Nearly $1 Trillion in Military Spending Makes Us Less Safe, Not More

The Pentagon released its proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2025 this week. There were no major surprises, unless you’re shocked by the fact we are continuing to over-invest in a strategy and a military force structure that is making the world less secure.

If this budget goes through as requested, the Pentagon and related activities like work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy will come in at $894 billion. That’s slightly less than the number being debated for this year, but far more than the levels achieved at other major turning points like the Korean and Vietnam wars or the peak of the Cold War. Meanwhile, Congress has shown little ability to provide adequate input or oversight of these huge figures. Over five months into the new fiscal year, it has yet to even pass a 2024 budget.

What could possibly justify devoting these enormous sums to the Pentagon at a time of urgent national need to address other threats to our lives and livelihoods, from climate change to epidemics of disease to rampant inequality? The primary answer is the same one we have heard repeatedly in recent years: China, China, and China.

But as I have noted in a recent paper for the Brown University Costs of War Project, by any measure the United States already spends two to three times as much on its military as China does, and outpaces it by far in basic military capabilities like nuclear weapons, naval firepower, and modern transport and combat aircraft. In the areas where there is room for doubt about the relative military power of the two rivals, from emerging technology to the likely outcome of a war over Taiwan, dialogue and diplomacy offer a far better chance of reaching a stable accommodation than spinning out scenarios for “winning” a war between two nuclear-armed powers, or by running a costly new arms race.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric and resources underpinning the new Pentagon request are more consistent with arms racing than accommodation. The department remains firmly committed to its plan to build thousands of “autonomous, attritable systems” by August 2025, with the express purpose of developing the ability to overwhelm China in a conflict in Asia. In plain English, this means building swarms of drones and other high-tech systems controlled by artificial intelligence. And the plan is for these systems to be cheap and readily replaced if large numbers are destroyed in battle.

The idea that the U.S. arms industry can produce large numbers of new systems quickly and affordably, and build replacements on short notice, runs contrary to the experience of recent decades. It’s an exercise in wishful thinking that could result in the worst of both worlds — spurring China to increase its investments in next generation military technology even as it is unclear whether the United States can develop and integrate it successfully in any reasonable time frame.

Far from increasing our security, once these new systems are developed and fielded they will almost certainly make the world a more dangerous place. This point is underscored in a new report from Public Citizen which notes that “[i]ntroducing AI into the Pentagon’s everyday business, battlefield decision-making and weapons systems poses manifold risks.”

For example, although current Pentagon guidelines pledge to keep humans in the loop in decisions to engage in lethal force, once autonomous weapons are produced on a large scale the temptation to use them without human intervention will be great. This in turn will have a cascade of potential negative effects, from dehumanizing the targets of these systems, to making it easier to contemplate going to war, to risking mass slaughter caused by a malfunction in one of these complex systems.

And as Michael Klare has written in an analysis for the Arms Control Association, the dangers of AI and other emerging military technologies are likely to “expand into the nuclear realm by running up the escalation ladder or by blurring the distinction between a conventional and nuclear attack.”

Klare also rings the alarm bell about the real risks of technical failures involving next generation technologies:

“Non-military devices governed by AI, such as self-driving cars and facial-recognition systems, have been known to fail in dangerous and unpredictable ways; should similar failures occur among AI-empowered weaponry during wartime, the outcomes could include the unintended slaughter of civilians or the outbreak of nuclear war.”

These are all strong reasons to go slow and evaluate the consequences of applying AI to military operations, not engage in uncritical cheerleading that gives lip service to risk assessment while moving full speed ahead towards deployment of autonomous systems. To his credit, President Biden has pledged to promote talks with China on “risk and safety issues related to artificial intelligence.” An analysis by Sydney Freedberg of Breaking Defense points out that “the Chinese have been showing signs they are receptive, particularly when it comes to renouncing AI command-and-control systems for nuclear weapons.“ More discussions of this sort are urgently needed before moving full speed ahead on AI-driven weapons.

The urge to deploy AI and other emerging military technologies without adequate deliberation or scrutiny is just one of the troubling elements to come out of this week’s Pentagon budget release. Staying the course on the Pentagon’s plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons and continuing to subsidize a policy of global military reach that has helped spark the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to fuel future conflicts than prevent them. And despite President Biden’s recent, tougher rhetoric in response to Israel’s slaughter of tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, the White House fact sheet issued in conjunction with the Pentagon budget release provides a whitewashed, wildly misleading description of the U.S. role in enabling Israel’s brutal attacks:

“After Hamas’s horrific terrorist attacks against Israel, the President has led the United States to support Israel’s right to defend its country and protect its people in a way that upholds international humanitarian law, while ensuring the Palestinian people have access to vital humanitarian aid and lifesaving assistance.”

It is impossible to square these claims with the actual situation in Gaza, and attempting to do so makes a mockery of the administration’s repeated references to supporting a “rules-based international order.”

The bottom line is that the United States is spending far too much on the Pentagon, much of it in service of goals that are likely to cause far more harm than good. It’s time to reverse course, but neither the White House nor a majority in Congress are likely to do so of their own accord.

We must pay closer attention to the consequences of the massive military spending and widespread military activities being carried out in our name, and stand up for more realistic policies that can set the stage for a future free of unnecessary conflicts and dangerous arms racing. We can’t afford to let the Pentagon and the policies it underwrites continue on autopilot, promoting military approaches to problems that don’t have military solutions, all too often with disastrous results.

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William Hartung