Earthlings Beware! Bloated US Defense Budget Includes ‘Space Force’

The law I am signing today provides $738 billion – that’s with a “B”. That’s an all-time record. … That brings our total investment in national defense, since my inauguration, to almost two and a half trillion dollars. And what’s the good of a budget if you don’t have the best military in the world?President Donald J. Trump, 20 December 2019

 

Well, it’s certainly a Happy New Year – and More War on Earth – for the Pentagon! Although December 2019 will be best remembered in American history for the party-line impeachment of President Donald J. Trump, the bipartisan approval of a $738 billion Defense Budget in the days before the holiday recess constituted an abuse of political process – and raid on the public purse – at least as grave as the alleged ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ of the Commander-in-Chief. The US continues to spend comfortably more than the next half dozen biggest militaries combined, and now over 10 times as much as Russia (with the gap growing) , while consuming over half its discretionary budget on ‘The Three Ws’: war (now $70+ billion a year on ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’), warriors and weapons.

President Donald Trump signs S.1790, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 as senior leaders look on, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019 At Joint Base Andrews.

President Donald Trump signs S.1790, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 as senior leaders look on, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019 At Joint Base Andrews. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Spencer Slocum)

The 3,488-page (!) National Defense Authorization Act NDAA, — passed in the House of Representatives by 377 votes to 48, and the Senate by 86 to 8  – doesn’t just dole out cash and contracts to hundreds of Congressional districts but decisively shapes policy priorities, often constraining the more megalomaniac militaristic impulses of the Executive branch. Under the Republican Presidency of George W. Bush, for example, Congress withheld authorization for the development of so-called ‘low-yield’ nuclear weapons like the chillingly-titled Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, mini-nukes of up 5 kilotons yield (one-third the Hiroshima blast) which Dubya had his heart set on deploying and quite possibly using to prevent — wait for it — nuclear proliferation in ‘rogue states.’

Under the divided government of the day, in other words, the US Constitution’s fabled ‘checks and balances’ actually checked and balanced. Yet in recent months of ‘conference’ negotiations aimed at reconciling the House and Senate versions of the NDAA, the Democratic-controlled House surrendered to demand after demand of the Republican-controlled Senate for programs and priorities making America, its allies, and indeed the whole world, radically less secure.

 

What went wrong? Declaring war, after all, is fundamentally a Congressional not a presidential prerogative – a custom admittedly more honored in the breach than the observance in recent decades – and Congress has traditionally exerted a major influence (not always positive) over military readiness, posture and doctrine. Indeed, after winning back control of the House in 2018, the Democrats last summer passed – with, unprecedentedly, no Republican support – a defense bill containing some encouragingly progressive, temperate provisions, including:

1) no funding for the new ‘low-yield’ submarine-launched nuclear warhead called for in administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR);

2) a ban on any ‘unauthorized’ – i.e. presidential, rather than Congressional – declaration of war against Iran;

3) repeal of the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Iraq, which remains, incredibly, the ‘legal’ basis for ongoing American military interventions;

4) prohibition of exports of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, a state which has openly embraced the prospect of joining the current 9-member club (US, UK, Russia, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea) of nuclear-armed powers;

6) an end to US support for, and participation in, the catastrophic Saudi-led war against Yemen;

7) a requirement for the US to pursue a diplomatic solution to the North Korea nuclear crisis, including efforts to formally end the Korean war (suspended by a 1953 Armistice intended to lead to a peace treaty – within 90 days!).

By the close of conference ‘negotiations’ (a term traditionally connoting take as well as give) a grand total of none of these ‘Sane Seven’ provisions was left standing. Neither was a ban on diverting funds to ‘build the wall’ – and persecute asylum-seekers and other migrants – on the US-Mexico border; or an end to the blatantly discriminatory ban on transgender members of the military; or funding to remove the toxic chemicals polluting drinking water and ground soil on and around hundreds of military bases. What’s left of the anti-war left was left stunned: but not speechless. On December 10, the day after the House vote, a joint statement from 38 progressive organizations described the “near complete capitulation” as a “blank check for endless wars, fuel for the further militarization of US foreign policy, and a gift to Donald Trump”.

