War Stories

Defense Budget 101

How much are we really spending?

The F-22A stealth fighter

The new military budget—released Monday by the White House and the Pentagon —has even more smoke, mirrors, and rabbit-stuffed sleeves than usual.

Let us first dispel the official claim, blithely recited by most news reports, that this budget amounts to $439.3 billion—in itself a staggering sum, but by any proper measure, it really totals $513 billion, and, if looked at from a certain angle, it comes to over $580 billion.

You have to go digging through various portals and annexes to find most of this hidden money, but once you push the right doors, the stash is all sitting there in plain view.

One way that administrations understate the magnitude of military spending (and this practice long antedates George W. Bush) is to talk only about the “Department of Defense budget.” Yet this comprises only a portion (though, granted, the largest portion) of what officials outside the Pentagon call the “national defense budget.”

The DoD budget for fiscal year 2007 is indeed $439.3 billion (though more about that computation in a moment). But look at the Office of Management and Budget’s “Analytical Perspectives” documents, specifically Table 27-1, “Budget Authority and Outlays by Function, Category and Program.” The category called “National Defense” includes not only the Defense Department’s budget but also the “defense activities” of the Department of Energy (mainly nuclear warheads and the national weapons labs, totaling $16 billion) and several other federal agencies ($4.4 billion), as well as $3.3 billion in various “mandatory” programs (mainly accrual payments to the military retirement fund).

Add them up, and you reach $463 billion.

But that’s not all. The OMB analysts also include the $50 billion that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says he will request in “supplemental” funds for FY 2007, sometime this year, to cover anticipated expenses of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That brings the total to $513 billion.

And there’s more. The Pentagon also announced Monday that it would ask Congress for $70 billion as a supplemental to fund war costs for the rest of FY 2006 (which lasts until this coming October). Strictly speaking, this $70 billion doesn’t count in a toting up of military appropriations for FY 2007. But if you view the whole budget package simply as a request for more new money, whether for next year or slipped in through the back door of this year, then that takes us to $583 billion.

The administration’s second budgetary sleight of hand (again, not invented by Bush’s people) involves a more basic conceptual confusion—the tacit notion that more money means more defense. Nobody expresses this equation explicitly, yet few officials or politicians are willing to challenge it, either. (When legislators vote to cut a weapon system, for whatever reason, they know that their opponent in the next election will call them “soft on defense,” if not “unpatriotic.”)

It would be a miracle of modern bureaucracy if every line item in a half-trillion-dollar national defense budget were essential, or even useful, to national defense (however you want to define that concept). Here, taken from the FY07 budget, are a few rebuttals to the belief in miracles:

The F-22A stealth fighter aircraft ($2.8 billion). I’ve recited the argument too many times (and there’s a fairly large choir joining me), but how many stealth fighters do we need (beyond the nearly 100 we already have) in a world where no foe seems able to shoot down any of our vast arsenal of un-stealthy planes? The question is especially pertinent for the F-22, which was originally designed as an air-to-air combat fighter. Once that mission pretty much vanished from the list of likely war scenarios, the plane was modified to attack targets on the ground as well; but it’s so small that it can carry only two lightweight bombs. A dozen F-22s are already deployed; the Pentagon plans to build 183 in all.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ($5.3 billion). Another stealth fighter (see above). This year’s request would buy the first five planes (of nearly 3,000 planned over the coming decade) as well as provide advance funding of a specially modified short-takeoff-and-landing version for the Marine Corps.

The SSN-774 Virginia-class submarine ($2.6 billion). This is the cost of one nuclear-powered attack submarine. The Navy currently has 60 capable of patrolling the oceans. Does it—do we—really need another one? Rumsfeld’s Quadrennial Defense Review, issued last week, declares that the Navy will soon start building two new submarines a year, a rate of production not seen since the Cold War, an era when our main foe, the Soviet Union, also had a huge submarine fleet.

The CVN-21 aircraft carrier ($1.1 billion) and the DD(X) destroyer ($3.4 billion). What’s the rush? We have 12 aircraft-carrier strike groups (the carrier and its escort combat ships), capable of projecting power worldwide. The CVN-21, which has been in development for several years, will replace the USS Enterprise, scheduled for retirement eight years from now. The $1.1 billion to be allocated next year covers only a fraction of the ship’s total cost (about $12 billion). Some of that money is also earmarked for two more carriers. Do we need 12? 11? 10? The United States has twice as many carriers, with five times the deck space, as the rest of the world’s navies combined. (China, whose global ambitions several military analysts fear, has one aircraft carrier, and it’s a stretch to call it that.)

Missile Defense ($10.4 billion). Tests keep failing (or they’re designed to be so easy, or the standards of “success” are so meager, that failure is nearly impossible). There’s no concept yet of a “system architecture.” Many scientific panels have questioned missile defense’s feasibility. The Pentagon’s own testing office has reported that no element of the complex program is anywhere near “operational.” (For details, click here.) Yet Bush and Rumsfeld treat it as if the system is a reality. It receives more money by far than any other weapons program. The request for FY07 amounts to twice as much money as the stepped-up funding for special-operations forces and $1 billion more than the Marine Corps’ entire personnel budget.

I could go on. I’m not proposing that Congress should kill all these weapons systems—just that it should (as a starter) ask if funding all of them is necessary, especially at these extravagant levels, given the threats that are out there in the world, and the need to set priorities, given that we’re broke.

The slender relationship between money and value goes the other way, too. Among the most spectacular weapons programs of recent years are the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (the pilotless reconnaissance drones, such as Predator and Global Hawk) and the JDAM smart bombs. The UAVs cost as little as $5 million; JDAMs go for a little more than $20,000 apiece. Bush and Rumsfeld are proposing to accelerate production in all cases, building 132 additional UAVs and over 10,000 more JDAMs, for two-thirds the cost of a single attack submarine.

Someone who looked just at the dollars might think that the one sub was more vital to security than all those drones and smart bombs. No one who looked at the specific programs (except maybe a Navy submarine captain) would believe that for a minute. The point is, it’s time to take a more tangible approach to the entire defense budget, line by line—to assess military security not according to how much we spend but what we buy.