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Grade 9-12

National Security Goals, the Federal Budget, and the National Debt

Updated: November 22 2016,


Can the United States make a decision to reduce or modify spending on defense without jeopardizing the country's security goals?


I think that our rising debt level . . . poses a national security threat, and it poses a national security threat in two ways. It undermines our capacity to act in our own interest, and it does constrain us where constraint may be undesirable. And it also sends a message of weakness internationally.
—Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Council on Foreign Relations, 2010)

How safe is the United States? Since September 11, 2001, the perceived threat of terrorism has loomed large in Americans’ minds; however, what Americans worry about the most fluctuates with world events and the state of the economy: in a December 2015 poll by Gallup, many Americans identified terrorism as the top issue facing the United States (Riffkin, 2015). Nonetheless, as recently as 2014, 59% of Americans reported being worried about the economy “a great deal,” and 58% worried a great deal about federal spending and the budget deficit, whereas only 39% worried a great deal about the possibility of future terrorist attacks in the United States (Riffkin, 2014). As of August 2014, 43% of Americans felt the United States did not spend enough on national security, significantly up from previous years (Rasmussen Reports, 2014). These rapidly changing perceptions highlight the importance of both economic and security issues and the challenging trade-offs that must be made between them.

A significant portion of the federal budget is allocated to spending on defense (16% of the 2015 budget, or $602 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [2016]). As the economy continues to struggle and political leaders from both parties agree that the debt and deficit present, at the very least, a long-term threat to economic growth and national security, defense is being added to the list of programs with budgets facing scrutiny. In this lesson, students will consider the counterintuitive possibility that too much spending on defense could endanger national safety. They will examine the effect federal spending on national defense has on the economy as a whole.

Learning Objectives


  • A wide range of positions exist in the debate about federal defense spending and its effect on the economy.
  • Solutions to the problem of the deficit and national debt involve trade-offs and may affect groups differently.


  • Examine economic data and assess the costs and benefits of certain economic decisions according to various perspectives.


Day 1 of 2


Present students with the cartoon “Pentagon Cuts” (Resource 1) and ask them to consider its meaning. After students have studied the cartoon for several minutes, ask students what they notice, drawing them out on the detail of what they see. If students jump to an interpretation of the cartoon, ask them for the basis of the interpretation and ask other students if they agree or disagree.

If students are having difficulty getting into the cartoon, ask them more directed questions, such as:

  • Who are the individuals in the cartoon?
    [Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and U.S. President Barack Obama. Teachers may need to explain to students that the Secretary of Defense is appointed by the President and oversees all branches of the armed forces. Leon Panetta served as Secretary of Defense during President Obama’s administration from 2011 to 2013.]
  • What is Barack Obama doing in the cartoon?
    [President Obama is defusing a bomb labeled “Pentagon Budget.” Teachers may need to explain to students that the Pentagon is the headquarters of the Department of Defense and that the phrase “the Pentagon” often refers to the Defense Department.]
  • What point is this artist making about cuts to the defense budget?
    [The artist is pointing out that it is difficult to know what to cut from the defense budget. If we cut the wrong thing, it could have disastrous effects for our national security. Hence, the metaphor of defusing a bomb—if the President cuts the wrong wire, the bomb could explode.]

Image Annotation Tool for Pentagon Cuts Cartoon

Online Extension: Students may use CEE's Image Annotation Tool to comment upon the cartoon. Encourage students to add a caption, thought and/or speech bubbles, and clip art stickers to reinforce the meaning of the cartoon. As an added challenge, have students use these tools to alter the meaning of the cartoon, presenting a perspective that differs from that of the cartoonist.

Ask students whether they believe the public would generally agree or disagree with the artist’s opinion, and support the range of points of view students express. Consider introducing findings from the Gallup and Rasmussen surveys referenced in the introduction to this lesson.


Identifying Threats to National Security

Explain to students that national security is generally defined as the effort to protect the survival of a country as an independent nation-state with sovereignty over its own affairs. Divide the students into small groups and ask each group to identify which of the following issues they would judge to be the biggest threat to our national security: foreign terrorism, domestic terrorism, nuclear war, conventional war, unemployment, national debt, climate change, environmental disasters, or illegal immigration. Ask students within each group to try to reach a consensus about which one presents the greatest challenge to the country’s national security and explain why that issue is the most pressing. When each group has reached an agreement, lead the class in a discussion exploring the choices made by each group and the reasons behind those choices.

