Breaking down the U.S. military budget.

Breaking down the U.S. military budget.

Breaking down the U.S. military budget.

Military analysis.
Feb. 4 2008 6:51 PM

What's Really in the U.S. Military Budget?

Much more than the oft-cited $515.4 billion.

Fighter planes
Fighter planes push war spending to sky-high levels

It's time for our annual game: How much is really in the U.S. military budget?

As usual, it's about $200 billion more than most news stories are reporting. For the proposed fiscal year 2009 budget, which President Bush released today, the real size is not, as many news stories have reported, $515.4 billion—itself a staggering sum—but, rather, $713.1 billion.

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Before deconstructing this budget, let us consider just how massive it is. Even the smaller figure of $515.4 billion—which does not include money for fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—is roughly equal to the total military budgets of all the rest of the world's nations combined. It is (adjusting for inflation) larger than any U.S. military budget since World War II.

But this is simply the Pentagon's share of the military budget (again, that part of it not related to war costs). Since most reporters writing about this are Pentagon reporters, that's the part of the budget that they consider their turf.

However, the Office of Management and Budget's documents focus on a broader category called "National Defense," which also includes $16.1 billion for nuclear warheads and reactors under the Department of Energy's control and $5.2 billion for "defense-related activities" at other agencies (mainly the FBI). There is also $4.3 billion for mandated programs (most having to do with military retirement and health care for victims of radiation sickness).

So, that brings the total, so far, to $541 billion. ("National Defense," by the way, does not include programs in the Department of Homeland Security; that's another story.)

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Then there is the $70 billion emergency war supplemental that the Pentagon is requesting for FY 2009. (In one sense, it is strange that they're requesting this upfront; supplementals are usually submitted in the middle of the year, to cover unanticipated expenses. In another sense, it's refreshing that Robert Gates' Pentagon—as opposed to Donald Rumsfeld's—is making no effort to disguise what will definitely be needed.)

Now we're up to $611 billion.

Finally, as the Pentagon's budget documents note up front, in the "Summary Justification," Congress has yet to approve $102 billion left over from the supplemental for FY 2008. And so—in terms of how much Congress is being asked to authorize this year—that brings us to $713 billion.

But let's delve into the Pentagon's base line figure—the $515.4 billion that has nothing directly to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What's in there? Do the U.S. armed forces really need that much for the everyday maintenance of national security?

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About a quarter of that sum—$125.2 billion—is for personnel costs: understandable. Another third—$180 billion—is for operations and maintenance of equipment (a bit more mysterious, since this is apart from the O&M costs brought on by the war). But a larger sum still—$184 billion—is for what the Pentagon calls "major weapons systems."

This includes $45.6 billion for military aircraft, including $6.7 billion to buy 16 more F-35 stealth planes. The F-35 is still in its early stages; the Pentagon has, to date, spent only about one-tenth of what it estimates to be a $300 billion program. It's not too late to ask if we need such a costly, sophisticated fighter jet, given that air-to-air combat is not likely to be a major element of future wars and, to the extent that it might be, we're way ahead—in numbers and technology—of any prospective foe. Or let's accept the proposition that China's air force is going to be a formidable rival by the year 2020: Do we need to tear full-speed ahead on the F-35 now? Could we slow the program down and see how things shape up?

The budget also allots $16.9 billion for Navy shipbuilding, including $4.2 billion for a new aircraft carrier, $3.2 billion for a new DDG-1000 destroyer, and $3.6 billion for a new Virginia-class submarine. (The Navy is also pushing up, from 2012 to 2011, the year when it starts to build two of these subs annually, instead of one.) Again, where's the imminent danger, what's the rush?

There is another $12.8 billion for missile defense, despite the numerous foibles that still plague that program (along with the occasional, but not so significant, successful test).

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And there is $3.6 billion for continued research and development into the Army's trouble-ridden Future Combat Systems program. (According to the Pentagon's budget documents, the estimated "initial deployment" for this system has now slipped to 2015, and its projected cost has risen to $160 billion—second only to the F-35 in the list of most expensive programs. Only about $20 billion has been spent so far; it's not too late to bite the bullet.)

What efficiencies is the Pentagon taking to accommodate these technological risks? The "Overview" section of the Pentagon's budget document contains a section called "Program Terminations." It reads, in its entirety: "The FY 2009 budget does not propose any major program terminations."

Is it remotely conceivable that the Defense Department is the one federal bureaucracy that has not designed, developed, or produced a single expendable program? The question answers itself.

There is another way to probe this question. Look at the budget share distributed to each of the three branches of the armed services. The Army gets 33 percent, the Air Force gets 33 percent, and the Navy gets 34 percent.

As I have noted before (and, I'm sure, will again), the budget has been divvied up this way, plus or minus 2 percent, each and every year since the 1960s. Is it remotely conceivable that our national-security needs coincide so precisely—and so consistently over the span of nearly a half-century—with the bureaucratic imperatives of giving the Army, Air Force, and Navy an even share of the money? Again, the question answers itself. As the Army's budget goes up to meet the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force's and Navy's budgets have to go up by roughly the same share, as well. It would be a miracle if this didn't sire a lot of waste and extravagance.

Congress exposes this budget to virtually no scrutiny, fearing that any major cuts—any serious questions—will incite charges of being "soft on terror" and "soft on defense." But $536 billion of this budget—the Pentagon's base line plus the discretionary items for the Department of Energy and other agencies—has nothing to do with the war on terror. And it's safe to assume that a fair amount has little to do with defense. How much it does and doesn't is a matter of debate. Right now, nobody's even debating.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said recently that, quite apart from the wars, the nation should get used to spending 4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. This isn't an unreasonable sum in terms of what the nation can afford. But the same could be said of many other functions of government. It has very little to do with what the nation needs. The $515.4 billion in the base line Defense Department budget amounts to 3.4 percent of GNP. Is that not enough? Should we throw in another $85 billion to boost it to 4 percent? The relevant question, in any case, should be not how much we spend, but what we buy.