Otherwise GDP contraction would have been even greater in the third quarter. Spending on national defense was the biggest positive contributor to the third quarter's economic numbers, which overall showed a decline of 0.3 percent.
Defense spending rose 18.1 percent from the previous quarter, the largest jump since the start of the second Iraq war in 2003, and the second largest since 1984. On the flip-side, residential fixed investment showed the sharpest decline, down 19.1 percent, which was greater than the 13.3 percent decline in the previous quarter, but smaller than a string of 20+ percent declines at the end of last year and into this year.
Coming a close second, and ending a 17-year positive streak, was consumer spending, which fell 3.1 percent in Q3 including a 14.1 percent drop in durable goods spending -- the biggest drop for that stat since 1987. (And I missed this: the drop in nondurables, at 6.4 percent, was the largest since 1950, HT: Jake.)
With the financial crisis and the presidential election, our wars have seemingly taken a back seat, but they're contribution to growth is the economy's lone bright spot.
I should have noted this above, but I was looking at the most disaggregated components (Table 2) when saying "national defense was the biggest positive contributor" to Q3 GDP. At a more aggregated level, net exports and federal spending exhibited bigger contributions to Q3 GDP.