Somewhere at a theater near you, Top Gun: Maverick is serving up a feel-good drama about a plucky U.S. Navy pilot who dispatches some unnamed bad guys before he gets the girl.
Meanwhile, a real-life drama is unfolding in Washington around the massive resources we put into the real U.S. military, where the stakes are much different than in the movies.
The world of Top Gun is simple: the hero, Maverick, dispatches a nameless enemy with his fighter jet, and all is well. In the original Top Gun, the hero literally rides off into the sunset.
In real life, hundreds of Americans continue to die each day from COVID — deaths that are at this point largely preventable. Tens of thousands of Americans die each year of opioid overdoses. Millions of us are at risk of eviction or behind on rent. Millions more are about to face another hurricane and wildfire season in the age of climate change.
Needless to say, Maverick is not coming to the rescue. But that isn’t stopping some members of Congress from demanding ever more money for the military. They want well over $800,000,000,000 for the next budget.
It’s as if Top Gun were the real world and a jet fighter were the answer to all our problems.
Our real-life leaders have a damning record in this century of starting wars that can’t be won. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan kept troops endlessly deployed for years and cost trillions of dollars plus nearly 1 million lives. Yet not even Hollywood could make them look like wins for the United States.
The fighter jets aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, either.
The U.S. plane that was supposed to put all others to shame, the F-35 fighter jet, was called “a scandal and a tragedy” by none other than the U.S. Senate’s own “maverick,” the late Senator John McCain. That’s because it’s a money pit that has spontaneously caught fire at least three times.
The Pentagon tacitly acknowledged these failures when it requested a smaller number of these planes for next year. But some in Congress are eager to force the Pentagon into a bigger buy.
An entirely different sort of movie could come from the story of TransDigm, the Pentagon contractor that swindled the Pentagon (and taxpayers) by charging millions of dollars more than its spare parts should have cost. In this movie, the swindler gets away with it: TransDigm continues to receive Pentagon dollars even after its price gouging was uncovered.
Meanwhile, our over-reliance on sending weapons and military aid as a foreign policy means the U.S. and its allies are failing to seek a viable end to the conflict in Ukraine. The U.S. already spends more than 12 times as much as Russia on our military, so a lack of money clearly isn’t the problem.
All of this adds up to a Pentagon that has so much money, it literally doesn’t know where it all goes — and a government that can barely imagine solutions beyond Maverick in an F/A-18 Super Hornet that the Navy lent to the studio.
While some lawmakers want to add even more to a Pentagon budget that is already higher than it was at the peak of the Vietnam War, others see another way forward. A new bill from Representatives Barbara Lee and Mark Pocan would cut $100 billion from the Pentagon budget to fund neglected priorities and bring some discipline and sense to the Pentagon.
At a bare minimum, lawmakers should refuse to fund the Pentagon at a level higher than the $773 billion already set aside for fiscal year 2023, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says is plenty adequate.
The real world is rife with problems that fighter jets can’t touch, and the real Pentagon has problems far more complex than what you see on the big screen. Legislators should embrace the real world when it comes to Pentagon spending and say that more isn’t always more.
It might even be the most maverick move there is.
Federal budgeting expert Lindsay Koshgarian directs the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.