War Stories

Obama’s Big Guns

Why Obama’s defense budget is much larger than it looks.

US President Barack Obama

Mustering money: President Obama speaks at the Department of Homeland Security about the administration’s fiscal 2016 budget request on Feb. 2, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Three things are clear from delving into the charts and numbers in the new defense budget that President Obama proposed Monday: The defense budget is larger, and growing faster than it might seem; most of the growth goes for big-ticket weapons systems like those from Cold War times; and the Army gets such a small share of the budget, compared with the Navy and Air Force, that interservice warfare within the Pentagon is all but inevitable.

According to the Pentagon’s press release, the proposed budget for fiscal 2016 amounts to $585.3 billion. However, that’s merely the sum requested for the Defense Department. As defined by the Office of Management and Budget, appropriations for “national defense” also include the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs and assorted items in various other agencies, which together add up to $35.6 billion—putting the total request at $620.9 billion.

Either way, the FY16 budget request is 4 percent above the actual budget for FY15 (which amounted to $560.4 billion for the Defense Department, $596.8 billion for what the OMB called “national defense”).

However, looked at another way, Obama is asking for a much larger increase. The Pentagon’s documents divide the request in two parts: the “base budget” and “OCO,” standing for Overseas Contingency Operations. OCO refers to wars that U.S. forces are fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and so forth. The “base” refers to everything else—money for personnel, weapons procurement, research and development, operations and maintenance, and so forth, even if there are no wars going on at the moment.

The budget for OCO is expected to go down in FY16, in keeping with the troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, from $64.2 billion to $50.9 billion—about a 21 percent reduction.

The request for the base budget, on the other hand, rises very steeply, much more so than the figures for the overall defense budget might appear. To be precise, if Obama gets what he requests, the base budget will rise from $496.1 billion in FY15 to $534.3 billion in FY16.

Intriguingly, while the Pentagon’s “overview” briefing notes that it’s requesting a 4 percent increase in the total defense budget and a 21 percent reduction in the OCO accounts, it doesn’t express the base-budget increase in percentage terms, so let me do the math for you: It translates to an increase of 7.7 percent.

This is enormous.

One chart in the Pentagon documents, released on Monday, shows defense budgets going back to the pivotal year of 2001. In that context, the Pentagon’s total budget request ($585.3 billion) seems like no big deal; it’s close to the average size of budgets since 2007. However, if we look at the base budgets going back that far, the FY16 request ($534.3 billion) is the largest of them all.

In other words, President Obama may be getting out of President Bush’s wars, but he’s investing a lot more money in the Pentagon.

What’s driving this increase in spending? It’s not pay hikes (just 1.3 percent) or military personnel (rising only from $140 billion to $140.3 billion). No, it’s mainly weapons systems—and, in that category, mainly the sorts of weapons systems needed for a big war against a major power: aircraft carriers, stealth fighter jets, and submarines.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is one of the most troubled combat planes in modern times. Laden with massive cost overruns, incessant technical problems, and poor performance records in simulations, it seems to be—as two RAND Corp. analysts put it a few years ago—a plane that “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”

And yet the Pentagon is buying more of them. In FY14, the Air Force bought 19 planes at a cost of $2.9 billion. This fiscal year, it bought an additional 28 for $3.7 billion. In FY16, it wants 44 more at a price of $5.7 billion (that’s $130 million for one airplane)—plus a $460 million down payment on future buys, and $256 million for R&D on a vertical-take-off model for the Marines.

In Obama’s first year as president, his defense secretary, Robert Gates, ratcheted up spending on the F-35 as a compromise for halting production on the F-22, a larger, more expensive stealth aircraft. But the F-35 has turned out to be nearly as costly and considerably more troubled.

The problem is, over the past 20 years, the Air Force has developed no new manned combat planes except for these two stealth models; they’ve deliberately avoided a Plan B, so that the nation is stuck with Plan A, regardless of what happens.

Nonetheless, the Air Force is continuing to modify its old F-15 and F-16 fighters, just as the Navy is doing with its old F-18s. In other words, there’s still some fight in those planes, and had the program managers wanted to pursue a Plan B, they could have built brand-new versions of those models. With skilled pilots, against almost any rival, those planes would do just fine. (One cost of buying such expensive planes is a cutback on training.) If the Air Force has to engage in air-to-air combat against more advanced rivals, it still has 184 F-22s and 66 F-35s.

The Pentagon plans to buy, in all, 2,400 F-35s, to replace all its older jets. This is going to cost $312 billion, assuming no further cost overruns and not including high maintenance costs. Are they worth that much? What kinds of battles are they meant to fight? How likely are those fights? Can a mix of F-35s, F-22s, and much cheaper but still very capable planes do the same job for much less?

In its budget overview, the Air Force begs Congress to undo the sequestration, warning that its extension would require the Air Force to make reductions in all of its aircraft programs, including a cutback in its F-35 buy from 44 to 30. Here’s a suggestion, especially since Congress probably will keep sequestration alive: Save all those other programs and cut out the F-35 altogether until Lockheed Martin fixes its troubles.

Finally, there’s a looming issue of bureaucratic politics. Every year since the mid-1960s, the Army, Navy, and Air Force have split up the defense budget almost equally—one-third to each, minus a few percentage points. This started to change a couple of years ago, when it simply couldn’t be helped: The Army stopped building new tanks, while the Air Force and Navy kept building more planes and ships, respectively.

In the FY16 budget, the imbalance tips more drastically. Of the money going to the three major services, the Navy gets 36.6 percent, the Air Force gets 34.5 percent, but the Army gets just 28.7 percent. (Last year it got 29.5 percent.)

Looked at another way, compared with the FY15 budget, the Air Force’s allotment is going up by $16 billion, the Navy’s by $11.8 billion, but the Army’s by merely $7 billion.

The Army is facing an existential crisis. Air Force planes and drones are dropping bombs and missiles all over the world; Navy ships are patrolling seas in hot spots; the Marines and the Army’s special operations forces are deployed, in some cases fighting, in those same crisis areas. But what about the regular Army? What are its roles and missions? The budget calls for active-duty Army soldiers to decline from 490,000 to 450,000, but it’s hard to rationalize even that many.

In the 1950s, before the three services hit upon their budget-sharing formula, the service chiefs quarreled ferociously with one another. Archives reveal Adm. Arleigh Burke, the chief of naval operations at the time, telling his staff that the Air Force generals behave “the same way as the Communists.”* Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, often said the same thing about the Navy. And Army generals hated both.

The incoming defense secretary, Ashton Carter, has to deal with a lot of wars in the world. But one of his biggest challenges might be keeping peace in the Pentagon.