"Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of ploughshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions." -President Dwight Eisenhower
When President Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the Military-Industrial Complex during his farewell address to the nation in 1961, he spoke of the dangers it could pose to American democracy and the freedom of the world. Over fifty years later, the MIC has been firmly entrenched in American politics and its impacts are felt every day. The United States spends around 600 billion dollars on defense every year (this is more than the next seven nations combined). This may seem like a massive waste of money at first glance, but can it be justified in any way? This week, let's examine the role of the MIC and any benefits it might provide to national and global stability.
First of all, what is the Military Industrial Complex anyway? Essentially, it is the system of military defense contractors (weapons and technology producers) in the United States and the funding these companies receive from the United States government. The billions in funding for defense programs has led to the long-term creation of an entire manufacturing industry of this technology. This funding also provides millions of dollars in grants to college and private research facilities. Since all of these employ hundreds of thousands of people, the MIC has created a system whereby the nation and its economy are in many ways dependent upon the weapons and technology of war (the U.S. isn't unique in this regard, most developed nations have some form of this). Since removing this system would drastically impact the nation's security and economy, it is essentially self-sustaining.
There are certainly downsides to this system (it tends to create an incentive to use these weapons), but there is a reason why so much money is spent. Since fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the United States has assumed the mantle of being the only world superpower (hegemon), and shared dual superpower status with the Soviet for forty-five years before that. The U.S. essentially acts as the world's police force in the absence of any other strong power to challenge it. Like it or not, when a disaster happens somewhere in the world, most everyone looks to America first to see what it plans to do. The United States Navy is especially important in that regard since no other nation even comes close to the American navy in terms of its dominance of the seas.
There are numerous advantages of this hegemony to both America and the world (at least to those nations that are not outright hostile to the U.S.). The American Navy in particular acts as a way to project American influence and interests nearly anywhere in the world. It can help promote free trade on the seas, encourage safe sea travel, and respond to humanitarian crises almost immediately. Since large armies and navies are extremely expensive, the presence of an allied American military allows other closely allied nations (like those in Europe) to spend far more on social programs than on their own defense (since they know they can call on the American military for support if they ever needed it). The presence of a clearly defined dominant power also discourages the creation of competing alliance systems and lowers the likelihood of large-scale war breaking out across the world. To put it in perspective, both of last century's world wars were started in part because of competing alliance systems. And by outsourcing much of their military power to the U.S., it helps prevent a large scale build-up of armies which could eventually begin challenging each other.
So how does the Military-Industrial Complex actually benefit society in general? As mentioned earlier, it creates at least one million jobs among defense contractors, military research agencies, and the Department of Defense. It has also been responsible for some of the modern era's most important civilian technology such as modern air travel, satellites, computers, and the Internet. It is no secret that war produces some of the greatest innovation in human history (we are shockingly good at finding new ways to kill each other). The Second World War in particular dramatically jumpstarted the U.S. economy and led to an unprecedented postwar boom in prosperity. This isn't to say that war is necessary for technological developments to take off, but the preparation for war can actually be positive for global prosperity (so long as most of those weapons are never actually used). Basically, the American MIC provides all of the benefits of this perpetual war machine without the drawbacks of actually waging large scale war on everyone. Wars certainly still occur, but they their scale and lethality tend to be reduced from earlier conflicts.
In order for the U.S. to maintain this position, it also spends a large part of its defense spending on staying ahead of other nations in terms of developing the latest technologies. Typically, the U.S. wants to be a least one or two generations of development ahead of any current or future military power (this is why arms sold to other nations are usually far older and less capable than what we are currently developing). Related to this is the concept of combat readiness. Large amounts of money and materials are spent just to keep everyone trained for whatever may happen at any time (since any of America's allies could call for support when a crisis emerges). In short, it takes a lot to keep the military ready for anything at a moment's notice.
All of this brings us to the ultimate point: being the clear hegemonic power (whether you like it or not) is expensive, but comes with a host of benefits. When that power (for the most part) promotes the general welfare of people around the world (human rights and such) this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The world is actually in its most peaceful period in human history (though this isn't only because of America of course) and is extremely stable even with the recent rise in tensions with Russia. Granted, the downsides are that there are still a lot of weapons which end up being used, while others are sold or traded to allied nations which increases instability (America is, after all, the largest arms dealer in the world). But the positives seem to outweigh the negatives in this case.
All of this isn't to say that there is no room to cut wasteful spending in the MIC. Any system of manufacturing, research, and government as large and complex as America's defense industry will certainly have unnecessary projects. Redirecting some of this funding towards other industries (information technology or healthcare for instance) could also be an extremely positive development, but eradicating the system altogether would be harmful to the nation's development and the stability of the world (since another power would just move right in and upset the balance of power). Accomplishments such as the moon landing and the eradication of smallpox show just how capable humanity can be at solving its problems given enough money and willpower. If some of the efforts of the MIC can be directed towards other noble causes (with less obvious military benefits), imagine what we can do.
TL;DR: The Military-Industrial Complex, while extremely expensive, is the inevitable result of America's dominant position in the global community. It also creates a bunch of awesome technology for civilian use.