President Obama has proposed the largest defense budget since World War II.

Military analysis.
Feb. 1 2010 7:42 PM

Too Big To Fail?

President Obama has proposed the largest defense budget since World War II.

Robert Gates. Click image to expand.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates

The Pentagon released its budget for fiscal year 2011 this afternoon, and it is enormous—much larger, even adjusting for inflation, than any budget since World War II. What's more, some numbers buried within the budget suggest that it's set to grow larger still in the coming years—to a greater extent than the White House or the Defense Department acknowledges.

One bit of good news: Defense Secretary Robert Gates is more honest than his recent predecessors about how much money he's really requesting. The figure for FY 2011 is $708.2 billion—consisting of $548.9 billion for the "baseline" budget plus $159.3 billion to pay for "overseas contingency operations," mainly the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, by the way, he says, tack on another $33 billion to the current year's budget, to pay for the 30,000 extra troops (and all their supplies, weapons, and so forth) that President Obama is sending to Afghanistan.

All told, that's $741.2 billion in new money—and Gates is upfront about it.

In the past, defense secretaries, in presenting their budgets to Congress, have pretended that the costs of war are completely separate from the rest of the military budget. And they've itemized  those war costs very sketchily, if at all. By contrast, Gates breaks down that $159.3 billion in some detail ($89.4 billion for operations, $21.3 billion to repair broken equipment, $13.6 billion to train the Afghan and Iraqi security forces, etc.).

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Still, $708.2 billion, the sum requested just for fiscal year 2011, is an extraordinary chunk of change. The Center for a New American Security (hardly a dovish think tank) calculates that, adjusting for inflation, this sum is 13 percent higher than the defense budget at the peak of the Korean War, 33 percent higher than at the peak of the Vietnam War, 23 percent higher than at the peak of the Cold War, and 64 percent higher than the Cold War's average.

Granted, the comparisons aren't quite commensurate. For one thing, payroll costs are much higher for an all-volunteer military, and over the past 10 years, Congress has passed pay increases totaling 64 percent. (Military personnel costs are now nearly 20 percent of the defense budget; health care eats up another 5 percent and is climbing.) But on the other side of the equation, the U.S. military consists of far fewer servicemen and -women than before. The United States no longer needs massive garrisons to stave off a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, nor does it face any prospective enemy that approaches its global reach in air or naval power.

Let's assume that all the money Gates is requesting for war-related costs—some $192 billion in this and next year's budgets—really is related to the war. (Donald Rumsfeld, Gates' predecessor, treated those accounts as a slush fund.) What about the half-trillion-plus "baseline"?

Last year, in the FY 2010 budget, Gates cut or killed a slew of weapons programs that he (and many others) considered unnecessary or ineffective: the Air Force's F-22 fighter, the Navy's DDG-1000 destroyer, the more high-tech components of the Army's Future Combat Systems. Today, he's calling for an end to the C-17 cargo-transport plane (we have enough of them) and a second engine for the F-35 fighter (the one it has already is fine). But, except for a handful of teeny programs (including some I'd never heard of), that's it.

For the most part, the big-ticket weapons programs are on the rise: $25 billion for 10 new ships, including two Virginia-class submarines and two DDG-51 destroyers (to make up for his killing the more "advanced" DDG-1000 last year, perhaps). Gates is requesting another $10 billion on missile defense (a billion more than last year). And he is requesting $11 billion for 43 more F-35 fighter planes.

One thing about the F-35, the joint Air Force-Navy fighter that Gates wants to accelerate after halting production of the more costly, somewhat more capable F-22: It's having problems. The problems are so severe, Gates announced today, that he's withholding $614 million in fees from its contractor, Lockheed-Martin (which also made the F-22), and he's fired the plane's program manager.

This is a potentially big story that raises several questions. For instance, is the F-35 going to turn out so riddled with problems that Gates will regret killing the F-22?And more immediately, why is he penalizing the contractor, canning the program manager—yet, at the same time, vastly increasing the buy?

I have a theory: He can't cut it too deeply, especially after cutting the F-22, without raising holy hell inside the Pentagon.

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