WASHINGTON - The US administration announced a 401.7 billion dollar defense budget for 2005 that funds a rudimentary missile defense system but puts off how to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan until after the presidential election.
The spending blueprint also defers until at least 2006 the withdrawal of US troops from western Europe, tying an ambitious global redeployment to politically sensitive base closures in the United States, said Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim.
If approved by Congress, military spending would go up seven percent next year, swelling the size of the US defense budget for the fifth year in a row.
Military spending would account for 3.6 percent of US gross domestic product, up from a low of 2.9 percent in 2000, according to budget figures released Monday.
A ballooning US deficit and the Iraq war have emerged as key issues for Democratic presidential challengers to the Republican president, George W. Bush, in campaigning ahead of the November 2 election.
Under pressure from critics, Bush on Monday announced an independent commission would look into the intelligence failure over Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was scheduled to brief reporters on the budget, canceled his appearance without explanation.
The budget proposal contains no money for future military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the administration will not seek additional funding from Congress until early next year, Zakheim said.
The Pentagon will finance the operations from cash flow, he said.
A senior defense official who briefed reporters Friday denied the election played a role in the decision not to budget for the military costs this year, insisting it was due to the unpredictability of the situation in Iraq.
"I challenge anybody in this room to tell me what is going to happen in Iraq after July 1," said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Sketching out what he described as "plausible scenarios," he said the transfer of sovereignty could go well, bringing in the United Nations and other foreign forces like the French; it could degenerate into civil war; or things could continue as they are now.
"This time we don't have a good feel for those estimates," he said. "There is no way to predict it."
Operations in Iraq are costing on average four billion dollars a month, and would go up to cover a massive rotation of forces now underway, the official said.
He was unable to provide a cost for last year's invasion or the ensuing occupation.
The budget reflects war strains in other ways.
Although it maintains the military's active duty "endstrength" at 1.38 million troops, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has added about 30,000 troops on an emergency basis to ease strains on the army.
It also finances plans to reorganize the army to add at least 10 more combat brigades, reshape the national guard and reserves, and shift civilians into jobs now held by military personnel.
It includes funding for a 3.5 percent pay raise and other "quality of life" benefits aimed at shoring up recruitment and retention.
The Pentagon also laid out a timetable for a renewed attempt to close bases in the United States, a politically unpopular exercise aimed at eliminating an estimated 20 percent surplus capacity.
The base selection process begins next month but will not conclude before late 2005.
That, in turn, has complicated plans to revamp the way US forces are deployed around the world.
The United States wants to reduce heavy US ground forces based primarily in Germany and open up new bases in former Soviet bloc countries.
But US troops cannot be brought back from Europe until after the domestic base closures are settled, Zakheim said.
"The first time we'll have a good feel for that is '06," said the senior defense official. "You can't do them separately"
The Pentagon, meanwhile, boosted spending on missile defense from about 7.7 billion to 9.2 billion dollars, funding the deployment of a rudimentary missile defense system against a long-range missile attack by North Korea.
Plans call for having in place an "initial operational capability" by the end of fiscal 2004, a goal set by President George W. Bush.
By the end of 2005, the Missile Defense Agency will deploy 20 ground-based interceptor missiles in Alaska and California and up to 10 sea-based missiles aboard three Aegis cruisers.
No major weapons programs were cut, but weapons procurement dipped to 74.9 billion dollars.
A large portion went to aircraft: the F-22 fighter aircraft (4.7 billion dollars), Joint Strike Fighter (4.6 billion dollars), the F/A8-18E/F (3.1 billion dollars), and the V-22 Osprey (1.7 billion dollars).
But unmanned combat aircraft and surveillance planes were gaining with 1.8 billion dollars budgeted.
Copyright 2004 AFP