Balancing the Federal Budget: Defense

Aside from Medicare/Medicaid spending, the defense budget is one of the most discussed budgetary categories with spending of $585 billion in 2016. Defense spending ranks as the fourth largest spending category in the federal budget.


Even though spending has nearly doubled since 2001, spending as a percentage of GDP has hovered around 3.5%31.


The Problem

Defense spending, though a small percentage of the national GDP, is still about 14% of the federal budget. The biggest problem is how the money is being used.

Here are some examples of current potentially wasteful military spending:

Overseas bases of operation: The U.S. military maintains an estimated 800 bases overseas, accounting for up to $100 billion in expenses32.

R&D Contracts:  Development of the F-35 program, which has an expected lifespan through 2064, has a cost estimate of more than $1 trillion33. This represents a cost of more than $21 billion per year for production, training, and maintenance.

Unwanted Military Production: Mississipi’s cutter, Maine’s destroyer, and Abrams tanks. Representing $640 million, $1 billion, and $183 million respectively34. Assets and spending bills are being allocated to the military that the military has not requested. On the contrary, the Pentagon asked Congress not to purchase the Abrams tanks and were ignored35.

Guantanamo Bay: This highly controversial military prison camp is estimated to cost $450 million annually to operate, or about $2.7 million per inmate per year held there34.

Potential Solutions

Reduction in Overseas Military Bases/Conversion to Joint Bases: Reduce the number of overseas military bases, limiting presence to strategic locations. Expand joint military base efforts with allies overseas.

Review of Existing Military Contracts and Contractors: The Department of Defense allocated $283 billion to federal contracts36. This spending should be reviewed for effectiveness and competitiveness, as well as reliance on non-friendly foreign hardware and services. A fair and metric-driven bidding process should take place to properly award contracts.

Review of Military Spending Process: Unnecessary military spending should not be mandated by Congress, especially when it conflicts with the management and strategy of military leadership.

U.N. Efforts: Increase funding and support of United Nations efforts. Rather than dedicating U.S. forces to individual efforts, organize and petition for coordinated efforts.

Projected Effects

  • Reduction in military spending to 1.5% of GDP or approximately $278.43 billion.
  • Decreased reliance on U.S.-only military responses and increased international efforts.
  • Refocus of military spending on highly targeted, strategic, high-impact initiatives.

Next on the list is Income Security, which rounds out the top 6 federal spending categories (not including interest on the national debt).



31 U.S. Department of Defense. FY 2016 Budget Proposal.

32 Vine. 2015. Where in the World is the U.S. Military?

33 Wolff-Mann. 2016. 7 Amazing Things America Could Have Bought Instead of a $1.45 Trillion Jet.

34 Tiefer. 2016. The 10 Most Blatantly Wasteful Defense Items In The Recent $1.8 Trillion Spending Bill.

35 Cox. 2015. Pentagon Tells Congress to Stop Buying Equipment it Doesn’t Need.

36 Schwartz, Sargent Jr., Nelson, Coral. 2016. Defense Acquisitions: How and Where DOD Spends and Reports Its Contracting Dollars.


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