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Nuclear Weapons

Pandemic Chronicles: The Unhealthy Symbiosis of the Military-Industrial Complex

by Jasmine Owens
April 27, 2020

The military-industrial complex has a chokehold on the U.S. government, reducing its ability to effectively respond to more pressing national security threats like the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a farewell speech to the nation in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of a major threat to the country. This was the military-industrial complex, a coalition of defense contractors and armed forces. At the time, he worried that the spiraling nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union would take away resources from other vital governmental programs, like funding schools or hospitals. 

President Eisenhower’s fears have become a reality. Spending on defense takes up almost 60% of the discretionary budget (The discretionary budget is what’s left after paying for Social security, Medicare/Medicaid, and other mandatory spending.) The U.S. defense budget is larger than any other country’s. By a lot. It’s more than the combined defense budgets of the next eight largest spenders (China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Britain, Germany and Japan). The only country of those eight that might plausibly be considered a strategic competitor is China.

man speaks at lecturn

President Eisenhower warned about an alliance between the military and industrial defense manufacturers that would lead to run-away defense spending.

Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The 2020 defense appropriations clocked in at $738 billion. About 5% of that bill, or $37.3 billion, will be spent on various nuclear weapons-related activities. For 2021, President Trump is requesting a further increase to the defense budget to the tune of $740.5 billion, of which about $44.5 billion (or about 6%) would be dedicated to nuclear weapons. This increase is only $2.5 billion, a drop of water in the unfathomable deep pool of defense spending. Yet this money could be shifted to other government programs that need it more.

Wasteful Spending

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a poll in December 2018 in which it asked federal agencies what the emerging threats are that the U.S. faces. The four broad threat categories were: adversaries’ political and military advancements, dual-use technologies, weapons, and events and demographic changes like infectious disease outbreaks. The government claims the massive defense budget is required to combat the first three threats, yet it is not spending its budget wisely to combat them.

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The government refuses to look closely at the defense budget and make reassessments. This has led to funding for weapons and facilities that are no longer affordable. The F-35 program is an example of this. The Pentagon put together a 60-year plan, to construct the F-35 plane meant to replace combat aircraft throughout the military. Yet the plane has faced countless technical and operational issues, including bursting into flames. The program is expected to cost American taxpayers over $1 trillion and may grow as it continues to create more problems for the military. With production spread across the country, Congress will not scrap the program no matter how much it costs in order to placate stakeholders and preserve their own interests.

fighter craft in the sky

The F-35 fighter plane is a prime example of out-of-control defense spending.  With distributed manufacturing in multiple states across the country, Congress has little incentive to cut spending on this program.

George Frey/Getty Images

Beyond pork-barrel spending, defense spending is also responsible for an obscene amount of waste. In 2018, the defense department was paying more than $10,000 apiece for airborne toilet seat covers and buying 25 reheatable drinking cups for $56,000. There are many more examples just like this, and it’s been going on for decades.

Ignoring the Real Threat

The government has done little to prepare the U.S. to combat perhaps the most imminent threat identified in the GAO poll: events and demographic changes. This includes infectious disease outbreaks like the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration has made repeated requests to enforce cuts to public health agencies like the Center for Disease Control or the National Institute of Health. These agencies are central to the government’s ability to respond to events like the COVID-19 pandemic. In May of 2018, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton disbanded the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. This team, serving as a pandemic response group, was never replaced.

In July of 2019 the Trump administration also cut a vital public health position in China. Its purpose was to help detect disease outbreaks there. Experts say the international community could have been alerted to the coronavirus threat perhaps weeks earlier had this position still been in place.

two men testify before Congress

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing concerning the Department of Defense budget on March 4, 2020. Esper and Milley testified about the Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2021 and the Future Years Defense Program.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Pandemic Preparedness is Possible

Congress can’t and won’t agree to reduce the defense budget because individual members of Congress act in their own self-interest.  Weapons manufacturers and subcontractors are located throughout the country. Members of Congress increase defense spending in order to secure political support among their constituents by bringing more money into their state and protecting their constituents’ jobs

Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that manufacturing jobs can be quickly reoriented when the motivation is there. Around the U.S., factories have begun to make the switch to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPEs) and ventilators for healthcare workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The main obstacle standing in their way is a lack of political will by the government to make it easier to produce and disburse this equipment. It begs the question, why couldn’t defense manufacturing also be reoriented?

factory worker by a pile of masks

A worker at NorthCape, an outdoor furniture manufacturer, makes personal protective equipment (PPE) on March 30, 2020 in Alsip, Illinois. The company, after learning of a need for protective masks and hospital gowns to help in the battle against the coronavirus COVID-19, called back their skilled workforce and transitioned the factory from making furniture cushions to the PPE.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

It is clear that companies have the ability to shift production to help bolster the public health response. In the future, this should not be a reactionary measure, but a precautionary one. It is entirely possible to reduce defense spending on things like nuclear weapons and shift finances to help strengthen other sectors like public health and green energy. This will allow the U.S. to better respond to more imminent threats like a pandemic with less impact on jobs and employment. 

President Eisenhower warned us almost 60 years ago of the dangers of the military-industrial complex diminishing the capacity of other government duties. His warnings were ignored, and now the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on the U.S. If we can’t figure out a way to stop the run-away train that is the military-industrial complex, the U.S. will continue to struggle to protect its people against more pressing threats like that of COVID-19.

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