War Stories

The New Pentagon Budget—So New?

Obama plans to spend as much on defense as Bush did.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks about his proposed financial year 2010 federal budget outline 

Much remains unknown about the shape of President Barack Obama’s debut defense budget. Details won’t be announced—several key decisions won’t be made—until April. But from the broad numbers released this morning, two things seem clear:

First, it is larger than it appears to be at first glance.

Second, not counting the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are projected to decline significantly—in other words, looking just at the Defense Department’s base-line budget for weapons production, research and development, uniformed personnel, and so forth—Obama’s estimates for military spending over the next few years are roughly the same as George W. Bush’s.

If huge change is in the works at the Pentagon, it will come in the form of budgets reshuffled, not reduced.

And yet, there are signs—they can be gleaned from the numbers—that serious changes are in the offing, that some lumbering weapons programs will be slashed, perhaps canceled, though it’s probably also the case that other programs will be boosted or accelerated to compensate.

The basic outlines are these. The Obama administration is requesting $533.7 billion for the Defense Department in fiscal year 2010—a $20.4 billion, or 4 percent, increase over its budget this year, the last budget passed by the Bush administration.

In addition, Obama is requesting $130 billion as a “best guess” of what continued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost next year. This constitutes a breakthrough in honesty; Bush stuffed all war costs into midyear “supplemental” requests, toted and considered apart from the budget, subject to no scrutiny at all.

So, with these war costs added to the total, we’re up to $663.7 billion.

Even so, this omits defense-related items in other parts of the federal government—mainly the maintenance of nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy—which, last year, amounted to $25.8 billion. The budget document doesn’t say how much Obama will request for these items. Assuming it’s nearly the same, this brings us to just less than $690 billion.

Finally, in the back pages of this budget (Table S-7 on Page 131), we find an additional $7.4 billion to be allocated to the Defense Department from money allocated for the Recovery Act. (However, a Pentagon report notes that this money will be used to build military housing and hospitals, not as a backdoor way to fund weapons programs.)

So, the actual total isn’t $533.7 billion but rather nearly $700 billion. Plus there’s another $75.5 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of fiscal year 2009.

But let’s return to that $533.7 billion, the Defense Department base line. Some conservatives are depicting this sum as a cut in military spending, not an increase.

They base this judgment on a report that, late last year, the Joint Chiefs put together an internal draft budget assuming that certain line items, which Bush had tucked away in the wartime supplemental, were suddenly made a part of the base-line budget. These included programs to enlarge the ranks of the Army and the Marines, to beef up security against roadside bombs, and to improve emergency medical care for the war-wounded. The Chiefs calculated that this more forthright budget, for FY 2010, would total $580 billion.

President Obama’s budget does just what the Chiefs figured a new president might do—it transfers those items from the supplemental to the budget. Yet his budget is just $533.7 billion.

Still, it would be misleading to call this a cut. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at a news conference today, the Chiefs’ rough budget estimate was never examined outside the Pentagon. Something Gates didn’t say—especially with Adm. Mike Mullen, the JCS chairman, sitting next to him—is that these sorts of internal drafts are routinely chock-full of wish lists and embellishments, many of them tossed in as bargaining chips, in the full expectation that the White House budgeteers—in any administration, Republican or Democrat—will toss them back out.

Still, probably half of Obama’s $20 billion increase consists of these items that have been moved over from the supplemental. The president is also calling for a 2.9 percent increase in military pay—that will cost about $2.6 billion (and one can expect the Congress to add 1 percent or so on top of that)—as well as major increases in disability benefits, health care, and living conditions (especially for military families). Add up all this, and $20 billion probably falls short of what’s needed.

And so, to meet the White House budget target, something else will have to give—and that’s where some big-ticket weapons can be expected to face the ax. Or, as Gates put it at his press conference, there will be some “rebalanced investment between current and future capabilities.” President Obama made the point plainer still at his congressional address Tuesday night, promising, as he put it, to “reform our defense budget, so that we’re not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don’t use.”

The cognoscenti knew that the president was talking about one weapon system above all others—the F-22 Raptor fighting plane, which Gates has also decried several times in the past as a weapon that was built to fight aerial duels with the Soviet Union and that is so ill-suited to today’s wars that no Air Force commander has ordered a single one of them into harm’s way in any of the wars we’ve waged in recent years.

The Air Force wants to buy 200 more of these planes—20 per year over the next decade at a cost of $4 billion annually. That’s one battle to watch closely.

But there are more weapons in the same situation. If President Obama is scrutinizing every line in every budget for programs that don’t work or aren’t critically needed, he could find several in the DoD budget that could be slashed or slowed down without doing any damage to the nation’s security.

Again, we don’t yet know the breakdown of programs and costs in the FY10 budget, but it’s likely to be—or the service chiefs would like it to be—a continuation of past years’ trends. The current FY09 budget includes $4.2 billion for a new aircraft carrier, $3.2 billion for a new DDG-1000 destroyer, $3.6 billion for a new Virginia-class nuclear submarine, $12 billion for various components of a missile-defense system (which Obama is reportedly inclined to cut by 20 percent), and $3.6 billion for the Army’s Future Combat System—a complicated high-tech network of systems that has run into huge problems: Its deployment date has slipped from 2011 to 2015, its cost has exploded (an estimated $160 billion and rising), and its reliability is in question

This last program is still in the early stages of development—just $20 billion has been spent to date—and so it might be particularly vulnerable. The White House budget released today states in its introduction that weapons programs will not be allowed “to proceed from one stage of the acquisition cycle to the next until they have achieved the maturity to clearly lower the risk of cost growth and schedule slippage.”

That sounds like a reference to the Future Combat System. And if Obama and Gates want to take away big items from the Air Force and Navy, they would be wise—politically as well as on the merits—to take a big slice out of the Army’s baroque mess, too.

The president and his defense secretary, after all, are still asking for a lot of money: nearly as much as the military budgets of all the rest of the world’s countries combined; more (adjusting for inflation) than the United States has spent on the military in any single year since World War II.

It’s long past time to scrutinize the defense budget just like any other budget, to stop treating its size as an untouchable symbol of national strength and more as a product of, yes, legitimate security concerns but also of institutional interests and inertia. The important thing is not how much we spend but what we buy.