I am writing this as someone who believes that we need to increase defense spending and also as someone who once worked for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (in an administrative rather than a scientific area).

There is a difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Lawrence Livermore was high effective but it was never very efficient. It could get amazing stuff done quickly but as one researcher once told me -- cost doesnt matter. This is something that is important for the country and we will spend whatever it takes.

Its well to remember that the government doesnt do science all that well but depends on contractors. And anyone who has been through the challenge of Federal acquisition regulations knows that this is not a place for the uninitiated. On many occasions the government cant do business with the top contractors when such firms lack experience with federal acquisition.

When I worked at Lawrence Livermore, one of the many National Labs regulated by the Dept of Energy it eventually occurred to me that the Dept of Energy was basically a procurement agency. During those days I heard a joke about the 3 nuclear weapons labs managed by the Dept of Energy. It goes like this

When DOE say jump, Sandia says how high sir; Los Alamos says up yours, and Livermore within a few months puts together a $500 million jump management program

Expand full comment

Very reasonable proposals. A reasonable defence budget is an entirely different thing from the galling refusal to approve the CTC and renovate America's aging infrastructure. They should be considered separately as Noah has chosen to do here.

Having said that, there is a lovely piece by Matt Stoller on TransDigm and other defence monopolies who obtain exorbitant contracts for sometimes basic military gear or push for expensive white elephant projects like the F-35.

So, until America fixes its monopolization in the defence industry and much else, a lot of that money will be going to tax havens and shareholders, which is a fine thing, but you can't do battle with a Caribbean trust.

The other thing is parallels to China and Russia are not exactly accurate. We have already seen that Russia is losing the war bot out of mediocre equipment but due to mediocre training, inefficient supply lines, and chip shortages among others. These are not problems the American army has. And to the extent that they have them, they are not problems that will be fixed by billions of dollars in budgetary allocation.

Getting the traditional basics right is way more important in wars than fancy gadgets, although few like to admit it.

With regard to China, it has traditionally neglected its military for sensible reasons. It is now building up rapidly. Again, it is not the situation the American army is currently in. There is more need for maintenance, I'd dare say, than growth.

What America needs is investment in technology - all kinds of technology. A DARPA-like project that is not controlled by private institutions who would simply lock it all up behind a wall of patents and who are more interested, as they should, in steady revenues anyway.

The amount of insights and innovation that will unlock will transform the defence industry and much else, faster and better than big routine military budgets.

Defence is a critical aspect of any nation. Pacifism is a lovely ideal in theory. Unfortunately, that is the extent to which its loveliness applies. But the fact that defence is critical, and even more so now, is not a reason to not spend wisely and be long sighted. It's a reason, the reason, to do just exactly that.

Expand full comment

I work for a small defense contractor. I agree that one of the best ways to start fixing this would be to have more competition for contracts! It really does help.

However, this runs into the issue that *competing for government contracts SUCKS.* EMASS/RMF paperwork? Literal hell on earth. If some of those front end (time and mental energy) costs go down, more people will be willing to take a chance on competing for government contracts. (Seriously, I shouldn't have to answer the same question 50 times across 5 documents! This product is not connected to the internet!)

Expand full comment

One thing that's worth pointing out is that the F35 (like the previous notoriously wasteful program, the M2 Bradley) is not a white elephant. It's amazingly expensive, it's taken an enormous amount of time, effort and money to get the problems sorted, it's not as good as it should have been - and the idea of building one plane to do three jobs instead of three separate planes has proven to cost money, not save it - but it is an effective, working, fast fighter jet.

Would the USAF, USN and USMC have been better off with three separate planes? Sure. But scrapping the F35 and starting from scratch now would not save money over just completing the planes we have. The money that has been wasted has been wasted, scrapping the planes wouldn't get that money back.

"My instinct is always to spend as much as possible on research and development," Wise. I'd add that training - and, especially, serious exercises with good officers running the red teams and coming up with ways to counter the US forces - is also key. The lack of adequate, real-world testing of tactics and equipment has led to so many disasters, like the notorious Mk 14 torpedo of WWII. The fact that the problems with the F35 are being resolved in public means that they won't get resolved by them being shot down in combat.

Ammunition and fuel for testing and training and exercises is expensive, and is not an obvious thing, so it's easy to cut back on without it becoming obvious.

Expand full comment

Good post except I wouldn't call the F-35 a 'boondoggle.' I think an economist like yourself ought to appreciate the popularity of the F-35 on the export market when several other alternatives (Rafale, Eurofighter, Gripen, Flanker, Super Hornet) exist, both because it contributes greatly to our GDP and because it should provide strong evidence that the F-35 is in fact a great plane.