One of the signatories was the non-partisan Arms Control Association (ACA), dismayed most of all by the green light for ‘mini-nukes.’ As ACA analyst Kingston Reif told Roll Call on December 10:

In blessing the deployment of a new, low-yield warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles, Congress is giving President Trump before the end of his first term a more usable nuclear weapon that is a dangerous solution in search of a problem.

 

Also on December 10, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont), running for the Democratic presidential nomination, issued a joint statement  with Democratic Representative Ro Khanna (California), daring to call the bipartisan NDAA “a bill of astonishing moral cowardice” which:

…does nothing to rein-in out of control military spending, prevent unconstitutional war against Iran, limit the poisoning of Americans’ drinking water, or end the obscenity of innocent children in Yemen being killed by US bombs.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Independent, Vermont) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (Independent, Vermont) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif)

Sentiments shared by Senator Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), Sanders’ friendly rival for the presidential nomination, who tweeted her dismay at “a $738 billion Christmas present top giant defense contractors” which “undermines our values and security.” Khanna took particular exception to the “Orwellian” claim by the lead House Democrat in the conference process, Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (also from California) that the NDAA was “the most progressive defense bill we have passed in decades” due to a 3.1% increase in pay, improved benefits, and the path-breaking provision of 12-weeks parental leave. But is an increasingly war-torn world, an increased risk of nuclear conflagration, and indeed far less money for myriad progressive causes, a price worth paying for such ‘progress’?

Nor could Smith’s depiction be reconciled with what Roll Call’s John M. Donnelly called the “measured glee” and “barely contained joy” of Republicans. “Somehow,” as the Ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry of Texas, conceded:

…you had two very different bills…that had to come together. It has been incredibly challenging, but enormous credit goes to Chairman Smith for his patience and his persistence…

Or, less diplomatically, as the President tweeted:

 

In some alarming ways, however, the House and Senate versions were not ‘very different’. Most distressingly, from an Apocalypse Soon perspective, was the bicameral, bipartisan establishment of the number one item on Trump’s Xmas wish-list, a ‘Space Force’ set to function as the nation’s sixth separate armed service (after the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines). On December 20, signing the NDAA at Andrews Joint Forces Base in Maryland, Trump described the new force as “something really incredible.”

Space. Space. Going to be a lot of things happening in space.

Yes, and one of them – apparently inevitably – is going to be war:

Space is the world’s newest warfighting domain. … American superiority in space is absolutely vital. And we’re leading, but we’re not leading by enough. But very shortly, we’ll be leading by a lot…

The Space Force, Trump crowed, will help the American Eagle “control the ultimate high ground”: ground the international community has for decades striven to prevent from becoming the ‘final frontier’ of the military-industrial complex. One reason the Pentagon is keen ‘take control’ of space is to place interceptors and sensors in orbit to track and destroy ballistic missiles launched in any nuclear exchange. This prospect, in turn, is certain to provoke China and Russia into a space-based arms race — and increase the temptation to launch a massive nuclear first-strike (probably at the terrifying new hypersonic speeds being tested) in any crisis. And although the NDAA prohibits the deployment of (currently non-existent) space-based missile defense weapons, it permits their research and development, while allotting $108 million to develop space-based sensors. (Where, one asks, was the Breaking News? ‘Earthlings, Beware: You May Soon Be Attacked from Space – By Yourselves!’)

President Donald Trump speaks during an event at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Dec. 20, 2019.

President Donald Trump speaks during an event at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Dec. 20, 2019. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Spencer Slocum)

The conference bill also authorizes $1.237 billion for what the distinctly unradical CATO Institute calls “the least reliable and most destabilizing part” of America’s sprawling missile defense “architecture”: ‘Ground-Based Mid-Course’ interceptors which can’t even pass the notoriously-rigged tests painstakingly prepared for them.  And bizarrely, the ‘compromise’ funding was more than either the Senate – $1.2 billion – or House – $960 million – called for!

Which brings us to the most obviously-repellent similarity between the House and Senate versions: as the 38-group statement notes, the “obscene” NDAA:

…further inflating the Pentagon’s overstuffed coffers, perpetuates a system that treats military intervention as the solution to all world problems. Meanwhile, every dollar spent by the Pentagon is a dollar not spent on education, healthcare, or climate.

