America’s Staggering Defense Budget, In Charts

By:  Brad Plumer

On Monday afternoon, President Obama will nominate former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel (R) as secretary of defense. The confirmation hearings are likely to focus on Hagel's views on Israel and Iran. Yet the biggest headache likely to face the next defense secretary will almost certainly be the U.S. military budget.

The United States spends far more than any other country on defense and security. Since 2001, the base defense budget has soared from $287 billion to $530 billion — and that's before accounting for the primary costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But now that those wars are ending and austerity is back in vogue, the Pentagon will have to start tightening its belt in 2013 and beyond. If Hagel gets confirmed as secretary of defense, he'll have to figure out how best to do that.

Below, we've provided an overview of the U.S. defense budget — to get a better sense for what we spend on, and where Hagel might have to cut:

1) The United States spent 20 percent of the federal budget on defense in 2011.

All told, the U.S. government spent about $718 billion on defense and international security assistance in 2011 — more than it spent on Medicare. That includes all of the Pentagon's underlying costs as well as the price tag for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which came to $159 billion in 2011. It also includes arms transfers to foreign governments.

(Note that this figure does not, however, include benefits for veterans, which came to $127 billion in 2011, or about 3.5 percent of the federal budget. If you count those benefits as "defense spending," then the number goes up significantly.)

U.S. defense spending is expected to have risen in 2012, to about $729 billion, and then is set to fall in 2013 to $716 billion, as spending caps start kicking in.

2) Defense spending has risen dramatically since 9/11.

Here's a historical chart of U.S. defense spending since World War II in inflation-adjusted dollars. There's a big spike for the Korean and Vietnam wars. There's another big ramp-up during the 1980s under President Reagan. Then defense spending got cut significantly during the Clinton years until soaring to historically unprecedented levels after 9/11.

U.S. defense spending is set to fall again in 2013, though it will still be as high in real terms as it was at the height of the Reagan build-up for the foreseeable future.

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