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Debating Defense

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: January 8, 2007

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The last thing any institution wants to do just before making its yearly pitch for more resources is to come begging for a huge special allotment to cover the current budget year. Yet that’s precisely what the Department of Defense plans to do. According to this draft DOD supplemental budget request, the Pentagon will ask the new Democratic-led Congress for $99.7 billion to cover operations, maintenance, and a host of other costs less obviously related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of those wars, meanwhile, at well over $300 billion and counting, continues to make pre-war estimators blush.

This latest “supplemental request” has tongues wagging in Washington not only because of its size. It also defies an effort by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to force more of these costs to go through normal budget channels—a move which would subject them to more congressional hearings. President Bush made clear he had no intention of abiding by McCain’s wishes and took advantage of a loophole to sidestep it. But new Democratic congressional leaders, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), have promised extra scrutiny (CBS) of major new budgetary outlays—like those involved in a troop surge—for the war in Iraq. This new CFR Backgrounder looks at the controversy over “emergency supplementals” and how the Democratic takeover of Congress may affect the military’s longer-term modernization plans.

Close reading of the draft supplemental request—still to be submitted to Congress—indicates the vast majority of the funds would pay for maintenance, upgrades, and replacements for the equipment fighting these wars. Yet there’s plenty to raise oversight eyebrows, including a $3.9 billion request for several Air Force F-35 fighters, years away from active duty, plus funding for “pure research,” and billions of dollars for Navy operations which may not cry “desert counterinsurgency” to lawmakers.

Many experts question the will of Congress to cut military spending—or even curtail it—while American troops are dying abroad. “Over the past four years, about $400 billion has been handed to the Pentagon in the form of emergency supplementals without Armed Services Committee scrutiny,” writes the Armed Forces Journal. This has encouraged the military to laden them with “pork” (NeimanWatchdog)—the goodies that benefit particular districts or states and help insulate such bills from congressional opposition.

Still, this is hardly the atmosphere defense officials would wish for as the president puts the finishing touches on his FY2008 budget plan, expected to set a record (Bloomberg) when released on February 5 at just under $3 trillion, according to Office of Management and Budget Director Robert Portman. The defense spending plan, also expected to represent a rise from last year’s $462 billion budget, could well be thrown into disarray if Democrats in Congress make good on pledges to make temporary post-9/11 increases in the size of the Army permanent. That would mean more of the Army’s “baseline budget” going to manpower, and less for its blueprint for modernization—the “Future Combat System,” Air Force missile defense, F-22 and F-35 fighters, could face slowdowns.

Most analysts see the Navy most at risk for real losses in the coming budget battle, however. After holding the most influential political position just after the Cold War, the wars of 9/11 have left the Navy feeling, well, adrift. The Navy plans to put a $3.5 billion downpayment on its $10 billion “next generation” aircraft carrier in the FY2008 budget, and experts believe Congress will force the service to take that money out of naval and Marine Corps aircraft procurement. Countering, the Navy plans to launch a new “national maritime strategy” in the coming year. But experts remain skeptical. “The problem the Navy faces is that it's not visible in Iraq, and everyone sees the ground forces and they want to put money there,” says Loren B. Thompson of the Lexington Institute. Adds James McAleese, a defense industry attorney and principal of McAleese & Associates: What the Navy is asking for is made of unobtainium.”

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