The New Pentagon Budget—So New?
Obama plans to spend as much on defense as Bush did.
President Obama's budget does just what the Chiefs figured a new president might do—it transfers those items from the supplemental to the budget. Yet his budget is just $533.7 billion.
Still, it would be misleading to call this a cut. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said at a news conference today, the Chiefs' rough budget estimate was never examined outside the Pentagon. Something Gates didn't say—especially with Adm. Mike Mullen, the JCS chairman, sitting next to him—is that these sorts of internal drafts are routinely chock-full of wish lists and embellishments, many of them tossed in as bargaining chips, in the full expectation that the White House budgeteers—in any administration, Republican or Democrat—will toss them back out.
Still, probably half of Obama's $20 billion increase consists of these items that have been moved over from the supplemental. The president is also calling for a 2.9 percent increase in military pay—that will cost about $2.6 billion (and one can expect the Congress to add 1 percent or so on top of that)—as well as major increases in disability benefits, health care, and living conditions (especially for military families). Add up all this, and $20 billion probably falls short of what's needed.
And so, to meet the White House budget target, something else will have to give—and that's where some big-ticket weapons can be expected to face the ax. Or, as Gates put it at his press conference, there will be some "rebalanced investment between current and future capabilities." President Obama made the point plainer still at his congressional address Tuesday night, promising, as he put it, to "reform our defense budget, so that we're not paying for Cold War-era weapons systems we don't use."
The cognoscenti knew that the president was talking about one weapon system above all others—the F-22 Raptor fighting plane, which Gates has also decried several times in the past as a weapon that was built to fight aerial duels with the Soviet Union and that is so ill-suited to today's wars that no Air Force commander has ordered a single one of them into harm's way in any of the wars we've waged in recent years.
The Air Force wants to buy 200 more of these planes—20 per year over the next decade at a cost of $4 billion annually. That's one battle to watch closely.
But there are more weapons in the same situation. If President Obama is scrutinizing every line in every budget for programs that don't work or aren't critically needed, he could find several in the DoD budget that could be slashed or slowed down without doing any damage to the nation's security.
Again, we don't yet know the breakdown of programs and costs in the FY10 budget, but it's likely to be—or the service chiefs would like it to be—a continuation of past years' trends. The current FY09 budget includes $4.2 billion for a new aircraft carrier, $3.2 billion for a new DDG-1000 destroyer, $3.6 billion for a new Virginia-class nuclear submarine, $12 billion for various components of a missile-defense system (which Obama is reportedly inclined to cut by 20 percent), and $3.6 billion for the Army's Future Combat System—a complicated high-tech network of systems that has run into huge problems: Its deployment date has slipped from 2011 to 2015, its cost has exploded (an estimated $160 billion and rising), and its reliability is in question
This last program is still in the early stages of development—just $20 billion has been spent to date—and so it might be particularly vulnerable. The White House budget released today states in its introduction that weapons programs will not be allowed "to proceed from one stage of the acquisition cycle to the next until they have achieved the maturity to clearly lower the risk of cost growth and schedule slippage."
That sounds like a reference to the Future Combat System. And if Obama and Gates want to take away big items from the Air Force and Navy, they would be wise—politically as well as on the merits—to take a big slice out of the Army's baroque mess, too.
The president and his defense secretary, after all, are still asking for a lot of money: nearly as much as the military budgets of all the rest of the world's countries combined; more (adjusting for inflation) than the United States has spent on the military in any single year since World War II.
It's long past time to scrutinize the defense budget just like any other budget, to stop treating its size as an untouchable symbol of national strength and more as a product of, yes, legitimate security concerns but also of institutional interests and inertia. The important thing is not how much we spend but what we buy.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.