The Pentagon: A Budgetary 'Train Wreck'?

Student readings offer an overview of the defense budget and the Pentagon; explore the issues surrounding production of the F22; and discuss the military-industrial-congressional complex. Discussion questions follow. The accompanying DBQ exercise is described below.

By Alan Shapiro

To the Teacher

It is very difficult to grasp the immensity of the U.S. defense budget and the complexity of how it is spent. In fact it's so complex that not even the Pentagon can account for it all. It's also hard to quantify the global reach of American military, and the often cozy, self-interested interrelationships of the military, defense industries and Congress as they allocate mind-boggling sums.

Following an introduction, the first student reading below offers an overview of the defense budget and a description of the Pentagon itself and its worldwide presence. The second reading is a short account of the creation of the F-22 and problems associated with it. The third reading offers some particulars about how the military-industrial-congressional complex works. Discussion questions follow. A companion DBQ asks students to consider and write an essay about competing views of this issue.

In the high school section of TeachableMoment, teachers will find earlier sets of materials dealing with the politics of defense spending and the operations of the military-industrial-congressional complex: "Money in Politics: Gifts, Earmarks, Revolving Doors," "The Congressional Earmark," "Military Spending & the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex," and "The K Street Strategy."


Introduction: Defense complexities

The U.S. needs to defend itself. Among other things, this means:

  • an army, a navy, a marine corps, an air force
  • maintenance and care for troops-food, housing, clothing, equipment, pay
  • weapons, ships, planes, tanks
  • military long-range planning
  • congressional and presidential long-range planning and decision-making about funding

Each military service has a needs list and a wish list. Sometimes the services exaggerate their needs; sometimes the services have conflicts about how military dollars should be spent. There are also conflicts about this question among lawmakers, who compete for defense jobs. A legislator's ability to hold onto his or her job often depends on bringing home defense dollars and jobs.

The readings below explore these issues.


Student Reading 1:

The Pentagon's global presence, its costs, question mark


Department of Defense budget

The U.S. military is facing a budgetary "train wreck," said Senator John McCain (R-AR). McCain and Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, found that the cost of 95 major weapons systems-ships, aircraft and armored vehicles had "ballooned by a total of 30 percent in recent years to about $1.3 trillion," CNN reported. "The senators announced an effort, including legislation to rein in that spending and tighten Defense Department oversight." (, 2/24/09)

Two days later President Obama announced a budget plan that proposes a 4 percent increase in basic military spending.


The Pentagon

The Pentagon, the building that is the headquarters for the U.S. Defense Department, is one of the world's largest office buildings. It has three times more floor space than the New York City's Empire State Building. The U.S. Capitol could fit into any one of the five wedge-shaped sections that make up the Pentagon building.

The Pentagon's website describes the building as "virtually a city in itself. Approximately 23,000 employees, both military and civilian, contribute to the planning and execution of the defense of our country...They ride past 200 acres of lawn to park approximately 8,770 cars in 16 parking lots, climb 131 stairways or ride 19 escalators to reach offices...While in the building, they tell time by 4,200 clocks, drink from 691 water fountains, utilize 284 rest rooms, consume 4,500 cups of coffee, 1,700 pints of milk and 6,800 soft drinks..." (Source is no longer active.)

The official Defense Department budget for 2008 is $625,000,000,000.

However, the unofficial Defense Department budget for 2008 is $1,000,000,000,000. That's because the official budget does not include approximately $375,000,000,000 for other defense-related expenses, including:

  • costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • developing and maintaining nuclear weapons stockpile
  • homeland security
  • military aid to allies
  • care of wounded veterans
  • veterans' pensions
  • interest on national debt for past wars
  • funding for secret defense projects

The Defense Department's official budget is 20% of the total U.S. budget, and is approximately the same as the military budgets of all other nations combined. (Winslow Wheeler, Center for Defense Information,, 11/3/08) The Pentagon's unofficial budget, at 51% of the total U.S. budget, amounts to more money than all the other items in the U.S. budget combined.

Worldwide bases

At the height of the Roman Empire, the Romans had about 37 major bases across lands under their control. The British Empire had 36 in its heyday. (, 9/4/08, source is no longer active) Both are dwarfed by the American global presence today. According to the Pentagon, the United States has 761 official military "sites" abroad. Many are in Germany and Japan, and have housed American troops since the end of World War II 64 years ago. Some—like one in Israel's Negev Desert and another in Poland—have not yet been occupied but are on the drawing board.

