Boosting the defense budget through the back door.

Boosting the defense budget through the back door.

Boosting the defense budget through the back door.

Military analysis.
Feb. 20 2008 5:02 PM

This Is Not an Emergency

Supplemental war funds are a backdoor way to boost the defense budget.

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Under the old regulations, a supplemental could request funds to replace equipment and weapons systems that were destroyed or worn out during battle. However, England's new rule also allowed the military services to request money to "restore and enhance combat capability." They could restore and enhance not merely to prior combat capability, but to "desired combat capability," and this new standard could be applied not just to the ongoing war, but also to a unit's "future mission." (Italics added.) (For more details on this change, see these reports.)

This helps explain some mysterious items in the supplemental request for FY 2008. For instance:


  • $2.9 billion for research and development (by definition, not an urgent requirement since whatever's being researched and developed will not be produced, much less deployed, for years)
  • $1.96 billion for the military services' revolving and management funds and $1.1 billion for pre-positioned war reserve stocks (these items, as their names suggest, are reserve funds—backups, not front-line items needed right away)
  • $16.8 billion for MRAP mine-resistant troop-carrying vehicles (very much needed in Iraq and Afghanistan—and kudos to Defense Secretary Robert Gates for pushing them through, over some Army resistance—but it will take a few years of production to spend all this money; it's a new program with little oversight as yet; does it all need to go into an emergency war supplemental now?)
  • $389 million for a new F-35 stealth fighter jet (more advanced and expensive than the F-16 it's replacing and impossible to deliver for another three years)
  • $3.9 billion for Navy aircraft procurement, including $768 million for 13 F/A-18 fighter-attack planes (are these planes really needed for Iraq and Afghanistan?)

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, to date, $14 billion of the Army's supplemental requests have been allocated not to repairing or replacing weapons systems but to upgrading them or to buying new equipment to fill long-standing shortfalls or to replace stocks for long-term storage. *

Another curious item is $5.44 billion for basic military pay. (This is in addition to several billion for "special pay," "incentive programs," and other categories related to combat compensation.) When Donald Rumsfeld was defense secretary, this item was justified on the grounds that more troops were recruited to fight the war in Iraq; their basic pay—along with other monetary inducements—was regarded as appropriate for a supplemental because it was a temporary expense related to the war. However, Secretary Gates has now called for the recruitment of 65,000 more soldiers and 27,000 Marines as a permanent part of the U.S. military. The expense is not temporary. It should be a part of the regular budget. And its placement in this year's supplemental only means that the following years' budgets are going to be still bigger, in order to support these extra troops after—or perhaps a better term is if—the war is over.

Does any of this matter? None of this money has been shuffled surreptitiously. The budget documents are, for the most part, unclassified. The relevant congressional committees have examined them. Even Deputy Secretary England's memo, changing the definition of "war-related items," was circulated widely and openly (even if it was barely reported in the press). And, one could argue, putting nonurgent items in the supplemental doesn't constitute an evasion of congressional oversight since Congress these days barely exercises oversight of the regular defense budget.

But the practice does have a corrosive impact. It allows the military services to elude even minimal standards of discipline. Rather than set priorities and make choices between one program and another, or between short-term needs and long-term wishes, as all other federal agencies must do, the backdoor supplemental lets them have it all—including billions of dollars' worth that has nothing to do with an emergency, in some cases little to do with any wars.

Correction: Feb. 21, 2008: This story originally attributed a budget estimate to the Congressional Research Service's Amy Belasco. In fact, it is from a Congressional Budget Office report that Belasco quoted from. (Return to the corrected sentence.)