(On climate, of course, the problem is not just the lack of money spent tackling the problem, but the way militarism makes the problem worse  – and, in the atomic age, runs the risk of unleashing what former senior US State Department diplomat Thomas Countryman recently called “climate change at supersonic speed.” The statement continues:

When critics attack social spending by asking ‘how will you pay for it?’ this will be our answer.

But the waste (of both money and opportunity) would have been almost as ‘obscene’ if the House bill – at $733 billion, compared to the Senate’s $750 billion – had become law unamended. As Jessica F. Mathews wrote in The New York Review of Books last July:

The sheer size of the military establishment and the habit of equating spending with patriotism make both sound management and serious oversight of defense expenditures rare. As a democracy, we are on an unusual and risky path. For several decades, we have maintained an extraordinarily high level of defense spending with the support of both political parties and virtually all of the public. The annual debate about the next year’s military spending…no longer probes where real cuts might be made…but only asks how big the increase should be.

 

Such insane budgets – now over $80-million an hour!  – can be reached only by crooked paths and devious means: more tanks and helicopters than many experts believe the Army needs; more multi-billion aircraft carriers and submarines than many experts believe the Navy needs; a dozen more F-35 nuclear capable ‘stealth’ bombers (at $90 million a pop) than the Air Force asked for.

Such, then, the Big Picture: the Monstrous Banquet. But to close, let us zoom in on a tiny, telling detail, the rank weeds of Section 854 (pp. 770-772), ‘Addition of Domestically Produced Stainless Steel Flatware and Dinnerware,’ the award of a monopoly contract for all Pentagon cutlery to the sole US producer, struggling Sherrill Manufacturing (and its charming ‘Liberty Tabletop’ range) in an upstate New York swing district won by Trump in 2016 and in 2018 by Democrat Anthony Brindisi.

The Section – one of 439 amendments rammed into the House version – includes a requirement for the Defense Department to submit, “not later than October 1, 2020,” a “description of national security considerations…regarding whether the procurement of dinnerware and stainless steel flatware should be limited to sources in the United States” – prompting Representative Thornberry to complain (though perhaps only because of the Democrat source of the ‘pork’):

I have yet to hear a national security justification to dictate where DoD buys its knives and forks and spoons and plates. Where does it stop? What about the napkins?

Technically, the Section imported a separate measure, the Support Procurement of Our Nation’s Stainless Steel – yes, folks, the SPOONSS – Act into the Authorization: a maneuver unsuccessfully attempted in recent years by Brindisi’s predecessor Claudia Tenney (Democrat). This time, though the Senate bill contained no such provision, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, worked hard to play the SPOONSS into the final version, as did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, from distant California but worried about Brindisi’s re-election and his reported attack of political nerves on voting for impeachment.

Sherrill Manufacturing flatware (source: https://www.libertytabletop.com/)

Weaponized flatware? “Liberty Tabletop” cutlery from Sherrill Manufacturing. (Source: Sherrill website)

The raiders of the dark purse were gung-ho:  “Stick a fork in it,” said Brindisi, “my SPOONSS ACT will help upstate companies like Sherill manufacturing” (a baffling comment, as there are no other comparable companies). “I’m proud I worked with Congressman Anthony Brindisi,” Schumer said, “to finally put a fork in the issue.” Or in the tasteful take of a local media headline:

FORKING AMAZING!

The odds are slimmer than an arms-company lobbyist’s conscience that no other dirty deals were done, or other swing-district stockings stuffed, as the endless NDAA gravy train was waved on its merry way down Pennsylvania Ave. The Schumer-Pelosi leadership, in fact, seemed bent on taking a leaf from Boris Johnson’s one-leaf UK election book (Let’s Get Brexit Done!) by ‘getting Defense done,’ clearing the table for the main course of Impeachment.

But though the NDAA mandates a number of ‘independent’ reports which could nudge American defense policy in a saner direction – on the costs and rationale of nuclear weapons modernization, for example, or the merits of adopting a nuclear ‘No-First-Use’ posture – the most urgently needed review is of the defense authorization process itself.

A review surely likely to conclude that, in the court of public opinion at least, the Congress itself deserves to be impeached. On two counts of dereliction of duty.

To democracy. And humanity.

Sean Howard

 

 

Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. He may be reached here.