War Stories

It’s Time To Sharpen the Scissors

Breaking down the $739 billion defense budget.

The military budget that President Bush released today is much bigger than the official summaries let on. It’s not $481.4 billion, as the Defense Department is claiming. No, a squint through the fine print of the White House and Pentagon budget documents reveals that the true request for new military-spending authority comes to $739 billion.

Measured in real terms (that is, adjusted for inflation), that’s about one-third higher than the previous record for U.S. military spending, set in 1952, when more than 30,000 American soldiers were dying in the Korean War and the Pentagon was embarking on its massive Cold War rearmament drive.

Here’s how the numbers crunch.

In the press release today, the Defense Department announced that it was requesting $481.4 billion from Congress for Fiscal Year 2008. However, it also asked for a supplemental of $141.7 billion to fight the “global war on terrorism” (which, in budget terms, means the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

This latter request is an instance of the Pentagon’s new post-Rumsfeld fiscal honesty. Supplemental budget requests usually come midyear, when officials realize that more money will be needed to pay for emergencies or, in this case, combat operations. The new defense secretary, Robert Gates, had said the supplemental should be submitted along with the regular budget, to the extent possible. A good idea, but the two sums should be added together—for a total of $623.1 billion.

However, let’s look again at the initial $481.4 billion. That’s just the portion of military spending controlled by the Defense Department. According to the Office of Management and Budget’s financial summaries (see Page 89), there’s also $17.3 billion in “defense articles” for the Department of Energy (mainly related to nuclear-weapons laboratories) and $5.2 billion for other agencies (mainly the Federal Bureau of Investigation)—or an additional $22.5 billion.

Quite apart from the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, that would put the baseline military budget not at $481.4 billion but rather at $503.9 billion. (The OMB’s numbers for military “budget authority” are based on this measure.)

So, add the $141.7 billion supplemental to this number, and we get $645.6 billion.

There’s one more add-on. The Pentagon is also asking $93.4 billion as a supplemental for war costs in the remainder of 2007. (The $50 billion supplemental that Rumsfeld requested last year for ‘07 turned out to fall a bit short.) Technically, this isn’t part of the FY 2008 budget, but it is a new request for money.

Pile that on top, and we get $739 billion.

Of that amount, $235.1 billion is for the wars. (By the way, the total cost for these wars, with these two supplementals tacked on, now comes to $661.9 billion, and the Pentagon is asking for an additional $50 billion “allowance”—a term I’ve never seen in a budget document—for Fiscal Year 2009.) The new Congress will be inspecting this war cache carefully. But the other $503.9 billion of the FY 2008 budget is not for operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. Will anybody give it some scrutiny, too?

Here are some programs they could take a hard look at:

Missile defense. One of the Pentagon’s budget documents released today, “Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System,” seems to show a slight cut in what was once the president’s most cherished program, from $9.4 billion in FY 2007 to $8.9 billion in FY 2008. But a closer look reveals that the real total is $10.8 billion—a slightly smaller cut from last year’s real total of $11 billion. (For details, click here.)

The point is, President Bush still wants to spend a gargantuan sum of money for missile defense—far more than for any other military program in the budget. This document also notes that by 2008 the number of actual deployed interceptors—missiles designed to shoot down missiles—will rise from 28 to 70. And yet, despite decades of development, this system is not remotely operational. Various elements of the system have had an uneven test record; the system as a whole has not been tested at all.

The Pentagon used to have a standard for weapons systems: “test before buy.” They still do, for every weapons system except missile defense. This standard was made law several years ago by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who is now chairman of the Senate armed services committee. Maybe he can make the law universal.

Stealth fighters. The budget includes $4.6 billion to buy 20 F-22 Raptor fighter planes and $6.1 billion to buy 12 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Both are “stealth” planes, meaning they are contoured in a way to deflect (or minimize the reflection from) anti-air radars—thus making them if not entirely invisible, then extremely difficult to shoot down. The F-22 has a limited ability to hit targets on the ground, but it was designed mainly to shoot down enemy fighter planes from far distances. The F-35 is mainly a ground-attack plane.

The Pentagon plans to buy 177 F-22s at a total cost of more than $65 billion (measured in real 2005 dollars). Plans for the F-35 are a bit shakier, but they hover around 2,500 aircraft costing more than $100 billion.

Right now, no prospective enemy can shoot down our non-stealthy planes. We already have a handful of F-35s, dozens of F-22s, and a few dozen stealthy B-1 and B-2 bombers. Certainly we could at least postpone further production and use the money to address more urgent threats (or simply to save the money).

Ships and submarines. The budget requests $3.1 billion for a new aircraft carrier, $2.7 billion for a new Virginia-class submarine, and $3.4 billion to complete construction of two new DDG-1000 (formerly “DDX”) destroyers. It’s hard to leave the cruisers half-built, but do we really need another nuclear-powered carrier and submarine? The U.S. Navy is not stretched beyond its capacity (unlike, say, the Army); there is no maritime mission it can’t fulfill; no other country has a navy that’s remotely threatening. Again, do we really need these things now or, for that matter, over the next decade or so?

This is all a game of funny money to begin with. We could hardly afford any of these things, vital or not, if the Chinese stopped underwriting our debt. It’s a bit much, under the circumstances, to spend tens of billions of dollars on threats that some analysts foresee 20 years beyond the horizon and that are, at most, hypothetical even then.

Just because something is in the defense budget doesn’t mean it’s really needed for defense. By the same token, cutting the defense budget doesn’t necessarily degrade defense. It’s time to draw distinctions, make choices, and sharpen the knives.