Two things are striking about next year's military budget, which President Bush sent to Congress Monday. First, it's a lot larger than the published numbers show—at least $20 billion and possibly as much as $40 billion larger, not including the hidden costs of the war in Iraq—and the undercounting seems to be a deliberate ploy to make the deficit look smaller and the budget less weighed down with armaments than they really are.
Second, whatever the budget totals, tens of billions in defense spending could be slashed if the president followed the principle he laid down in his State of the Union Address last week—to "substantially reduce or eliminate" all programs that "do not fulfill essential priorities."
According to the Pentagon's press release (and the many news stories taken from it), the Bush administration is requesting a military budget of $419.3 billion for Fiscal Year 2006, which amounts to a 4.8 percent increase over the $400.1 billion of FY 2005.
But this isn't quite right, in three ways. First, $419.3 billion is the budget for the Department of Defense. The military budget, as the Office of Management and Budget (to say nothing of common sense) defines it, also includes money allotted to the Department of Energy for the research, production, and maintenance of nuclear bombs and warheads. The request for this "weapons activity," as the DoE's budget calls it, totals $9.6 billion.
So, as a first revised look, the true military budget is $428.9 billion. This doesn't change the level of growth in the budget, as the DoE's share stays roughly the same. (Actually, its share is scheduled for a slight reduction in FY06—the '05 figure was $10.2 billion—so, the increase in the overall military budget, at this point in the analysis, comes to 4.5 percent.)
Nearly every administration engages in this kind of undercounting. The deeper deception appears when you examine the section of the Pentagon's budget titled "Army Operations & Maintenance." Tens of billions of dollars for Army O&M—which includes food, fuel, spare parts, all the perishables that keep an army functioning—are being hidden. The Pentagon is subjecting these billions to a clever bookkeeping trick, taking them out of the FY06 budget and putting them in the "supplemental request" for FY06—or perhaps even for FY05—which will be requested several weeks or months from now.
Now, some of this money-laundering is legitimate, or at least traditional. But some of it absolutely is not. Some parsing is vital to see what's going on here.
A supplemental budget request is an accepted way to deal with the uncertainties of military operations. A year goes by between the time a budget is proposed and the time it goes into effect. If a war is going on, no one can predict a year ahead of time how many bullets will be fired, bombs dropped, fuel consumed, wheels replaced, tank-treads patched, and so forth. So, at some point, the Pentagon might request an extra sum of money—a supplemental—to accommodate the extra requirements.
However, this year, the Pentagon is using the supplemental option for purposes that go way beyond standard practice. First, Donald Rumsfeld and his comptroller's office are not even taking an educated guess at how much the Army might need in Iraq next year. For the budget, they are requesting peacetime levels of funding and intend to put all war costs into the supplemental.
Here's proof. In February 2001, shortly after Bush and Rumsfeld entered office, the Pentagon's request for Army O&M came to $31.2 billion for FY 2002, with expectations of $30 billion in FY03 and $31 billion in FY04. It turned out they needed more in FY04; wars were on in Iraq and Afghanistan. The budget documents released Monday show that Army O&M actually amounted to $62.4 billion in FY04 and $45.4 billion in FY05. Yet for FY06, the Pentagon is requesting just $31.8 billion—the same sum it requested five years ago, as if there were no war. It is fair to surmise that at least another $15 billion will be requested in the supplemental.