new threats impact our health, safety and economy, requiring new funds to address them.”
Khanna also proposed an amendment to the NDAA that would have transferred $1 billion from R&D on a new generation of ICBMs to pandemic preparedness efforts, but the House Armed Services Committee quashed it by a 44 to 12 vote.
Given the economic belt-tightening on the horizon, Khanna’s perspective may presage a growing movement in Congress to curb runaway military spending in the years to come. Cutting annual US military outlays by 10 percent would be a good start, but even that would barely scratch the surface. Last year, Pentagon watchdog groups offered proposals for much deeper cuts that could still maintain a robust military.
For example, the Center for International Policy’s Sustainable Defense Task Force — a collection of former White House, congressional and Pentagon budget officials, ex-military officers, and think tank experts—published a report detailing how the Defense Department could cut $1.2 trillion in waste and inefficiency over the next decade.
The Project on Government Oversight’s Center for Defense Information posted a report recommending ways to cut the Pentagon’s annual budget by $199 billion without compromising national security or military capabilities. And the Poor People’s Campaign’s wide-ranging “moral budget” report went even further, calling for only $350 billion in annual military spending, essentially chopping the Pentagon budget in half.
As the United States begins the Herculean task of digging itself out from the worst economic downturn in generations, policy makers need to focus on rebuilding in smart and farsighted ways, and that means cutting unnecessary and wasteful spending whenever possible. As they do, one thing is clear: In the unprecedented era of tight budgets that lies ahead, the time is ripe to reevaluate and rein in a level of military spending that has delivered little true security and stolen from critical domestic priorities for far too long.
Elliott Negin, a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, was a foreign news editor at NPR in the 1990s and the editor of Nuclear Times, a peace and disarmament magazine, in the 1980s.
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