Defense Budget Shell Game

Behind the hoopla, military spending continues to rise.

Frida Berrigan

On April 6, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) and Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hold a cut-and-dry news conference at the Pentagon.

On April 15, large, angry and somewhat wacky crowds of Republican-backed and Fox News-supported tea party” protesters joined the usual groups of more sedate and earnest peace activists to demonstrate against President Barack Obama’s proposed 2010 budget

A Lockheed Martin machinist can’t become a social studies teacher overnight, but transitioning people from military production to more useful sectors of the economy is not rocket science.

Whether they were mad about deficit spending and high taxes or military spending, Obama’s budget of $3.55 trillion is a lot of money.

Much of those trillions are oriented toward trying to fix the problems of almost a decade of corporations-can-do-no-wrong profligacy. There is a lot to applaud in the budget, like increased spending on healthcare, education and developing sustainable energy. But there are still huge military outlays. Obama’s first Department of Defense budget requests $534 billion in spending, continuing a decade-long trend of uninterrupted increases. (Indeed, under Bush, the Pentagon’s baseline budget rose by 82 percent between FY 2002 and FY 2009, adjusted for inflation.) On April 6, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the detailed budget with a small bit of fanfare, declaring that his budget is intended to reshape the priorities of America’s defense establishment,” and that his recommendations will profoundly reform how this department does business.”

Devil’s in the details

Despite those buzzy action words, Gates’ announcement was pretty cut and dry – a white-haired man reading from a sheaf of paper and responding to questions. For the most part, the cuts he proposed were not dramatic in that they were budget neutral.” Savings from deciding not to order any more F-22 Raptors goes towards production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. There is (maybe) one fewer DDG-1000 Zumwalt destroyer, but no change in funding for the Virginia Class attack submarine.

There were some actual cuts to big ticket items. Star Wars missile defense programs were cut by $1.4 billion, retaining more than $9 billion a year in spending on what is left of Reagan’s fantastic promise to render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” The Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) – the troubled system of systems designed to link together armed soldiers, robotic sensors and combat vehicles with a sophisticated communications network – will be cut by $770 million, as Gates axes the vehicle component. Voicing his frustration about cost over-runs and setbacks, Gates did raise the specter of canning the whole $87 billion program if significant restructuring was not successful.

Looking carefully at the Pentagon budget, Miriam Pemberton, a military budget expert with the Institute for Policy Studies, estimates that the proposals shave between $8.6 and $10.3 billion from weapons procurement funds. If those cuts can be sustained, and if whole programs like FCS are canceled, the savings could total $98 billion eventually. That would actually edge us towards the sweeping rhetoric that accompanied the announcement.

Congress up in arms

But between here and there is a hornet’s nest of Congressional parochialism, with Democrats and Republicans lining up behind their friendly neighborhood military contractor and predicting fundamental compromises to our national security as a result of these cuts. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), called Gates’ budget the disarming of America.” The axed vehicle in the FCS was supposed to be partially built in Oklahoma. Inhofe received $121,700 in defense industry campaign contributions in the 2007-2008 election cycle.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) accuses Gates of being willing to sacrifice the lives of American military men and women for the sake of domestic programs favored by President Obama.” Parts for the F-22 Raptor are built in Georgia. Chambliss received $140,300 in campaign contributions from the defense industry in the 2008 cycle.

Six senators sent Secretary Gates a letter protesting the proposed missile defense cuts and predicting they could undermine our emerging missile defense capabilities to protect the United States against a growing threat.” Together, the senators received more than $855,000 from the defense industry in the 2008 cycle.

All of these protesting members of Congress cite the jobs supported by weapons programs. But according to the University of Massachusetts’ Political Economy Research Institute, an investment of $1 billion in defense creates 8,555 jobs and $564.5 million wages and benefits. That same amount, invested in education, creates 17,687 jobs and $1.3 billion in wages and benefits. A Lockheed Martin machinist can’t become a social studies teacher overnight, but transitioning people from military production to more useful sectors of the economy is not rocket science, and the benefits are lasting.

GWOT becomes Overseas Contingency Operations’

Not only is this budget larger than the Bush administration’s last budget; it is just part of the picture. It does not include the full costs of ongoing wars. At the end of March the Washington Post reported that the Defense Department’s office of security review sent a memo to Pentagon employees saying, this administration prefers to avoid using the term Long War’ or Global War on Terror’ [GWOT.] Please use Overseas Contingency Operation.’ ” Members of the Obama administration quickly fell in line, with Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Peter Orszag winning the prize for using it most often. But whatever one calls it, it is expensive.

As of October last year, total costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan totaled $864 billion. Now it is President Obama’s turn to add to that number. In Obama’s first and – he insists in the OMB release – last planned war supplemental” before these costs are accounted for in the budget” the White House is requesting $83.4 billion for ongoing military, diplomatic and intelligence operations. Of this, $75.5 billion is for costs related to military operations and intelligence activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Added into this mix are funds for four more F-22 Raptors (which extends the life of the weapons program that Secretary Gates just axed to save money). The rest – $7.1 billion – is allocated for international affairs and stabilization activities in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the globe, including economic assistance to Georgia, counter-narcotics programs in Mexico, security assistance in Lebanon and many other budget lines.

Once passed, Obama’s war supplemental will bring the total cost of overseas contingency operations” since President Bush’s October 7, 2001, invasion of Afghanistan to $947 billion.

While it is a positive move to bring war funding into the budget routine, this does not mean the United States will stop spending billions a month any time soon. Military operations in Afghanistan – where Obama is surging U.S. forces – have so far cost more than $170 billion, an average of more than $20 billion per year. Spending will rise significantly as the United States sends more troops and attends more to the training of Afghan security forces. Military and economic aid to Pakistan is slated to sharply increase and additional civilian development aid to Afghanistan will be a crucial part of the mix as well. These will be long-term efforts, not the work of a year, or two years, or even five years.

Then there is Iraq, where Obama has pledged to responsibly end the war. But, contrary to popular belief, savings generated by reductions in U.S. forces in Iraq are unlikely to be significant, at least for the next few years. The planned reductions are fairly gradual. Even after the end of 2011 we may leave a residual force of 50,000 or more military personnel, along with an expanded contingent to train and equip the Iraqi armed forces.

In short, under Obama, Pentagon spending continues to be out of control.

Taxpayers yet unborn, generations of them, will be on the hook for the nearly $3 trillion – the amount borrowed plus interest to finance war operations over the last decade. Until now, most people barely noticed the dollar cost because it was on the national credit card. But whether they tossed tea or piled pennies or filled out forms in April, the American people are beginning to notice that the bills are coming due.

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Frida Berrigan writes for TomDispatch, Waging Nonviolence and other outlets. Her book, It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, was published by OR Books in 2015. She lives in New London, Conn., with her husband, three kids and six chickens.

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