Inform students that on August 26, 2010, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, identified the national debt as the single biggest threat to national security. Based on their discussions, ask students to speculate about Mullen’s reasoning behind this statement and why he believes the debt threatens our sovereignty.

National Debt as a Threat to National Security

Provide students with a copy of the article “National Debt Poses Security Threat, Mullen Says” (Resource 2), and ask them to read the article individually or as a class. Depending on students’ reading level, consider defining specialized terms such as procurement, leverage, and fiscal. When the students have finished reading the article, instruct them to work with a partner to answer the questions that follow the article. As students work, walk from pair to pair, answering questions and ensuring student comprehension.

  • How does the amount of interest taxpayers will owe on the national debt relate to the amount of money budgeted to national defense?
    [The interest owed is equal to the total defense budget. From the article: “American taxpayers are going to pay an estimated $600 billion in interest on the national debt in 2012. . . . ‘That’s one year’s worth of defense budget,’ he noted. . . .” Note to students that in light of the recovering economy and reduced government spending in the sequester,6 net interest (interest paid on the debt excluding the portion the government pays to itself, because much of the debt is money the federal government owes to other government funds) was $223 billion in 2015, according to the Fix the Debt Coalition (n.d.).]
  • According to Mullen, spending within the defense budget has not been prioritized as well as it should have been, and leaders have not had to make tough decisions about which programs and procurements are a priority and which are not. Why was this the case in the past? What has changed to force this prioritization and these tough decisions?
    [Students’ answers will vary, but may include: 1) In the past, the economy was strong and the defense budget was not limited; as the economy entered into a recession, cuts were required across all areas including defense. 2) Conservative administrations were more likely to cut social services to preserve defense spending whereas liberal administrations were more likely to take the opposite approach. 3) The threat of the Soviet Union required massive amounts of spending on nuclear technology and missile defense; modern threats to the United States cannot be addressed with the same military hardware. 4) In the aftermath of 9/11, national security was a top priority.]
  • What actions did the Defense Department consider to protect itself from future budget cuts?
    [Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates sought to find $100 billion in savings in overhead by closing bases and other facilities and by reducing funding for contractors to ensure that the defense budget would grow no more than 2–3% each year. From the article: “For industry and adequate defense funding to survive [Chairman Mullen] said, the two must work together. Otherwise, he added, ‘this wave of debt’ will carry over from year to year, and eventually, the defense budget will be cut just to facilitate the debt.”]
  • How might Mullen’s positions of Navy Admiral and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time the article was written have influenced his opinion about the national debt? Why might he have been concerned about employment opportunities for returning veterans?
    [Students’ answers will vary, but may include: Mullen’s primary concern is national defense. He may ignore (intentionally or unintentionally) problems elsewhere in the economy to address military needs and defense spending. Although it is not spelled out in this article, Mullen’s concern about jobs for veterans might have to do with maintaining the appeal of an all-volunteer army.]
  • What additional information would you need to determine whether you agree with Mullen’s argument?
    [Students’ answers will vary, but may include: additional information about the United States’ defense priorities, the amount of money that is spent in specific areas (troop deployment, research and development, etc.), the estimated long-term costs of our current military engagements, and alternate ways of meeting the same objectives at a lower cost.]

Day 2 of 2

Review of Previous Day’s Activity

Explain to students that today’s lesson will build upon what they learned yesterday about the defense budget and its relationship to the federal budget deficit and national debt. Open class with a group discussion guided by the following questions:

  • The issues raised in yesterday’s discussion about potential cuts to the United States’ defense budget are often considered “off-limits” by politicians. Why are some politicians reluctant to discuss cuts to defense spending?
    [Students’ answers will vary, but may include: Many people are employed by the military and in civilian positions that support the military. Cutting spending could cause these people to lose their jobs. Additionally, politicians are hesitant to appear weak on national defense, because it opens them up for criticism from their political opponents.]
  • Sixteen percent of the 2015 federal budget, or $602 billion, was spent on defense (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016). What are some arguments for and against allocating that much of the budget to defense?
    [Students’ answers will vary, but may include: The high level of defense spending has helped the United States to become the world’s military superpower. Because of our military might, we are in a position to protect our allies and ourselves. However, money spent on the military is money that is not spent on education, poverty, and social programs. Military spending (in addition to other government spending) has also led to budget deficits and added to the national debt.]

