Defense budget: big as a tank

Times Staff Writer

When the Bush administration unveils its annual spending request today, it is expected to ask for a defense budget of $481 billion -- near historic highs, even when adjusted for inflation.

It will also ask for additional funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, taking the cost of those wars this year to close to $165 billion, and will present estimates for next year’s costs that would push war spending above the total cost of the Vietnam War.

But if the military’s top officers have their way, today’s proposal may be only a precursor to a future of even larger defense budgets.


The chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force are gearing up for a long-term campaign to convince Congress and the public that the growing demands of the Iraq war -- plus the administration’s aggressive global security ambitions -- require tens of billions more each year to meet the nation’s defense needs.

For more than a year, Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the outgoing Army chief of staff, has pointed out that defense spending accounts for about 3.8% of the gross domestic product -- a figure that is projected to drop over the next five years, to near the lowest levels since World War II, even though the U.S. is involved in protracted fighting.

He is calling for a wider national debate on whether that percentage should be significantly increased -- and the chiefs of the Navy and Air Force said in interviews last week that they would publicly support that call in upcoming hearings on the defense budget.

“In working that [budget] problem, I believe I’m seeing challenges that leads us to the notion that maybe it’s time to have this discussion about a higher percentage of GDP” devoted to defense, Air Force Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley said in a telephone interview during a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq.

“It’s going to be very, very hard to get where we’re going as defined in the [Pentagon’s strategic plans] and to do this business on a global scale with the resources that we have.”

Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen added: “At 3.8%, it just isn’t enough for the strategic appetite, and the strategic appetite is tied directly to the world we’re living in.”

According to a senior Pentagon official, the Air Force alone is expected to tell Congress that it will need an additional $20 billion per year over the next five years, on top of the White House funding request, just to meet the strategic plans laid out by the Pentagon and the increasing demands resulting from the troop buildup in Iraq.

Questions of sacrifice

It is certainly not unexpected for military officers to seek more money for personnel and weapons systems, defense budget experts said. But the increasingly vocal complaints from all three service chiefs, even as the administration is increasing troop levels in Iraq, add complexity to the debate over the war and the challenges presented by other global adversaries.

It is also, in part, a reflection of a view held by many throughout the armed services that the military is the only U.S. institution bearing the burden of the Iraq war. In interviews and in comments reported by superior officers, many veterans have argued that the U.S. hardly seems like a country at war, with civilians making little sacrifice even as troops put their lives on the line.

That perspective on the war may set up awkward circumstances for the White House and Congress. For the White House, the services’ appeal for more funding comes as Democrats argue that repeated deployments to Iraq are leaving the military without the equipment and personnel it needs if other situations arise.

At the same time, congressional Democrats -- whose new House and Senate majorities are largely based on opposition to Bush’s Iraq policy -- must also balance that opposition with the public’s ongoing support for the troops in harm’s way.

“Nobody wants to cut off somebody’s body armor or someone’s Humvee, or somebody’s ability to sustain themselves in Baghdad,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition,” referring to Democratic concerns that military spending is already too high. “Many people believe that the administration will turn around and say, ‘See? They cut money from our troops that are there already.’ ”

Record spending

Any increase in military spending above the administration’s request would be on top of what is, in inflation-adjusted dollars, one of the biggest defense budgets in history.

But even at those levels, the service chiefs argue that the war’s wear and tear on their equipment, along with the strategic planning that calls on them to check such global threats as a rapidly modernizing China, a nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly hostile Iran, has begun to outstrip their ability to fund the Army brigades, Air Force wings and Navy strike groups needed to meet all contingencies.

“What I have found in the 18 months I have been here as chief is

Tough trade-offs

Some defense budget experts say the military is in a crisis of its own making. Although critics acknowledge that the armed forces faced a nearly decade-long “procurement holiday” at the end of the Cold War, they argue that the services chose to replace aging, overused weaponry with highly sophisticated, complicated armaments that in some cases cost three times the systems they replaced.

By attempting to take huge technological leaps instead of incremental improvements, these critics argue, the replacement weapons face years of delays and vast cost increases, forcing the Pentagon to buy fewer of each weapon.

“They have demonstrated that they have absolutely no discipline in dealing with the money they’ve gotten, and their only response when they get more money is to ask for still more money,” said Winslow Wheeler, a former defense budget staffer in the Senate who now works for the nonpartisan Center for Defense Information.

According to an October study by the Congressional Budget Office, the Pentagon may need as much as $560 billion every year -- or $80 billion more than the administration is proposing in the nonwar portion of its 2008 budget plan -- just to pay for all the weapons on order and to meet growing personnel and operational costs.

The services insist that they are working to drive down such delays and costs, but defend the need to push the technological envelope.

“When you actually have to put someone in an airplane and send them into combat, do you want to win this ballgame by one run in the bottom of the ninth, or do want to have the game called in the seventh inning by 20 runs?” Moseley asked.

The first hints of a rebellion within the armed services over funding levels came last summer when Schoomaker, convinced that he did not have the resources to maintain troop levels in Iraq and meet the Army’s other commitments, did not submit his 2008 budget plan to then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, saying Pentagon spending guidelines were nearly $25 billion short of what he needed.

When Bush’s budget is announced today, Schoomaker is expected to get about $13 billion more than those original suggested guidelines. But his refusal to go along with the normal Pentagon process caused consternation among the other service chiefs. According to one senior Pentagon official, Mullen and Moseley confronted Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England, expressing concerns that they were being penalized for playing by the rules.

“That has created some turmoil,” said the Pentagon official. “It appears that a certain track and a certain behavior has paid off -- and if that’s reasonably valid, then stand by.”

Another senior Defense official said the Air Force was likely to make an appeal directly to Congress that it is $9.8 billion short in 2008, and that over the next five years it will need about $20 billion more each year.

Mullen said he was not planning to go to Capitol Hill with a specific proposal for more money for the Navy, but he added that the current plan to reverse the shrinking number of ships under his command -- there are now 276 warships, less than half the number in the 1980s -- to a goal of 313 may not be sufficient.

“I’m about as tightly wound, budget-wise, as I can be and deliver the Navy we need for the future,” Mullen said.

Defense budget experts said that any decision by Congress to examine greater increases in defense spending could evolve into a defining discussion over U.S. foreign policy goals and the Pentagon’s vision of its armed services in a post-Cold War world.

“Clearly there’s a big mismatch between the projected costs of the Defense Department’s plans and the money that’s currently projected to be provided for those plans,” said Steven Kosiak, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan policy research organization. “Then the question becomes: Is the problem that not enough money is projected, or are the plans too ambitious?”