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Obama’s Defense Budget

This week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is set to roll out the final details of the defense budget for 2010. Beware the articles and commentary you read; many will be factually inaccurate or misleading – mostly both.

This will be the third round of revelations about the 2010 Pentagon budget. On Feb. 26, we got the bare bones – just the total amount. On April 6, we got Gates’ decisions on 50 weapons programs. This week, we get all the rest – how much he seeks for every single other program and policy in the Pentagon.

The press will have a field day. The budget amounts will be spelled out with great precision in the national papers. Politicians will agonize over how much they think Gates has cut their own local just desserts or gush over the largesse for their home state. Think-tank pooh-bahs will bless us with their deep thoughts over how these details effectuate Gates’ “sweeping reforms” of the Pentagon – first announced on April 6.

I will try to restrain my irritation as I read this baloney.

For decades, the media have taken their descriptions of the size of the defense budget straight from the Pentagon’s annual press release – without even rudimentary double-checking. This year, they will cite the top-line dollar amount at $534 billion – the amount they reported on Feb. 26.

Wrong. That number ignores an additional $6 billion the Pentagon will get in “mandatory” appropriations, mostly for personnel-related expenses. The data are available from the Office of Management and Budget, but its press releases are more complicated.

Some, but not all, of the news articles will also ignore the additional $130 billion sought to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Barring last-minute changes to the numbers by Gates and OMB, the correct amount for the president’s request for the Pentagon in 2010 will be $670 billion.

The articles will also leave out the money being sought by the Department of Energy for nuclear weapons and other appropriations, such as for the Selective Service and the National Defense Stockpile. Again, not in the DOD press release. Add another $22 billion.

Consider the human costs of current and previous wars in the Department of Veterans Affairs – surely, a legitimate defense cost. Add $106 billion.

Also consider the Department of Homeland Security: Add $43 billion.

What about the military and economic aid to Iraq and Afghanistan, gifts and loans to Israel and others, U.N. peacekeeping costs, and all the rest from the State Department? Add $49 billion.

Also, there is an account buried in the Department of the Treasury to help pay for military retirement. Add about $28 billion.

Each year, we pay interest on the national debt. People disagree, sometimes strenuously, on how much is DOD’s share. About 20 percent of federal spending goes to the Pentagon: That’s another $57 billion.

Add it all together, and you get $974 billion – almost $1 trillion.

If you want to know how much we spend for defense in a generic sense, you can about double the $534 billion many articles will report.

Finally, what about all those “sweeping changes” the think-tank pooh-bahs will declare they see in the Pentagon budget – well, actually, in its press release?

Didn’t happen.

For example, while Gates’ excellent decision to stop making ultra-high-cost, badly underperforming F-22 fighters opened the door for reform, he slammed it shut when he took advice to go with the F-35 fighter-bomber.

It is not just that the F-35 is literally designed to be a failure as a fighter and a mediocrity as a bomber; the program to acquire it is the antithesis of reform.

Consider this: The plan Gates has been persuaded to follow is to buy 510 F-35s before the flight testing is complete, and that testing will verify only 17 percent of the aircraft’s performance characteristics. The rest will be validated – if that’s the word you want to use – by simulation and desk studies.

It’s business as usual, pure and simple.

When you read the news articles later this week on the defense budget, consider it all an opportunity to assess the competence of journalism in the U.S. these days.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is author of The Wastrels of Defense and the editor of a new anthology: ‘America’s Defense Meltdown: Pentagon Reform for President Obama and the New Congress’.

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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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