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The Role of the Military in American Government and National Life

The “military-industrial complex” and its influence in the U.S.
Story Series
Simply Civics

In his farewell speech to the American public in 1961 President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans about the growing influence of what he termed the “military-industrial complex.” In his view the spending priorities of the nation could be profoundly affected by placing too much emphasis on military spending at the expense of other public policy needs. As Eisenhower stated in the address:

“A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be might, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction… But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportion…This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new to the American experience…Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications…we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

In fiscal year 2023 the Department of Defense had a budget of $876.9 billion. Defense spending accounts for 12 percent of all federal spending and nearly half of what is termed discretionary spending-money that must be appropriated by Congress every year. The Defense budget pays for a workforce of nearly three million people and all the various support services such as providing for the families of service men and women and maintaining military bases both here and abroad (the United States currently has 750 military bases in 85 countries). But a good portion of the Defense budget and one area that Eisenhower was concerned about was the expenditures on new equipment, especially for aircraft, ships, submarines, tanks, nuclear warheads, missile systems and an ever-growing number of high-tech satellites and cybersecurity devices. This is where private corporations work closely with the Defense Department to provide these weapons of war and national security.

Companies like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrup Grumman, Boeing and Textron to name just a few are the corporate leaders in providing the Defense Department with the latest in military equipment. Lockheed Martin is the world’s largest arms producing and military services company with sales in 2021 of over $ 60 billion. For example, Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor for the F-35 Lightning fighter jet, which is now a decade behind schedule and $183 billion over the original cost estimates. The F-35 is not alone in military spending. The USS Gerald Ford, the latest Nimitz class aircraft carrier costs $12.8 billion, and lays claim to being the most expensive warship in history.

The United States working with arms manufactures is in a race to keep up with its adversaries like China and Russia who are also modernizing their military and spending huge sums of money to ensure that they do not fall behind our country. But this arms race is what Eisenhower was concerned about as the military-industrial complex remains largely unchecked and reaps enormous profits. Moreover, there is little political will to stop this spending, overspending and relentless modernization of equipment as Congress working hand in hand with corporate lobbyists tout the benefits of defense spending. Members of Congress often support the spending on the military as beneficial to their state and congressional districts as bases and manufacturing plants bring important dollars to local businesses and constituents.  Military spending is not only big business but vote generators as politicians boast about “bringing home the bacon” in terms of government contracts and employment opportunities.

With billions and billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars being spent on defense appropriations, there has been growing concern over price gouging from contractors. The Defense Department has been lax in monitoring the cost expenditures with shocking results. In 2015, a Pentagon watchdog group ordered a review of costs related to the Patriot PaC-3 missile, one of the key defense missiles systems. The study found that Lockheed Martin and Boeing were overcharging the Defense Department by hundreds of millions of dollars with some cases profits reaching over 40 percent. There have been some recent attempts at reform in the procurement policies of the Defense Department but when nearly a trillion dollars is spent on defense the prospects for fraud and gouging increase substantially.

The Preamble to our Constitution says that one of the key responsibilities of the government is to “provide for the common defense.” There is no doubt that spending on the military is critical to our safety as a nation, especially now as this country faces many challenges around the world. Yet as President Eisenhower stated, the influence and indeed the power of the military industrial complex is so great and at the top of our public policy priorities it can overwhelm all other priorities. Critics of military spending point to the need for greater balance in our fiscal appropriations as there are also important needs in healthcare, education, housing, transportation, food, veterans and disaster relief. All of these would be categorized under another responsibility of the government in the Preamble — to “promote the general welfare.”

The military, military spending, corporate lobbying and the impact of the arms industry on the national and local economies is so imbedded in our governing system that there is little chance for a reordering of national priorities. Public opinion polls continue to show that Americans view the military and defense spending as essential to national security and the protection of American life. But it is important to point out that the cost of protecting our nation and the enormous influence and power of the arms industry raises the question of whether our policy priorities are in balance and whether we as taxpayers are getting our money’s worth from a military industrial complex that is so dominant in our government.