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Washington’s defense spending habit is a cluster bomb of strategic risk

With all those weapons, the U.S. is never just in for a dime

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks at a NATO summit Wednesday as President Joe Biden looks on.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks at a NATO summit Wednesday as President Joe Biden looks on. (Getty Images)

“If you build it, he will come.”

That was true of a fictional baseball diamond in the middle of a corn field in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” And it’s true of Washington’s defense spending addiction.

The Pentagon awarded $423.9 billion in contracts to weapons manufacturers and other companies in fiscal 2022, according to Forecast International, a research and analysis firm that focuses on the global defense and aerospace markets. That was up 7 percent from fiscal 2021.

In defense circles, no bumper-sticker marketing slogan masquerading as actual strategy lasts more than a few budget cycles. But one thing holds true: The rich get richer, regardless of whether the combat platforms and support systems they eventually deliver to the Pentagon actually perform well in battle — or if the United States is strategically victorious, a rarity since World War II.

Forecast International concluded that its top 100 defense contractors in fiscal 2022 gobbled up $258.4 billion, or 61 percent, of the total that was awarded to private firms from the Pentagon’s budget. In fiscal 2021, they secured 61 percent of the total dollars awarded.

The Biden administration requested $842 billion for the military in fiscal 2024, up $26 billion from the enacted amount in fiscal 2023. So even if House GOP conservatives force a slightly smaller overall defense spending figure for next year than the president requested, there still will be hundreds of billions of dollars to hand out to arms manufacturers.

That includes the top defense firms like Textron. It was the last U.S. company that produced cluster munitions. The Rhode Island-based firm announced in 2016 that it would cease production of the weapons, which include explosive bomblets that are indiscriminately sprayed over a wide area. Human rights groups want them banned because they have killed civilians.

The list of sure-to-profit-mightily companies once a final 2024 Defense appropriations measure is enacted also includes defense-sector powerhouse Northrop Grumman. Until last week, it had been managing a federal program to test the shelf life of America’s remaining cluster bombs. But last Friday, Northrop CEO Kathy Warden announced that the company would exit the cluster-management contract after the Biden administration said it would start sending the controversial munitions to Ukraine.

But there will be plenty of other opportunities for Textron (No. 66 on the Forecast list) and Northrop (No. 6) to rake in taxpayer dollars next year — and for years to come. That means, even if Washington does not have an actual pressing need for all kinds of weapons platforms, the military-industrial-congressional complex will have plenty of cash to simply build them anyway.

And that means America will continue to possess stockpiles of weapons, even some that most of the rest of the world could deem too extreme and too dangerous. But they will have been built, so allies, in their times of need, will come.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy knows just how addicted Washington has become to massive Pentagon budgets — with all those jobs sprinkled from sea to shining sea — that far outweigh the gross domestic products of a long list of countries, according to World Bank data. He also knows about all the weapons U.S. taxpayer dollars have produced, some just sitting around inside Pentagon facilities.

Zelenskyy’s time of need came in February 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine. Since then, he has never been hesitant to come to U.S. officials for all they had built.

Since the war began, the Biden administration and Congress have shipped $46.6 billion worth of military aid to Kyiv, according to a Council on Foreign Relations analysis last updated Monday. That includes $23.5 billion for weapons and equipment from DoD stockpiles and $18.3 billion for training, other equipment and weapons, logistical support and other assistance, according to CFR, which found that yet another $4.6 billion was sent to Ukrainian officials as grants and loans for weapons.

Just last week, Zelenskyy sat for a CNN interview in which he said Washington and other Western allies needed to send even more in military aid to prevent a Russian victory on his soil. Tuesday brought more harsh words, with Zelenskyy decrying the NATO alliance’s “weakness” by not inviting his country into its ranks. Back home, the White House’s cluster bomb announcement continues to draw criticism and scrutiny from inside the president’s own party.

For good reason. In February 2022, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about reports that Russia was considering using cluster bombs in Ukraine, and whether that could be a red line for President Joe Biden. This was her response: “It … would be. I don’t have any confirmation of that. We have seen the reports. If that were true, it would potentially be a war crime.”

In for a dime …

The White House defended the decision to provide the weapons last week, arguing that Russia was already using them in Ukraine, and that Ukrainians would use them in a way to avoid killing their own civilians. “There is also a massive risk of civilian harm if Russian troops and tanks roll over Ukrainian positions,” Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, said on July 7.

Many congressional Democrats, however, are questioning the move.

“I have concerns about the cluster bombs,” Senate Armed Services Committee member Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, said Wednesday, declining further comment until she has more information from the administration.

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, another Armed Services Democrat, also raised deep concerns — though he said administration officials “listened to those concerns … and tried really hard to calibrate how [the clusters] would be used.” Still, he said it is concerning “that there’s an international prohibition.”

That’s problematic, Kaine said, because “if one nation says, ‘We got a good reason to get around the prohibition,’ it could give others a green light. … There’s an international prohibition for a reason, and the U.S. should be a leader.”

Over in the House, Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts this week said he is “not in alignment with the president on using cluster munitions.”

“I know there’s a division in our caucus, and I think there’s … even some Republicans who may not think that is … a wise choice,” he said.

Only that congressional Democrats have mostly bought in to Washington’s defense spending habit. So when allies come, they would be wise to remember they helped build whatever weapon might be requested next.

The curious case of the clusters shows how Washington’s defense spending addiction can resemble a strategic trap. The U.S. and its Western allies, Biden said, have been unable to produce enough artillery shells to keep pace with how many the Ukrainian military is firing each month. So there sat the cluster bombs the U.S. built and paid handsomely to maintain. So Zelenskyy came asking. Under pressure from his embattled ally, Biden eventually gave his approval.

His decision shows that since Washington Republicans and Democrats have decided a peacetime U.S. military needs a military budget on a path toward $1 trillion a year, U.S. allies are going to expect Washington to always help by emptying its combat stockpiles.

Again. And again. And again.

Without a serious examination of the country’s true defense spending needs, the United States will always find it hard to be in an ally’s conflict for just a dime. With all its combat hardware stockpiles — and all those dollars guaranteed to be coming soon to replenish them — Uncle Sam, once involved, will always be in for the full dollar.

Or, in this case, $46 billion against a nuclear-armed opponent with no outcome in sight — and counting, with a strategic victory still very much in doubt.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter. Bennett covered defense spending for 13 years. His column will return Friday, July 28.

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