Since 1945, bases have been created worldwide for American soldiers, airmen and women, sailors and/or marines in 39 countries, including Australia, Greenland, Colombia, Rumania, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Ecuador, the Azores, Turkey, Spain, Iceland, Singapore, Malaysia and Diego Garcia.

There are bases elsewhere the Pentagon does not count for one reason or another. In a few places the home country does not want to acknowledge a base's existence—Jordan and Pakistan, for example. The huge Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and Balad Air Base and Camp Victory in Iraq don't count either, even though they are home to tens of thousands of troops and offer many of the amenities of their hometowns—swimming pools, McDonalds, bowling alleys.

Dozens of additional bases are scattered across the United States, in Puerto Rico, and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Finally, there are the floating bases in U.S. naval fleets around the world. These bases include 5,000-6,000 troops and huge aircraft carriers.

A $15 billion question mark

The cost of these bases, troop training, high tech military equipment, and many other elements in the Pentagon budget are astronomical. Just providing schooling for the children of American troops abroad runs to about $3.5 billion. (Nick Turse,, 10/26/08)

And, according to an Associated Press investigation, "This year, the Pentagon will employ 27,000 people just for recruitment, advertising and public relations-almost as many as the total 30,000-person work force in the State Department." The cost will be "at least $4.7 billion."

But sometimes, Defense Department money falls into a black hole. "We don't know what we paid for," said Mary Ugone, the Defense Department's deputy inspector general for auditing. She was referring to "massive Pentagon payments made during the occupation and war in Iraq for which there is no existing (or grossly inadequate) documentation. In fact, according to the inspector general for the Defense Department, 'the Pentagon cannot account for almost $15 billion worth of goods and services ranging from trucks, bottle water and mattresses to rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns that were bought from contractors in the Iraq reconstruction effort.'

"An internal audit of $8 billion that the Pentagon paid out to U.S. and Iraqi private contractors found that 'nearly every transaction failed to comply with federal laws or regulations aimed at preventing fraud, in some cases lacking even basic invoices explaining how the money was spent.'" (, "The Pentagon Takes Over," 5/27/08)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Funding for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was not included in the official Department of Defense budget under President Bush, but paid for through what is called "supplementary" spending bills. Why? If you don't know, how might you find out?

3. Consider the locations of any two or three U.S. military bases abroad. How would you explain why they are located where they are? If you don't know, how might you find out?

4. Why do you suppose the Pentagon cannot account for $15 billion spent for the Iraq reconstruction effort? If you don't know, how might you find out?


Student Reading 2:

The defense budget, the F-22, and jobs

More F-22s?

Take a look at the high-flying, lightning fast F-22 Raptor at
The commercial tells us that production of the plane employs 95,000 and protects 300,000,000 people.

Planning for the F-22 goes back to the waning Cold War days of 1986 when the Air Force warned that the Soviet Union had a very fast, highly maneuverable fighter on its drawing boards. By the time the first F-22 was completed in 1997, the Soviet Union had collapsed along with any plans it had for a fighter.

Lockheed Martin, the F-22's main contractor, argued that the plane was needed anyway. It is a stealth fighter, which means that it has a shape that reduces, but does not eliminate, its visibility on radar (no plane is invisible to all radar), can fly at twice the speed of sound, and can maneuver at very high altitudes. By mid-2008, the Air Force had received 122 of these planes—at a cost of over $350 million per plane. It is the most expensive fighter plane ever built. The Air Force wants 198 more F-22s.

However, Defense Secretary Robert Gates opposes this request for two reasons: 1) There are no other rival planes anywhere for F-22s to fight. None has its speed and maneuverability and none can reach its heights; 2) In the counter-insurgency wars the U.S. is most likely to fight—like those in Iraq and Afghanistan—F-22s have yet to fly a single mission. So why does America need more?

Beginning in 1976, the F-16 was the country's workhouse fighter. Its only possible opponents are allies and third world customers to whom the plane has been sold or given. But the Air Force argues that in a war with a country with F-16s, the U.S. might be defeated by its own equipment. Therefore F-22 production should continue.

Some Pentagon critics charge that "the Air Force and prime contractors lobby for arms sales abroad because they artificially generate a demand for new weapons at home that are 'better' than the ones we've sold elsewhere." (Chalmers Johnson, "Economic Death Spiral at the Pentagon,, 2/2/09)


Job creation & wasteful spending

At a time of economic crisis, President Obama is promising to create jobs and eliminate wasteful spending—two goals that seem in conflict as he considers a decision about the F-22's future. Air Force officials want to produce 60 F-22s or more, and that would cost billions. However, that money would help generate jobs at companies in 44 states that make parts for the planes.

