The Republican candidates who scorn President Obama for ravaging the military and strangling its cash flow should take a close look at his budget for 2017. Released Tuesday by the White House and the Pentagon, it falls only a few billion dollars short of the largest defense budget since the start of the century—and that slightly bigger budget was Obama’s as well.
It’s another matter whether his budget allocates the money in the wisest way possible (we’ll get to that shortly), but this is not the document of a peacenik or a skinflint.
First, it’s worth noting, this budget—like all defense budgets through the decades—is much larger than it seems at first glance. According to the Defense Department, it amounts to $583 billion, a mere 0.4-percent increase over this year’s budget.
However, that’s only the sum requested by the Defense Department. The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the entire federal government, speaks of appropriations for “national defense,” which also include the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs and assorted items in various other agencies, which together total another $25 billion.
All told, then, the budget request for national defense adds up to $608 billion—a 2.1-percent increase over this year’s budget: not enormous, but not trivial either, and certainly not a cut.
But even this understates the magnitude of the money involved. Let’s look again at the Defense Department’s share of $582.7 billion. The Pentagon’s budget documents divide this request in two parts: the “base budget” and “OCO,” standing for Overseas Contingency Operations. OCO refers to the cost of wars that U.S. forces are fighting (or advising those fighting) in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Base refers to everything else—money for personnel, weapons systems, research and development, and operations and maintenance, quite aside from wars.
The budget for OCO has gone down in recent years, as troops have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan (though, for obvious reasons, it stays level in this budget). But this means that, even if the overall budget were stagnant, the budget for base has gone up (and the overall budget is hardly stagnant).
From 2015 to 2016, the OCO budget dipped from $63 billion to $58.6 billion—but the base soared from $497.3 billion to $521.7 billion, an increase of 5 percent.
Obama’s base budget for 2017 marks only a slight upward tick, to $523.9 billion. But here’s the thing: One chart in the Pentagon’s document shows the base and OCO budgets going back to 2001. Obama’s base request of $523.9 billion is the era’s fourth largest—exceeded only by Obama’s own base budgets (ranging from $527.9 billion to $530.4 billion) in 2010, 2011, and 2012.
Comparing the eight years of George W. Bush’s base budgets and the eight years of Obama’s (including the one proposed today), Obama’s exceed Bush’s by a sum total of $816.7 billion ($4,121.2 billion for Obama’s two terms, $3,304.5 for Bush’s). (See the comptroller’s document, Pages 1–4. This chart doesn’t adjust these figures for inflation; if it did, the difference would be smaller but not by much.)
What accounts for this huge increase? Mainly, it’s the higher cost of weapons systems, most of which were developed during and for the Cold War. There are exceptions. The new budget requests $7.5 billion for anti-ISIS operations (up 50 percent from this year’s spending), $6.7 billion for cyber defense, and $1.2 billion for counterterrorism drone flights.
But mainly, the boosts are for stealth fighter jets, nuclear submarines, and aircraft-carrier battle groups. The stealth plane known as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been a troubled project for more than a decade. When the current defense secretary, Ashton Carter, was undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, his boss, Robert Gates, put him in charge of pressing the contractor, Northrop Grumman, for reforms—but the problems persist.
Nonetheless, Carter is now requesting, with Obama’s consent, $11.6 billion to buy 63 more F-35s next year alone (that’s $184 million per plane), plus a nearly half-billion-dollar down payment on purchases the following year.
On the good side, Carter has decided to build more Navy F/A-18s and to keep Air Force A-10 attack planes flying for several more years, until the full buy of F-35s is complete. Both of those older planes are cheap, easy to maintain, and perform fine. The A-10, a lumbering, low-flying monster—which Air Force generals have long been trying to mothball but which its pilots love—has proved particularly effective at knocking off tanks in most wars we’ve fought for the last 25 years.
The Pentagon comptroller’s report complains that the congressionally imposed sequester has forced Secretary Carter to reduce the buy of several weapons systems next year, including nine AH-64 helicopters, two V-22 planes, three C-130J transport planes, and five F-35s. (Carter had wanted to order 68, not just 63.) I have a better suggestion: Kill more of those F-35s, at least until its problems are fixed—and, crass as the sequester may be, give it thanks for keeping you from throwing away a lot of money.
Finally, there’s an issue of bureaucratic politics that no Pentagon official dared mention in the various budget briefings but that is looming ever large in the building’s corridors. From the mid-1960s until recently, it was standard practice for the Army, Navy, and Air Force to split the defense budget almost equally—one-third for each, plus or minus a few percentage points. This grew out of an explicit decision by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to avoid the internecine warfare that plagued the services’ relations up to that time. The math started to change a few years ago, because the artifice was unsustainable. The Army stopped building big new tanks, while the Navy and Air Force kept building more ships and planes.
And so, of the money going to the three major services in the 2017 budget request, the Navy gets 36 percent, the Air Force 35 percent, but the Army a mere 29 percent. Reports are rife of backbiting and conspiracy-mongering among colonels, generals, and admirals who, whether because of fiscal restrictions or global changes, are seeing their cherished projects denied.
Secretary Carter is spending a lot of his time worrying about the war against ISIS. But his successor might also have to deal with a war inside the Pentagon.