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What Drives Record Spending on Defense?

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Pentagon's budget has hit a new milestone. Adjusted for inflation, it's the highest in more than 60 years. By the end of this year, the United States will spend three quarters of a trillion dollars - that's trillion, on defense. The average American household now pays about $8,000 in taxes a year just for the Defense Department. So we asked NPR's Guy Raz to take a look at how some of that money is spent.

GUY RAZ: Say you bought $3,000 worth of Lockheed Martin stock on September 10, 2001. Lockheed is the biggest defense contractor in America. Now if you bought that stock, your three grand would be worth close to $10,000 today. It's not that Lockheed has a revolutionary business model, but the past few years have been very good for business. The company's biggest customer is the U.S. government, so Lockheed's success hinges on increases in defense spending, spending on things like its F-22 fighter jet.

(Soundbite jet engine)

RAZ: The F-22 is the most expensive fighter jet in history, more than $300 million a pop. It has no rival and yet…

Mr. WINSLOW WHEELER (Analyst, Center for Defense Information): It is finally after 25 years of expensive development reached what the Air Force calls full operational capability, meaning that it's ready to go to war. We've got two wars going on, and it has not flown a single sortie in either war.

RAZ: This is Winslow Wheeler, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information. He says the F-22 serves little purpose today. It was designed to fight the Soviets in air-to-air combat. And the F-22 program alone has cost tax payers $60 billion or about as much as the GDP of a country like Slovakia or Vietnam. But the F-22 is still very much alive. It's alive, says Christopher Hellman, an analyst at the Center for Arms Control, because of one thing, Congress.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HELLMAN (Analyst, Center for Arms Control): Lockheed Martin very candidly will tell you on their Web site that they represent tens of thousands of employees in 45 of the 50 states. When you have that kind of political clout behind you, it's very easy to convince members of Congress that continuing a program like that is important to their constituencies.

RAZ: And Lockheed, like many other defense contractors, has managed to successfully equate its products with America's national security.

(Soundbite Lockheed Ad)

RAZ: This is one of the company's corporate ads. Lockheed, like all the major defense contractors, hands out campaign money to both Democrats and Republicans. President Bush is one of its biggest recipients, but so are two of the strongest opponents of the Iraq War in Congress: Democrats Jack Murtha, he's the chairman of the committee that doles out money to the Pentagon, and Ike Skelton, the congressman who oversees the military. Now, when Republicans control Congress, industry money trends their way. Now that Democrats control it, the trend has reversed.

Mr. HELLMAN: No one ever lost an election by voting for more spending for the Pentagon, but you can easily lose one by being perceived as soft on defense.

RAZ: Christopher Hellman notes that Lockheed's projects are just a part of what drives the defense budget. There's missile defense, new jet fighters, a new naval destroyer, Virginia class submarines, the list goes on. And budget analysts estimate that these big-ticket items now make up almost half of the Pentagon's regular budget. According to Miriam Pemberton, a researcher with the Institute for Policy Studies, many of these programs…

Ms. MIRIAM PEMBERTON (Researcher, Institute for Policy Studies): …have no real value for any, you know, counter-terrorism operations. You know, al-Qaida and the Taliban don't have any fighter jets and are never going get any. So, these big-ticket items drive the budget and become de facto our security priorities when they don't in fact enhance our security.

RAZ: And defense spending, she says, is no longer a controversial issue on Capitol Hill. But it wasn't always that way.

Unidentified Male: Members of the Congress, I have the distinguished honor of presenting to you the president of the United States.

RAZ: Just a few days after his inauguration in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower, who was the first general to serve as president in the 20th century, stunned Congress by promoting deep cuts in defense spending.

President Dwight Eisenhower (Former President): To a mass military power without regard to our economic capacity, would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another.

Mr. WHEELER: What Eisenhower said was true then, it's just that now it's 10 times more true.

RAZ: And as Winslow Wheeler points out, today, Congress usually adds more money to the Pentagon's budget requests. Wheeler was forced to step down from his job as a Republican staffer on the Senate budget committee in 2002 after he wrote an article blasting bloated defense spending. He explains that every year, members of Congress figure out which defense projects will benefit their own districts, and then they add it to the defense budget.

Mr. WHEELER: One of the misunderstandings about the pork system is that people think it's stuffed down the unwilling throat of the Defense Department. That is not the case in nine out of 10 cases. As a matter of fact, you won't get your pork project added to a defense appropriations bill unless someone in the Pentagon does approve the project.

RAZ: The United States now spends more on defense than every other country in the world combined, and the Pentagon's spending power alone makes it richer than Australia. And yet, over the past seven years, despite massive funding increases, troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced equipment shortages and lack of proper armor. Here's Christopher Hellman again.

Mr. HELLMAN: When we send our men and women off to war, we feel rightly that they be the best trained, best equipped, best supported military on the field. The irony, however, is that higher defense budgets don't necessarily mean that that will be the case.

Mr. WHEELER: We spend more today on defense than we have ever spent since the end of World War II, in inflation- adjusted dollars. Our military forces are today smaller than they've ever been since the end of World War II. We are quite literally getting less for more.

RAZ: Now, last year, researcher Miriam Pemberton took a hard look at the Pentagon's budget, and she wanted to answer a question.

Ms. PEMBERTON: It's important that we spend what we need to keep ourselves safe and secure, but the question is, you know, what kind of spending is going to do that best?

RAZ: So Pemberton crunched the numbers, and she found that the Pentagon could still fund troops, equipment, maintenance, even modernization, and on top of that put money into diplomacy, humanitarian aid, and other forms of preventative security and still easily cut the budget by 10 percent. And the value of that 10 percent alone? Well, it's still more than the combined annual wealth of Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Guy Raz
Guy Raz is an independent producer who has been described by the New York Times as "one of the most popular podcasters in history."