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Taking a closer look at the $886 billion defense spending bill

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In reporting this week on a spending agreement in Congress, our correspondent Eric McDaniel said something that caught our ear. He said the spending plan for the year includes $886 billion for the U.S. military and $773 billion for everything else. More money for defense than everything else, at least in the discretionary budget - social security and some other things are off to the side. Thom Shanker has been watching this. He is director of the Project for Media National Security at George Washington University and covered the Pentagon for many years for the New York Times. Thom, welcome back.

THOM SHANKER: Good morning, Steve. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: I guess this caught our eye because it just seems like a lot of money, and it is going up. What is the justification for continuing to raise the military budget at this time?

SHANKER: Well, you know, members of Congress, Pentagon, the executive branch - they look around the world, and they see just increasing dangers - two nuclear arrivals, not just one in Russia and China, a very unstable Middle East, and a whole rising array of threats that just don't respect the borders or boundaries. And so they're throwing more money in an attempt to keep us safe. It's actually even more than the 886 billion - if you add in the intelligence community, FBI, Homeland Security, Steve, it's a whopping 1.2 billion overall for our security.

INSKEEP: Granting that the United States disengaged itself in recent years from two major wars, should there not have been some kind of peace dividend, as they say?

SHANKER: You know, that's an argument that people who want the defense budget cuts say, but there are some iron rules. You know, personnel costs are always a huge portion - between 25 and 30%, same at the Pentagon as at NPR or at GW, where I hang my hat now. And the troops got a 5.2% pay raise this year, which is something everybody supports - more money for soldiers, sailors, airmen - even as they want defense spending to perhaps flatten out.

INSKEEP: There was inflation in recent years. And of course, wages have gone up somewhat in the economy. Does it make it essential to raise military pay to keep up?

SHANKER: Well, I do think that the people who wear the cloth of our nation, put their lives on the line to defend us - they deserve a good salary. There's very little dispute to that.

INSKEEP: Granting all of that, a lot of this money goes for technology. It goes for weapons. Of course, you need technology and weapons, but it's going to defense contractors. It's going to the military-industrial complex, as they used to say. Is there a case to be made that just raising and raising the military budget allows the military to avoid making choices, and they just keep everything and keep adding on to it without making strategic decisions?

SHANKER: You know, if Congress gives the Pentagon a budget that's an all-you-can-eat buffet, well, they're just going to keep eating - exactly right.

INSKEEP: Is - so what would be an alternative approach then?

SHANKER: Well, you know, I've always said that we need to spend enough on defense to keep us safe, but the first thing we need to do is to spend it wiser. And if you look at this budget, Steve, you still can't see an emerging grand strategy that really is going to keep us safe. They seem to keep putting more money into the traditional risks without really reshaping the defense budget for this modern new age of danger in which we find ourselves. There's a bipartisan congressional commission looking at the national defense strategy. They'll report out next year. Perhaps that will bring a better - a sharper focus and a smarter use of all of this money.

INSKEEP: Briefly speaking, what do you mean by a traditional risk versus a new threat?

SHANKER: Well, you know, they're putting it against the great power rivals. They're putting it against threats like Iran and North Korea. But you know, those of us who really watch this closely would like to see more money put against other threats. Like, climate change is a national security risk. Food security is a national security risk. More in the data and cyber - some is going there. And of course the whole risk of AI, which the Pentagon is still wrestling with how to manage that.

INSKEEP: Thom Shanker is an author of a number of books, and also the director of the Project for Media and National Security at George Washington University. Thom, thanks so much.

SHANKER: Steve, great to be here with you. And thank you so much for a great new book, "Differ We Must," about Lincoln in these complicated times. It's the right book. I bought it for my wife, but of course I read it first.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Thanks for the plug, Thom. Have a good morning.

SHANKER: Thanks to you, Steve. Bye now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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