When the Pentagon unveils its budget request Monday for the next fiscal year, it will back away from a commitment it made to Congress just a year ago -- to estimate how much the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to cost.
Last year, for the first time since the wars began, department budget officials detailed war spending plans for the year ahead at the same time it told Congress what its normal operating expenses would be.
But this year, although the Pentagon will go into great detail about how it plans to spend the billions of dollars it gets to run its normal operations, it will include only what officials call a "place-holder" for war funding.
According to budget documents obtained by The Times, the Pentagon will request $515.4 billion for its normal budget -- a 7.5% increase over current levels -- including $183.8 billion for new weapons systems.
But it will request only $70 billion for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With war costs running more than $12 billion a month, that funding would enable commanders to pay for the conflicts into the next presidential administration, but only briefly. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
More important, military budget analysts note, the war funding request will contain none of the details of where the Pentagon plans to spend its new cash. Critics have in the past accused the department of using war funding to buy weapons that should not be acquired through "emergency" spending bills -- including a new generation of high-end fighter planes.
"From a good-budgeting standpoint, they really should be requesting money for the full year, because you want to give your best-guess picture of what your overall plan is going to cost," said Steven M. Kosiak, a military budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank. "When you only provide partial-year funding, that really does give a deceptive view of how much it's going to cost."
Pentagon officials say the main reason for the reversal is the difficulty of estimating force levels and operational tempo so far into the future. Last year's $142-billion estimate, for example, has been revised twice, to $189 billion, primarily to pay for the Iraq troop buildup -- the largest annual sum for the wars to date.
But Pentagon officials are also bitter that, despite last year's attempt to be more transparent in their war funding request, Congress did not respond by giving the department what it wanted. Of the $189 billion requested, $87 billion has been appropriated.
"That worked so well, didn't it?" said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, when asked why the department was breaking from last year's precedent. "We still don't have the full [funding]."
Over the last year, congressional Democrats have used the war spending bills to insert provisions that would require timetables for withdrawals in Iraq. Although Democrats have been forced repeatedly to back down from such demands because of a lack of votes, the delays have meant that the spigot of cash for the war has been tightened and loosened haphazardly, drawing ire from even normally mild-mannered Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress has appropriated $646 billion for Pentagon war spending, according to Kosiak. About 80% of that funding has gone to Iraq; most of the rest has been spent on Afghanistan.
As part of an effort to bring more accountability to war funding, members of both parties -- including Republican presidential front-runner John McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- have backed legislation requiring the Pentagon to submit its war spending plans with its regular budget.
But budget analysts note that despite legal requirements that the Pentagon's request Monday be fully documented, there is no way to enforce such a rule, particularly with an administration in the waning months of its tenure.
"What are you going to do to get back at them? They're leaving," said Stanley Collender of Washington-based Qorvis Communications, who is an expert on federal budgeting. "What's the penalty for not doing it?
"Lame duck goes both ways. What are you going to do? Fire them?"
According to the budget documents obtained by The Times, a huge portion of the $35.9 billion in increased spending for the Defense Department's normal operations will come from beefing up the Army and Marine Corps. The Pentagon will ask for $20.5 billion to add 7,000 soldiers and 5,000 Marines, an $8.7-billion increase over current levels.
Details of Monday's Pentagon budget request were first reported by Bloomberg News.
Even without the full spending request for the war, it will mark the 11th straight year of increased spending on the military, the longest stretch in modern American history. The previous record was a 10-year period from 1975 to 1985, the height of the Reagan defense buildup, Kosiak said.
The Pentagon's request Monday will include $389 million to set up its newest regional military headquarters, Africa Command. It will also seek $10.5 billion for the Bush administration's controversial missile defense program, a $600-million increase over current levels.