Much remains unknown about the shape of President Barack Obama's debut defense budget. Details won't be announced—several key decisions won't be made—until April. But from the broad numbers released this morning, two things seem clear:
First, it is larger than it appears to be at first glance.
Second, not counting the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are projected to decline significantly—in other words, looking just at the Defense Department's base-line budget for weapons production, research and development, uniformed personnel, and so forth—Obama's estimates for military spending over the next few years are roughly the same as George W. Bush's.
If huge change is in the works at the Pentagon, it will come in the form of budgets reshuffled, not reduced.
And yet, there are signs—they can be gleaned from the numbers—that serious changes are in the offing, that some lumbering weapons programs will be slashed, perhaps canceled, though it's probably also the case that other programs will be boosted or accelerated to compensate.
The basic outlines are these. The Obama administration is requesting $533.7 billion for the Defense Department in fiscal year 2010—a $20.4 billion, or 4 percent, increase over its budget this year, the last budget passed by the Bush administration.
In addition, Obama is requesting $130 billion as a "best guess" of what continued operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost next year. This constitutes a breakthrough in honesty; Bush stuffed all war costs into midyear "supplemental" requests, toted and considered apart from the budget, subject to no scrutiny at all.
So, with these war costs added to the total, we're up to $663.7 billion.
Even so, this omits defense-related items in other parts of the federal government—mainly the maintenance of nuclear weapons in the Department of Energy—which, last year, amounted to $25.8 billion. The budget document doesn't say how much Obama will request for these items. Assuming it's nearly the same, this brings us to just less than $690 billion.
Finally, in the back pages of this budget (Table S-7 on Page 131), we find an additional $7.4 billion to be allocated to the Defense Department from money allocated for the Recovery Act. (However, a Pentagon report notes that this money will be used to build military housing and hospitals, not as a backdoor way to fund weapons programs.)
So, the actual total isn't $533.7 billion but rather nearly $700 billion. Plus there's another $75.5 billion to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of fiscal year 2009.
But let's return to that $533.7 billion, the Defense Department base line. Some conservatives are depicting this sum as a cut in military spending, not an increase.
They base this judgment on a report that, late last year, the Joint Chiefs put together an internal draft budget assuming that certain line items, which Bush had tucked away in the wartime supplemental, were suddenly made a part of the base-line budget. These included programs to enlarge the ranks of the Army and the Marines, to beef up security against roadside bombs, and to improve emergency medical care for the war-wounded. The Chiefs calculated that this more forthright budget, for FY 2010, would total $580 billion.