The Pentagon Spigot is Wide Open

On Jan. 27, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Congress, “The spigot of defense funding opened by 9/11 is closing.” Right after Gates’ defense budget was released on May 7, the Pentagon’s comptroller, Robert Hale, confirmed to the press: “The spigot is starting to close.” A closing spigot implies less money, but the new 2010 defense budget shows quite clearly that the spigot is not closing; it’s stuck – full on. Not counting the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s annual appropriations for 2009 were $514 billion. For 2010, Gates is requesting $534 billion. The flow is to increase by $20 billion.

Comptroller Hale also told the press, “We don’t have a plan be yond 2010.” He said there would not be one until after the Defense Department completes its review of strategy, programs and policy – the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).

Actually, there is a plan for the out-years “beyond 2010.” It’s in the budget that President Barack Obama approved and sent to Congress that same May 7. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) materials on the budget show a flood of numbers for DoD’s outyears. They are all available to the public in Table 26-1 of OMB’s 415 page tome for the 2010 budget, “Analytical Perspectives.” It projects DoD spending all the way out to 2019.

Not counting money projected for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the presidentially approved budget plan would continue increasing the Pentagon’s budget: by another $8.1 billion in 2011 (up 1.5 percent), another $9 billion in 2012 (up 1.6 percent), and $10.4 billion in 2013 (up1.8 percent), and so on all the way out to 2019.

If we add in the costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon budget for the current fiscal year – 2009 – exceeds any year since the end of World War II, including the spending peaks for the Korean and Vietnam wars.

President Obama’s plan is to increase that lead.

Obama also will outspend Ronald Reagan on defense.

Obama plans to spend $2.47 tril lion on the Pentagon for the years 2010 to 2013. If he makes it into a second term, he plans to spend an other $2.58 trillion for the years 2014 to 2017. Put together for the eight years, 2010 to 2017, Obama plans to spend $5.05 trillion.

In his first four years, Reagan spent, in inflation-adjusted dollars, $2.1 trillion. In his second four years, he spent $2.11 trillion, for an eight-year total of $4.21 trillion.

Obama will out-spend Reagan in his first four years by $369 billion.

Over eight years, Obama will exceed Reagan by $840 billion.

Many Republicans are trying to accuse Obama of cutting the defense budget. They seem to have confused their plus and minus signs. According to their logic, the near-sainted Ronald Reagan was a defense budget slasher.

And what of Hale and his implied assertion that none of these numbers will mean anything until the Pentagon completes its much touted QDR? The Pentagon has been conducting these reviews since early in the Clinton administration. Each one has been greatly ballyhooed and cited as the essential precursor of big decisions to come. Each one has come and gone and done nothing to change whatever trajectory the Pentagon’s leadership has pre-decided; it functions as little more than a review by the department bureaucracy of itself.

Just as the 50 program and policy decisions that Gates announced to the press on April 6 held some dramatic news, such as canceling the Air Force’s F-22 fighter, the new QDR will probably contain some newsworthy decisions when it is finished later this year. Notably, however, Gates’ 50 decisions were budget neutral (the 2010 budget was set at $534 billion both before and after them). We can expect the QDR to be the same.

Or, we can expect the numbers to climb a little. On May 14, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that sustaining the Pentagon’s current program will require 2 percent annual growth in the department’s budget. That’s just a little more than Obama has now in his plan.

Breathlessly, some will protest that we must wait for the results of the QDR and the big changes everyone knows are needed. However, based on Obama’s performance on national security issues so far, it clearly is not going to happen. With his decisions on Afghanistan, extra-judicial military com mission trials of suspected terrorists, the public release of recorded prisoner abuse and other matters, Obama has already shown he has no stomach for major departures from conventional wisdom and the “moderate” – i.e., politically safe – thing to do on questions of national defense.

Similarly, we can expect Obama’s first QDR Pentagon exercise to land on safe territory, certainly not on the stormy seas of actual reductions – or the uncharted waters of real and meaningful Pentagon reform.

The spigot is pretty much stuck where it is. It would take real change for it to be otherwise.

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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