Breaking down the U.S. military budget.

Military analysis.
Feb. 4 2008 6:51 PM

What's Really in the U.S. Military Budget?

Much more than the oft-cited $515.4 billion.

Fighter planes
Fighter planes push war spending to sky-high levels

It's time for our annual game: How much is really in the U.S. military budget?

As usual, it's about $200 billion more than most news stories are reporting. For the proposed fiscal year 2009 budget, which President Bush released today, the real size is not, as many news stories have reported, $515.4 billion—itself a staggering sum—but, rather, $713.1 billion.

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Before deconstructing this budget, let us consider just how massive it is. Even the smaller figure of $515.4 billion—which does not include money for fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—is roughly equal to the total military budgets of all the rest of the world's nations combined. It is (adjusting for inflation) larger than any U.S. military budget since World War II.

But this is simply the Pentagon's share of the military budget (again, that part of it not related to war costs). Since most reporters writing about this are Pentagon reporters, that's the part of the budget that they consider their turf.

However, the Office of Management and Budget's documents focus on a broader category called "National Defense," which also includes $16.1 billion for nuclear warheads and reactors under the Department of Energy's control and $5.2 billion for "defense-related activities" at other agencies (mainly the FBI). There is also $4.3 billion for mandated programs (most having to do with military retirement and health care for victims of radiation sickness).

So, that brings the total, so far, to $541 billion. ("National Defense," by the way, does not include programs in the Department of Homeland Security; that's another story.)

Then there is the $70 billion emergency war supplemental that the Pentagon is requesting for FY 2009. (In one sense, it is strange that they're requesting this upfront; supplementals are usually submitted in the middle of the year, to cover unanticipated expenses. In another sense, it's refreshing that Robert Gates' Pentagon—as opposed to Donald Rumsfeld's—is making no effort to disguise what will definitely be needed.)

Now we're up to $611 billion.

Finally, as the Pentagon's budget documents note up front, in the "Summary Justification," Congress has yet to approve $102 billion left over from the supplemental for FY 2008. And so—in terms of how much Congress is being asked to authorize this year—that brings us to $713 billion.

But let's delve into the Pentagon's base line figure—the $515.4 billion that has nothing directly to do with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What's in there? Do the U.S. armed forces really need that much for the everyday maintenance of national security?

About a quarter of that sum—$125.2 billion—is for personnel costs: understandable. Another third—$180 billion—is for operations and maintenance of equipment (a bit more mysterious, since this is apart from the O&M costs brought on by the war). But a larger sum still—$184 billion—is for what the Pentagon calls "major weapons systems."

This includes $45.6 billion for military aircraft, including $6.7 billion to buy 16 more F-35 stealth planes. The F-35 is still in its early stages; the Pentagon has, to date, spent only about one-tenth of what it estimates to be a $300 billion program. It's not too late to ask if we need such a costly, sophisticated fighter jet, given that air-to-air combat is not likely to be a major element of future wars and, to the extent that it might be, we're way ahead—in numbers and technology—of any prospective foe. Or let's accept the proposition that China's air force is going to be a formidable rival by the year 2020: Do we need to tear full-speed ahead on the F-35 now? Could we slow the program down and see how things shape up?

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