I recommend spending time on r/noncredibledefense. The whole "the F-35 is a giant money pit that only exists because of lobbying by Lockheed Martin" is a populist earwig. To wit, per-unit costs have come down substantially and for the F-35A are now less than the Eurofighter, the F-35 routinely destroys much larger fleets of legacy aircraft in wargaming exercises, etc.

Expand full comment

Great article! The US DoD defines strategy as reconciling “ways” and “means” with the desired “ends.” Fundamentally, the defense spending debate is a dispute about “ends”: what is our desired end state for US foreign policy? This is really a political question more than an economic one.

The US military is an expeditionary force as we share no land borders with any of the Great Powers which are clustered in Eurasia or South America (Brazil). We could become a far more insular nation. We have the option to drastically shrink the military as our territorial integrity is not under threat. The policy debate is whether this is wise or not. It would certainly effect the rules based international order that we have tried to cultivate (however sloppily) over the past 80 years.

We can cut our defense commitments but we would hazard generating greater international instability.

Expand full comment

Great article as usual, Noah. Possibly of interest, regarding the F-35 program: my father was a high-ranking naval officer who went to work for Lockheed for a decade after retiring from the service. His general role was to go around and audit various projects looking for waste, inefficiency and cases where the company simply didn’t understand the needs of the customer and was heading towards building something the Navy didn’t want.

Naturally, one of the projects he audited was the F-35, the poster child in the late 2000s and early 2010s for waste and inefficiency.

Now, take this for whatever it’s worth, given that it came from a Lockheed employee, but as he described it to me afterwards, the problem with the F-35 was not Lockheed as the general contractor, but rather that the awarding of all of the subcontracts was done politically and was written into the appropriations for the project. Congressmen and representatives of other participating nations selected particular subcontractors based in their district (or more likely, by quantity of campaign contributions) and then mandated that Lockheed use them for particular components of the plane. As you would expect, this resulted in a large number of the parts being substandard, since there was no competition and Lockheed had no ability to threaten to source parts from somewhere else. This led to many repeated rejections, redesigns, and so forth; in some cases, the situation was so bad that Lockheed chose to just discard the parts the subcontractor provided and build replacements, eating the cost out of its own margins.

Knowing how much of the military budget has been used for political slop in the past, this explanation seems pretty reasonable to me, and goes a long way towards explaining why the company that built the F-22, probably the finest fighter jet ever created, has struggled so much with the F-35. The latter contract is simply so large in expected quantity (over 4000 jets expected over the production lifetime, versus less than 190 F-22s) that every lobbyist in NATO came out to get a piece.

Expand full comment

Good article.

I think its absurd that the US military isn't leading the charge in 100% fossil free electrical grids; large bases are the ideal laboratory, it would hugely subsidize the domestic wind/solar manufactuing industry via buy American procurement, and be tactically/strategically useful to have bases less vulnerable to fuel shoratages and massive single point attacks targeting power systems.

The US's most important weapon systems are not our aircraft carriers or fighters, its the supercomputers at the NSA. Cyberdefense is absolutely defense and should get well very well funded.

If the Ukraine war has taught us anything, its how insanely important drones are in modern warfare. Does Russia even have useful drones of note? A cloud of US drones is about the scariest fighting force one could imagine. All other equipment is an easy target for drones. Honestly I'm not sure why'd we'd even bother with any other large physical system going forward.

Expand full comment

I'm the last thing from an expert when it comes to these things, but AFAIK the F-35 seems to me to be the prototypical expensive modern American megaproject, à la the Big Dig or new subway stops or SLS — way over-budget and past schedule, but eventually, if given enough blank checks to finish, the finished end product is actually pretty good, if you manage to forget all the wasted time and money. Most of the proverbial boon has already been doggled when it comes for the F-35, right? Not that we should replicate the process it took to get here, but those costs are already sunk, and now we have an apparently great plane that we can manufacture for reasonable new per-unit prices and that all of our allies want to buy at a time when we really want them having new great planes.

Expand full comment

What is the point of the US military if *not* to be a force standing up to the Putins and other dictators of the world? Well...

For one thing, there is a firm commitment *not* to get the US military involved as a combatant fighting the Russians in Ukraine. So the US military is a source of materiel in this situation, not active force.

Second, well, the US military has served a very important role in US domestic politics since the 1960s. The role is one of a totemic object; supporting it makes the GOP the Party of Toughness, of Real Virile Men and Their True Virtues, and being much more ambivalent about it (and having leftists be outright hostile to it) makes the Democratic Party the Party of Hippies. of Cowardice, of Shirkers, of Weakness, etc...

This is a crucial role! We couldn't have the full dimensions of the fight between white Christian traditionalist reaction on the one hand and the forces hoping and trying to work for an equitable, open, multiracial and non-patriarchal society on the other without the totemic power of the US military.