Inform students that they will read articles that discuss the level of government spending on national defense. Explain that each article represents a different point of view on the issue and that it is important that they understand these perspectives. The arguments they take from these articles will be used to inform their fiscal policy recommendations.

Students will participate in what is sometimes called a “jigsaw” ( ) to become familiar with the information in each article.

Group Activity

Students will begin work in groups of four students each. Distribute one of the four articles from Resource  3 to each group. More than one group may be assigned the same article. Following each article are several questions for the students to answer as a group. Tell them to read and discuss their article carefully and be ready to explain its point of view to students in other groups. When the students fully understand the article and have answered the questions, shuffle the groups so that each new group has an “explainer” (an expert) for each of the other articles. Ask the explainers to teach their article to others in the group. As the students discuss these articles, walk from group to group, answering questions and ensuring student comprehension.

See the Teacher’s Guide in Resource 3 for terms that may be unfamiliar to students. These words may need to be defined before distributing the articles. Additionally, key points have been identified for each article to help students understand the concepts presented.

Class Discussion

After the groups are familiar with all four articles, lead a class discussion guided by the following questions to further assess students’ understanding. Encourage students to cite evidence from the readings to support their views about each question.

  • Are increases in the level of defense spending sustainable over the long term?
    [Students’ answers will vary, but may include the following: Increased defense spending will require increases in taxes, reductions in spending in other areas, or increases in the national debt.]
  • Are increases in defense spending good or bad for the U.S. economy?
    [Students’ answers will vary, but may include the following: Money used for defense could be better spent in other areas to help the economy; or military spending, like all spending, helps the economy.]
  • What else do you need to know to answer these questions with more authority?
    [Students’ answers will vary, but may include the following: Data showing the relationship between defense spending and the health of the economy overall.]


To conclude this activity, instruct students to write a brief essay based on the following situation:

Imagine you are a member of the President’s economic advisory committee. The economy is just emerging from a recession, and many are concerned that the recovery will falter and slip back into decline. The President has asked you for an opinion about military spending. Will you recommend that military spending be increased or decreased? The President expects you to take the arguments on both sides of the issue into consideration when you present your own point of view. The committee has research assistants that you are expected to use. What else would you want to know before making your recommendation?

[Though their answers will vary, students should identify the points of view in the lesson they find most persuasive and be realistic about what more they would need to know in order to speak with authority.]


Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.8. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.9-10.6. Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards
D2.Civ.6.9-12. Critique relationships among governments, civil societies, and economic markets.
D2.Civ.13.9-12. Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.

NCSS’s National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
6. Power, Authority, and Governance. Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create, interact with, and change structures of power, authority, and governance.

Center for Civic Education’s National Standards for Civics and Government
I.A. What Are Civic Life, Politics, and Government? Why are government and politics necessary? What purposes should government serve?
II.D. What Are the Foundations of the American Political System? What values and principles are basic to American constitutional democracy?
III.B. How Does the Government Established by the Constitution Embody the Purposes, Values, and Principles of American Democracy? How is the national government organized and what does it do?


Carden, M. J. (2010, August 27). National debt poses security threat, Mullen says. American Forces Press Service. Retrieved from

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (2016, March 4). Policy basics: Where do our federal tax dollars go? Retrieved from

Council on Foreign Relations. (2010, September 8). A conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Retrieved from

Feldstein, M. (2009, December 24). Defense spending would be great stimulus. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Fix the Debt Coalition. (n.d.). Q&A: Everything you need to know about the national debt. Retrieved from

Frank, B., & Paul, R. (2010, July 6). Why we must reduce military spending. Huffington Post. Retrieved from

Granlund, D. (2012, January 6). Pentagon cuts. Retrieved from

International Institute for Strategic Studies (2015). Top 15 Defence Budgets 2015. Retrieved from

Jacobson, L., & Sherman, A. (2015). PolitiFact sheet: Military spending under Obama and Congress. Retrieved from

Korb, L. J., & Conley, L. (2010). Strong and sustainable: How to reduce military spending while keeping our nation safe. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from

Rasmussen Reports. (2014, August 19). New high: 43% say U.S. doesn’t spend enough on national security. Retrieved from

Riffkin, R. (2015, December 14). Americans name terrorism as no. 1 U.S. problem. Retrieved from

Riffkin, R. (2014, March 12). Climate change not a top worry in U.S. Retrieved from

University of Alabama-Birmingham. (2010, June 17). UAB study confirms military spending helps states survive poor economy. Retrieved from