Will this be the year that Congress takes after the defense budget, seeing it not as holy writ laid down by an unchallengeable priesthood but rather as a political document hammered out by competing bureaucracies, each with long-standing vested interests?
It's a bubbling brew out there, the Tea Party Republicans keen to slash any and all federal programs, joined in a potential alliance of convenience with liberal Democrats seeking to kill big-ticket weapons slammed as pork-barrel waste or Cold War antiques.
The Obama administration's proposed defense budget for fiscal year 2012, rolled out Monday afternoon by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, makes for a gigantic target on this shooting range.
All told, it amounts to $702.8 billion, broken down as follows: $553 billion for the baseline discretionary Defense Department budget, $5 billion for a handful of mandatory programs, $117.8 billion for the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and—a category usually omitted in these sorts of analyses but clearly laid out in the tables of the White House budget office—$27 billion for "defense-related" programs in other federal departments, nearly half of it for nuclear-weapons labs, reactors, and warhead maintenance in the Department of Energy.
The money to fight the wars is probably untouchable. First, as a result of the troop pullout from Iraq, it's a lot less money than the $160 billion funded last year. Second, as was the case last year, Gates is straightforward in itemizing these war-fighting costs ($80 billion for the troops and supplies, $10 billion for equipment to counter roadside bombs, $12 billion to repair and replace equipment, etc.). This is a refreshing contrast to his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who offered no elaboration and stuffed several non-war-related programs into the account to make the baseline budget seem smaller.
But that $553 billion baseline is vulnerable—all the more so, as it's a bit larger than last year's amount, and because it's stuffed with items that are beginning to make some analysts wonder: What does all this have to do with war and peace in the 21st century?
For instance, this budget includes $24.6 billion for 11 new ships, including $4 billion for two new Virginia-class submarines and $1 billion for the down payment on a new aircraft carrier.
Lawmakers should ask the Navy to lay out (in closed-door hearings, if need be) the precise scenarios in which the United States needs more submarines and aircraft carriers than it already has. They'll find the scenarios are pretty far-fetched.
The budget also includes $9.4 billion to buy 32 F-35 stealth fighter planes. The F-35 has run into so many technical problems and delays that Gates is also requesting $3.5 billion to build more of the planes that the F-35 was supposed to replace, including 28 F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter-attack jets and 12 EA-18G radar planes. Gates is also asking for $2 billion to upgrade the radar on older F-15 planes.
Someone should ask whether it might be a better idea to scale back, or scuttle, the F-35s and to expand the production lines for the modified F-15s and F/A-18s instead. We already have (or have funded) 189 F-22 stealth fighters and 58 F-35s, enough to counter exotic threats from as-yet-nonexistent advanced air threats posed by potential enemies. The older designs, few of which have ever been shot down even though they're not "stealthy," are perfectly adequate for all other scenarios.
Then there's the ambitious plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons. This includes $1.4 billion to buy 24 new Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles, $1 billion in research and development funds for a new nuclear-missile submarine, and $2 billion in R&D for a new nuclear bomber and modifications of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Or, as the DoD budget overview puts it, "We are robustly funding all parts of our nuclear triad."