The true cost of U.S. defense spending

By Gordon Adams | March 27, 2008

With the likelihood of significant political change in January 2009, the Pentagon has been thinking a lot about next year’s defense budget request (fiscal year 2010), which the new president will inherit when it’s sent to Congress in February 2009. Budget planners and senior leaders in the Defense Department and armed forces face four possible options:

  • Prepare a basic defense budget that sets aside any plan for funding the war on terror (namely the Iraq War and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan) for the new administration and Congress to figure out;
  • Prepare a basic defense budget and a separate emergency supplemental request for the war on terror–a strategy they’ve employed for the last nine budgets at a total cost of more than $710 billion;
  • Prepare a basic defense budget that includes the cost of the war on terror, trading off war costs with other defense priorities to stay within projected budget ceilings for the next five years–the way the Pentagon handled the defense budget during the Korean and Vietnam wars;
  • Or prepare a much larger defense budget that simply adds all war on terror funding to the basic defense budget, making no trade-offs and demanding that the White House and Congress suck it up.

It’s increasingly clear that Defense Department leadership has moved into a totally unconstrained view of military spending.”

This final option would raise the Pentagon budget baseline by roughly $170 billion from now well into the future. Basic budgets/war budgets would be lumped together and, even if the war ended, nobody would dare return to the pre-war funding levels.

Guess which road the Pentagon intends to travel?

It’s increasingly clear that Defense leadership and the armed services have moved into a totally unconstrained view of military spending. They refuse to make choices or set priorities, maintaining that they need it all and then some. Nor do they offer strategic justification for such a historically unprecedented level of defense spending. Already for fiscal year 2009, the services have announced that they don’t think the $710 billion defense budget they want from Congress is enough–despite the fact that this is more than double the fiscal year 2002 defense budget. Responding to an open invitation from House Armed Services Committee member and former Republican presidential nominee Duncan Hunter to supply Congress with “unfunded requirements” that weren’t included in the president’s budget (a 15-year tradition), the service chiefs identified another $28.5 billion worth of programs and funding they would love to be given.

Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey Jr. asked for $3.9 billion beyond the $140.7 billion the army had already requested. His letter was replete with appealing capitalizations (“sustain our Soldiers, Families, and Civilians,” “sustain the All-Volunteer Force the Nation requires”) and a list of 37 projects and programs omitted from the regular budget. The biggest request was for hardware–$1.6 billion for an unidentified number of high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles and nearly $500 million for heavy mobility trucks.

Not to be outdone, the navy and marines identified another $7 billion and 64 projects and programs on top of their $149.3 billion basic budget request. Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead asked for funding to make up for “difficult fiscal choices [that] required the delay or inadequate funding of a number of important programs.” These “important programs” also emphasized hardware–$1.7 billion for another LPD-17 amphibious transport dock ship; more than $900 million for a T-AKE dry cargo carrier ship; more than $500 million to install new kits in the Navy’s P3C patrol aircraft that would presumably look for terrorist boats and submarines sneaking into U.S. waters; and nearly $400 million for three new C-130 transport planes for the Navy reserve, one of which would support the Blue Angels flying team.

Interestingly, the marines also identified a need for a “Family of Mountain Cold Weather Clothing and Equipment” to “support the warfighter in austere environments that have been identified in the Global War on Terrorism.” Presumably this is to confront terrorists in the Arctic, Alps, or during the winter in Afghanistan.

Yet, believe it or not, the air force asked for more additional funding than the other three services combined, identifying another $18 billion in “unfunded requirements”–13 percent above their $143.9 billion basic budget request. Air Force Chief of Staff Mike Moseley didn’t even bother sending a letter to Hunter justifying the request, instead transmitting an 11-page document that listed 52 projects. Once again, hardware dominated–$3.9 billion to keep the C-17 cargo plane production line at Boeing from closing down; nearly $1.1 billion to accelerate current F-22 production plans, an aircraft the air force wants more than the defense secretary; more than $400 million to accelerate F-15 modifications; $370 million for three C-40s; and $167 million to hasten F-16 modifications.

The appetite for an enormous fiscal year 2010 defense budget builds on this lack of discipline. This month, Army Deputy Chief of Staff Stephen Speakes told the Association of the U.S. Army that the army would need $260 billion annually to maintain its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, repair and modernize its equipment, and increase its size, which the administration has proposed and Congress has endorsed. He made the army’s budgetary strategy clear: “Everybody wants their program nested comfortably in the base and not our in the supplementals.” That $260 billion figure fits nicely with what the army has recently received in both its basic budget and supplemental requests and requires no discernment.

The Defense Department as a whole is taking a similar approach. Reportedly, “Guidance for the Development of the Force,” a paper authored by Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England and circulated in December 2007, has called for a robust fiscal year 2010 defense budget that adds supplemental funding levels to the basic budget. If successful, this would achieve the goal publicly announced by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullens–a defense budget that represents 4 percent of the U.S. gross national product.

Overall, this push has three major implications:

  • Defense’s vaunted programming, planning, and budgeting system is seriously broken. As such, beyond the tedious declaration of the desire for global military dominance and flag waving for the war on terror, little strategic justification has been, or is likely to be, offered for unprecedented defense budget requests.
  • Defense wants to continue to grow the U.S. military, making it a principle instrument in implementing Washington’s national security strategy, with no concern about the balance in statecraft between the military and our foreign policy and foreign assistance programs. Moreover, the Pentagon seems unaware and unconcerned about the negative impact an overmilitarized national security policy is already having on Washington’s international reputation.
  • Defense is deeply afraid that as we withdraw from Iraq, the next administration, the new Congress and the U.S. people will want to rebalance the country’s statecraft and demand accountability in defense planning and spending. To buffer itself against such a change, the Pentagon is loading up the budget beforehand, daring a new administration, Congress, and the U.S. public to bring order and reason to defense budgets. Because once loaded up, any cuts can be called an unwillingness to “support the brave men and women on the battlefield.”

Sadly, in the long term, the Pentagon’s current budget strategy will only sap the nation’s resources, eliminate any incentive for sound strategic planning, further unbalance the nation’s national security toolkit, and damage the country’s strategic purpose and global reputation.

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