Look at the front page of any newspaper and you can’t help but be affected by the scenes of suffering and tragedy coming out of Ukraine. Turn to the business pages, however, and you will find this cloud’s silver lining. On 25 February, the day after the Russian invasion, shares of the world’s five biggest defense firms—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, BAE Systems, and Northrop Grumman—all spiked. Two months later, all but Boeing are trading higher than they were on 24 February. Clearly, if you deal in death and destruction, business is good.
In 1935, Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler wrote a book called War is a Racket . Butler had fought in the Philippines and the Banana Wars in Central America and was twice awarded the Medal of Honor. He was no pacifist, but in his book he admitted, “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business.” Here he was talking specifically about the U.S. government using the military to open foreign markets for private corporations, but he put war profiteers into the same category.
The Pentagon recently asked Congress for $773 billion for its 2023 budget, even more than the $728.5 billion the Department of Defense requested last year. To put this figure in perspective, it was still more than the next nine countries’ defense budgets combined. Seven of those countries are U.S. allies. Armchair warriors and the CEOs of defense contractors are reading the news and taking the wrong lessons from Ukraine. They want to scare us into spending billions more dollars that we don’t have on weapons systems we don’t need, or risk defeat on some unnamed battlefield. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The fighting in Ukraine shows that the Russian army, touted as having undergone radical modernization over the last ten years, has been stopped in its poorly-maintained tracks by under-equipped Ukrainian soldiers operating without air cover. Today’s United States Army and Air Force would cut through the Russian offensive like a scythe. Want to know what that would look like? Think back to 1991 and 2003 and see what they did to the Iraqi army, a Russian-equipped and Russian-organized formation, as the U.S. invaded Iraq.
The war in Ukraine is not a wake-up call for the U.S. Department of Defense. While we can’t rest on our laurels, America’s military is more than capable of handling the threats presented by dictators and their poorly-trained, poorly-led soldiers using equipment they can’t maintain. We don’t need a bigger military and we don’t need expensive weapons systems like Lockheed-Martin’s F-35, the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history. If you’re a taxpayer and you’re reading this, don’t be frightened into piling even more of your dollars into the coffers of the big defense contractors. Almost 100 years after Major General Butler wrote his book, war is still a racket.