According to Aviation Week, senior Pentagon acquisition officials want to shut down production of the F-22 to cut defense spending. (, 2/8/09) But top House and Senate lawmakers in defense appropriation committees wrote to Secretary Gates late last year, arguing that "the last thing our nation needs is to terminate jobs in this time of such economic uncertainty." (Christopher Drew, "A Fighter Jet's Fate Poses a Quandary for Obama," New York Times, 12/2/08) In an online F-22 commercial, defense contractors Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney stressed that 95,000 jobs depended on continued production.

But what would additional F-22s be used for? According to Winslow Wheeler, an analyst for the non-profit Center for Defense Information, to build more would "continue all the fundamental problems we've been having over the last 30 years, where each new weapons system costs so much that we end up with a dwindling inventory of planes, ships and tanks. It's the first test of whether President Obama is going to go along with business as usual or instead will bring much needed change to the Pentagon."

President Obama has said that "we're not paying for cold-war-era weapons we don't use."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. When did the Air Force decide that it needed the F-22 ? Why?

3. Why does the Air Force now want more F-22s? Why has Defense Secretary Gates opposed its request?

4. Why might Air Force and defense contractors lobby Congress for arms sales abroad?

5. What conflict faces President Obama as he considers a decision about the F-22's future?


Student Reading 3:

President Eisenhower's warning


Defense contracts, lobbyists, earmarks & campaign cash

In 2008, 104 members of the House of Representatives secured earmarks, add-ons to defense appropriations bills, worth $300 million. They did so for clients of the PMA Group, a lobbying firm that worked to win defense contracts for Lockheed Martin and other defense companies. PMA has provided $1.8 million in campaign contributions to 91 of the House legislators since 2001, according to the Congressional Quarterly and Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Among them was the chairman of the House defense appropriations committee, Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat. He has earmarked $38.1 million for PMA and received $143,000 in contributions. Paul Magliocchetti, a former aide to Murtha who contributed $98,000 to the Congressman in 2008, founded PMA and built a staff that included other former Murtha aides. (, 2/13/09 and, 2/20/09)

In a New York Times op-ed, Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has worked hard and, for the most part, futilely to curb earmarks, notes that "House rules require members submitting earmark requests to certify that they have no 'financial interest' in doing so." However, he says, the House ethics manual essentially provides a loophole, since "a contribution to a member's principal campaign committee or leadership PAC [Political Action Committee] generally would not constitute the type of 'financial interest' referred to in the rule." ("Of Pork and Payback," New York Times, 2/24/09)

In 2008, Boeing spent $16.6 million lobbying Congress. Northrop Grumman almost doubled its lobby budget to $20.6 million. And Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor of the F-22, increased its lobbying efforts by 54%, according to August Cole in the Wall Street Journal (1/28/09).

"Unwarranted influence"?

Lobbying lawmakers and contributing to their political campaigns is just one way that aerospace and other defense contractors influence spending on military projects.

In a farewell speech on January 17, 1961, President Eisenhower warned that the "conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience...In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination "endanger our liberties or democratic processes." To prevent that, the president concluded, requires "an alert and knowledgeable citizenry."

Congress and the military-industrial complex

In the years since this warning, Congress became a third key element in what now is a military-industrial-congressional complex:

(1) Military: At the huge American military establishment headquartered in the Pentagon, officers are placed in charge of projects like getting funding for the F-22.

(2) Industry: 150,000 or more defense contractors from Maine to California supply everything from bolts to the completed F-22 and profit from the work. (Nick Turse, "How the Pentagon Could Help Bailout America,", 10/26/08)

(3) Congress: Representatives and senators fight to get contracts for industries in their home district or state—the jobs such contracts create keep their constituents happy and keep them in office.

The PMA affair is an example of the danger of "total influence" that Eisenhower warned of. Did PMA Group lobbying and contributions to political campaigns "endanger our liberties or democratic processes"? The FBI raided PMA offices in November 2008, as part of an investigation into possibly illegal donations. Since then, a number of its lobbyists have left the group, which leaves its continued existence in doubt.

