The Pentagon Budget: More of the Same. Much, Much, More.

On February 3, the administration of President George W. Bush released its budget request for fiscal year 2004 (FY’04). As part of this request, the Pentagon is seeking $399.1 billion, $379.9 billion for the Defense Department and $19.3 billion for the nuclear weapons functions of the Department of Energy. The total figure is $16.9 billion above current levels, an increase of 4.4%.

In all, the administration plans to spend $2.2 trillion in FY’04, and more than $2.7 trillion on the military over the next six years. This proposal comes as both the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) project the possibility of record federal deficits over the next few years. OMB anticipates a $307 billion deficit for FY’04 alone.

There are a number of popular misconceptions about the Pentagon’s annual budget request. The first is that these funds pay for actual combat operations, when by and large they do not. The reason for this is simple; it takes more than two years for the White House to develop and for Congress to approve a budget that covers just one year. It is impossible to plan that far in advance for unexpected events that will require federal funds. Such events include natural disasters such as floods and droughts, and wars. These events are referred to as “contingencies,” and federal law provides mechanisms for funding these unanticipated requirements outside the normal budget process. So, while the public perception is that military operations in Afghanistan and the build-up in the Persian Gulf are funded through the defense budget, and that continued spending increases are therefore necessary, this is not actually the case. Meanwhile, the administration is already discussing adding $60 billion to $95 billion in one or more supplemental appropriations to cover the costs of the war in Afghanistan and military operations in the Persian Gulf.

A second common misconception is that higher military spending enhances homeland security. In reality, homeland security–preventing future terrorist acts within the United States and responding to attacks should they occur–is primarily a function of state and local governments–the so-called “first responders”–and federal agencies outside the Defense Department such as the FBI, FEMA, and the Coast Guard. The Defense Department’s involvement is basically limited to the collection and dissemination of intelligence information–a function that the Pentagon would perform with or without the threat of terrorist attacks–the development of ways to respond to biological and chemical attacks, and the flying of air defense combat patrols over the United States. These activities account for roughly $10 billion annually, or less than 3% of the proposed FY’04 budget. Only the air combat patrols, which cost roughly $2 billion, are new functions. Meanwhile, other federal agencies, including those in the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, receive just over $41 billion for homeland defense in the FY’04 request. This is 10% above current levels, and 64% above two years ago. And while the allocation of additional resources is certainly necessary, it is, in reality, too early to tell whether all necessary requirements are being met. And one potential shortfall may be in federal support to states for first responders.

One of the Defense Department’s highest stated priorities is “transformation”–the development of technologies and programs intended to make the military more agile, lethal, and better able to conduct joint operations involving more than one of the military services. Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim has indicated that $24 billion in FY’04 will be dedicated to transformational technologies. In all, the FY’04 budget request contains $135 billion for research and procurement, the lion’s share of which goes for the development and purchase of new weapons.

Yet transformational programs account for only 18% of this total. Of that amount, nearly $10 billion dollars will go for missile defense programs and additional funds will go for other programs such as the Navy’s “Virginia” class submarine and the Army’s “Comanche” helicopter that have been deemed “transformational,” but which actually represent traditional Pentagon priorities. Further, while the Bush administration campaigned on a program of funding new research and development and transformation by terminating certain cold war weapon systems, no major weapons programs are cancelled in the FY’04 budget.

A critical question is whether the proposed Pentagon budget is economically sustainable. As was mentioned earlier, while military spending continues to grow, so too do projected deficits. OMB projects that the deficit will reach over $300 billion in FY’04. Meanwhile, Pentagon planners expect the defense budget to grow to more than $500 billion by FY’09, a whopping 32% above current levels. Add to this the cost of current and future military operations including the possible war against Iraq–which some estimates put as high as $200 billion–and the Bush administration’s proposal for additional tax cuts. And what of funding for domestic programs, which traditionally have borne the brunt of the budget axe in difficult fiscal times? As it is, a number of federal agencies, including the Justice Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency will be funded below current levels under the FY’04 request.

The fact is that we can do all the things that need to be done within the defense budget without increasing spending, thus relieving pressure on other federal initiatives, provided that we are willing to make the necessary choices. A recent editorial in the New York Times put the case succinctly: “No one wants to short-change the Defense Department at a time when the nation is facing acute foreign threats, but the Pentagon’s latest budget proposal seems to glory in its excesses… With Al Qaeda not yet defeated, war looming with Iraq, and tensions mounting with North Korea, America obviously needs to spend generously on defense. The armed forces deserve decent pay, up-to-date ships, planes, and tanks, and cutting-edge technologies designed to minimize vulnerability and assure battlefield superiority. But all of that can be had for tens of billions of dollars less than what President Bush proposes.”

The simple fact is, when it comes to the defense budget, we do not actually get what we think we are buying. Since the September 11th attacks the annual defense budget has increased by roughly $60 billion, and will reach over one-half trillion dollars by the end of the decade. Yet despite these increases, the expected goals of higher military spending–preventing terrorism, safeguarding Americans against terrorist attacks, and creating a military best-suited to meet the challenges of the 21st century–will not be met. Instead, tens of billions of dollars will be wasted, as other critical needs go unmet.