Department of Defense, What It Does, and Its Impact

How the DoD Shapes the U.S. Economy

Iraq soldier
••• ISKANDARIYA, IRAQ - JULY 14: Soldiers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment participate in a patrol on July 14, 2011 in Iskandariya, Babil Province, Iraq. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Defense is the nation's largest employer, with over 1.4 million active duty personnel and 1.1 million reservists. It also employs 861,000 civilians. There are 450,000 employees stationed overseas in 163 countries. An additional 3 million Americans receive income from DoD.

There are also 1.1 million people serving in the National Guard and Reserve forces, and two million veterans and their families who rely on this income from their past service. Because of the enormous number of past and present personnel, the DoD is also the nation's largest healthcare provider, serving 9.5 million military members, retirees, and their families.

The DoD's Function

The U.S. Department of Defense provides the military power needed to protect the United States. It maintains 561,975 facilities at 4,800 sites on 25 million acres. It has more office space than Manhattan. It maintains 250,000 vehicles, 5,285 aircraft, and 293 ships. It's in charge of a multi-billion dollar global supply chain.

Impact on the Federal Budget

The Department of Defense base budget for Fiscal Year 2019 is $597.1 billion. That makes it larger than ExxonMobil’s budget of $482 billion or that of Wal-Mart’s $443 billion. It dwarfs the next two largest government agencies: Health and Human Services with an allocation of $77.9 billion and the Department of Education with $69.4 billion.

The Air Force gets 30 percent of the budget, the Navy and Marine Corps between 30 and 35 percent and the Army receives 25 percent. The Army might receive an even smaller percentage as wars end, creating less need for a large ground force.

Much of the nation's defense budget goes to contractors. For example, almost half or $284 billion of the FY 2014 DoD budget went to contractors. In FY 2012, there were 340,000 contracts to more than 20,000 contractors. The Big Six were Lockheed Martin awarded with $13.6 billion; Northrop Grumman with $8.5 billion; Boeing, $6 billion; General Dynamics, $4 billion; Raytheon, $5.6 billion; and BAE, $2.9 billion.

The DoD has $2.292 trillion in assets and $2.426 trillion in liabilities. Almost 40 percent of its assets consist of plant, equipment, and inventory. Ninety-five percent of its liabilities are retirement and employment benefits. The Department has $1.312 billion in investments and Treasury securities. That's not enough to cover the $2.3 trillion in future retirement and medical benefits for veterans. Retirement benefits cost $66.8 billion each year. 

These are only the direct expenditures to support the department's day-to-day operations. War costs are paid out of an Overseas Contingency Operations fund. In FY 2019, this is expected to total $88.9 billion for ongoing operations in the Middle East.

These figures also don't take into account $181.3 billion in expenditures made by other departments to support the DoD and its defense mission. These include the Veterans Administration, the State Department, Homeland Security, and the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The last component is $18.7 billion in OCO funds for the State Department and Homeland Security to fight ISIS. 

Upon adding all of these together, total spending to keep America secure totals about $886 billion. That's more than any other expense except Social Security. The U.S. military budget is the second largest component of the federal budget.

How It Affects You

Much of how the DoD affects you is implied. It protects you from something that hasn't happened, such as attacks on the United States.

The DoD budget stimulates the economy in the short term. It provides income to the 5.2 million employees or beneficiaries, not to mention the employees of its contractors. 

On the negative side, defense spending threatens the economy in the long term by increasing the budget deficit, and thereby the U.S. debt.

History and Structure

In 1775, the Continental Congress established the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps to fight the American Revolution. The Army is the main ground force. The Navy protects American interests on the seas. The Marine Corps is a small rapid-deployment unit.

In 1789, Congress created the War Department to manage these divisions. In 1947, Congress created the Air Force to coordinate air power. Congress created today's Department of Defense in 1949. 

In 1790, Congress created the Coast Guard to enforce laws on the seas. In 2002, the Coast Guard was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security. The president can transfer the Coast Guard to the Navy in times of war.

The president is the Commander-in-Chief. Reporting to him is the Secretary of Defense. The Secretary manages these direct reports: 

  • Nine Unified Combatant Commands, the armed forces leaders for each geographical area.
  • The DoD Inspector General's Office, which reports on waste and fraud.
  • Fifteen Defense Agencies, and seven DoD Field Activities, which provide administrative and logistic support.

The Seven-Member Joint Chiefs of Staff advises the president and the Secretary.