But is this totemic role fully worth $800 billion *every single year*? That seems like a Golden Calf. An armed Golden Calf that has the ability to be deployed by civilians for whatever reason they choose, including literally being existentially bored. Which was how we got the Iraq War (with all the attendant war crimes ...). This Golden Calf is also one of the Top Three Things the US is known for by non-Americans. I'm not sure, to put it very mildly, that that is in the US's genuine national


Then, just to be the naive little history geek: the idea that it was dangerous for a republic to have a standing army was a not-uncommon line of thought among the US' revolutionary generation. Kings had armies as the instruments of their petty and imperial wills, and beyond being expensive, armies had harmful effects on the domestic civic life of their societies. By some accident of history the 60 years of the US having a permanent standing army had mostly not led us down that Prussian and other continental European path...

Or so I, as a committed anti-militarist lefty, had had to concede. Until I saw the open contempt that Michael Flynn and other GOP military brass have developed for civilians and literally just having an ordinary civic life.

Surely that fascistic attitude can be purchased for less than $800 billion a year. I don't know.

Expand full comment

Yes, the F-35 was incredibly expensive, but all that money has already been spent. It would make no sense to spend a trillion dollars on a plane and then once it's complete, say "nah, we'll go with F-15s". It's too late to get the money back, we might as well use it at this point. By all accounts it is a very effective fighter.

Expand full comment

Copying over a comment I made elsewhere explaining why I used to want to cut military spending but changed my mind. Sorry to repeat but it is very relevant here!

* Military spending isn't really that big a piece of the budgetary pie - it looks large next to non-defense discretionary spending but the whole discretionary category is in the process of being squeezed out by health care and social security spending. Cutting military spending, even fairly dramatically, doesn't buy you all that much on the scale of the entitlement programs. (And it's even less impressive if we include tax expenditures as spending, which we should - https://www.cbpp.org/tax-expenditures-are-very-costly-3 )

* Much of that spending goes to salaries for people to join maybe the last remaining respected and non-partisan national institution. One that still provides opportunity, meaning, and improves human capital for people from everywhere in the country. We're getting some social benefits from those salary costs, relative to what military personnel would otherwise be doing with their lives if the military jobs didn't exist.

* Most of the rest of the spending goes to acquisition and R&D. While there are certainly boondoggles to be found in that spending, there are also projects that help fund science and technology development at a major scale, develop engineering talent, and employ people across every congressional district in the country (contractors make sure of that!). We get some overflow social benefits from that spending too, beyond direct military use of whatever tech gets developed.

* U.S. military dominance has coincided with the most peaceful period in world history. I'm not a big believer in the "Pax Americana" - but I know smart people who are, and I'm not willing to discount it entirely. If there's even a 10 or 20% chance that U.S. military spending is underwriting relative global peace, then the massive value of the peace dividend makes the cost-benefit analysis for U.S. military spending look pretty good. Even discounted for the low probability.

Expand full comment

'If the purpose of the U.S. Armed Forces isn’t to help guard the world against the likes of Vladimir Putin, then what is it?'

The purpose of the USA armed forces should be to guard the USA against the likes of Putin; it should not be the world's police force.

'The basic reason for the U.S. to spend money on defense is to prevent the world from being dominated by Russia and China.'

Perhaps, but is the world really better for being dominated by the USA?

Expand full comment

Meh. We won't cut the defense budget now or for years to come. The real issue is whether to buy stuff just to please politicians or to increase our readiness for war. My cynical guess is increases will be mostly to please politicians. Past is prologue.

Expand full comment

I'd like to note that, for big ticket items like fighter planes, competition does not increase efficiency. Rather the opposite, because defense is a monopsony.

Suppose companies A, B, and C are competing to supply the next generation of fighter. Company A makes the best plane and wins the contract. Company A now has guaranteed steady business for at least a decade.

The DOD now has a choice. If they don't buy from companies B and C, those companies will close their fighter manufacturing plants - there are no other customers. If they want to maintain competition, they have to keep at least one of the competitors in business for the next decade with some form of contracts. Alternately, they can amply fund some market entrants to develop the capability to bid on the next fighter program, but that's a multibillion dollar high-risk investment.

Currently the DOD settled on company A (Lockheed Martin) as the supplier for fighters and throws company B (Raytheon) enough contracts to maintain its capability. There's not much spending to cut before one of those companies (or at least the fighter division) goes out of business, and rebuilding the lost capabilities would take decades.

Expand full comment

What about the “peace dividend” argument? We were spending billions stationing, arming, and equipping troops in Afghanistan who are now home. That ought to lead to substantial savings, right? How much?

Expand full comment