"Front-loading" and "political engineering"

Years ago, Chuck Spinney, a flight dynamics engineer and later a military analyst for the Pentagon, described in his paper, "Defense Power Games," two major processes in the operation of the complex—"front-loading" and "political engineering."

Chalmers Johnson summarized front-loading as "the practice of appropriating funds for a new weapons project based solely on assurances by its official sponsors about what it can do. This happens long before a prototype has been built or tested, and invariably involves the quoting of unrealistically low unit costs for a sizeable order...What is introduced as a great bargain regularly turns out to be a grossly expensive lemon."

For example, if the F-22 is cancelled, some Defense Department analysts and Lockheed Martin propose to replace it with the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. It will perform three major missions: "air-to-ground bombing, air-to-air combat and specialized close air support for ground troops." Official cost estimate in 2001: $226 billion for 2,866 planes. Official estimate today: $299 billion for 2,456 planes. Deliveries are expected to be two or more years late. "

Even worse, these price increases and schedule delays are only for the problems we already know about, points out Winslow Wheeler in Defense Monitor. "Unfortunately, the F-35 has barely begun its flight-test program which means more problems are likely to be discovered-perhaps even more serious than the serious engine, flight control, electrical and avionics glitches found thus far." (Winslow Wheeler, "Joint Strike Fighter," Defense Monitor, November/December 2008)

Research and development on the F-35 began in 1994, three years after the Soviet Union collapsed, even though the F-35 is designed to meet a Soviet-like threat. None has emerged in 15 years of F-35 work.

And then there's the defense industry game of "political engineering," which Chalmers Johnson describes as "the strategy of awarding contracts in as many different Congressional districts as possible. By making voters and Congressional incumbents dependent on military money, the Pentagon's political engineers put pressure on them to continue supporting front-loaded programs even after their true costs become apparent." Which is why the F-22 has suppliers in 44 states.

The revolving door for military officers and lawmakers

Military officers learn that "there are two paths to personal survival," writes James Fallows in National Defense. "One is to bring home the bacon for the service as the manager of a program that gets its full funding...The other path leads outside the military, toward the contracting firms. To know even a handful of professional soldiers above the age of forty and the rank of major is to keep hearing...that many have resigned from the service and gone to [defense] the scores of consulting firms and middlemen, whose offices fill the skyscrapers of Rosslyn, Virginia, across the river from the capital."

An example is General Barry McCaffrey, who was hired as a consultant by Defense Solutions in mid-2007. According to the New York Times, he was hired to "open doors at the highest levels of government and help it win a huge prize: the right to supply Iraq with thousands of armored vehicles..... Four days later the general swung into action. He sent a personal note and 15-page briefing packet to David Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq, strongly recommending Defense Solutions and its offer to supply Iraq with 5,000 armored vehicles..." (David Barstow, "One Man's Military-Industrial-Media Complex," New York Times, 11/30/08)

And to know even a handful of legislators is to keep hearing that many have resigned from Congress and put their knowledge and skills to work for lobbying firms. Currently 185 former lawmakers are doing just that. (PBS NewsHour, 2/20/09,

And as the revolving door swings, what happens to "our liberties and democratic processes"?

On October 28, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which officially provides $680 billion for military spending, including the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars but not the other items listed in Reading 1. It ends production of the F-22 after completion of the 187th plane, but authorizes $560 million for an alternate engine for the F-35 that the Pentagon and the president said was unnecessary.

"We have passed a defense bill that eliminates some of the waste and inefficiency in our defense process," President Obama said when he signed the bill, but, he added, "it's just a first step." The bill eliminated some items requested by the Pentagon. But legislators added hundreds of earmarks, despite the president's campaign promise to slash them, increasing the budget by several billion dollars.


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What are earmarks? Why are they popular with lawmakers? If you don't know, how might you find out?

3. What are lobbyists? Why do you suppose that there are many thousands of them working for lobbying firms in Washington D.C.? If you don't know, how might you find out?

4. What was the main theme of President Eisenhower's farewell address? Why did he regard the military-industrial complex as a potential threat to our "liberties or democratic processes"? Does the PMA affair represent such a threat? Why or why not? Why did the FBI raid PMA headquarters?

5. Should a lawmaker submitting an earmark be required to certify if he or she has a financial interest in the earmark? Why or why not?

6. Define "front-loading," "political engineering," and "the revolving door." How might each represent a threat to our "liberties" or democratic processes"? How might each threat be avoided?

7. Why does the president think that only "some of the waste and inefficiency" in the defense budget has been eliminated?



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: