Obama and the Permanent War Budget
It's been a good decade for the Pentagon. The most recent numbers from Capitol Hill indicate that Pentagon spending (counting Iraq and Afghanistan) will reach over $630 billion in 2010. And that doesn't even include the billions set aside for building new military facilities and sustaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
But even without counting the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Defense budget has been moving relentlessly upward since 2001. Pentagon budget authority has jumped from $296 billion in 2001 to $513 billion in 2009, a 73% increase. And again, that's not even counting the over $1 trillion in taxpayer money that has been thrown at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if those wars had never happened, the Pentagon would still be racking up huge increases year after year after year.
And perhaps most disturbing of all, the Pentagon budget increased for every year of the first decade of the 21st century, an unprecedented run that didn't even happen in the World War II era, much less during Korea or Vietnam. And if the government's current plans are carried out, there will be yearly increases in military spending for at least another decade.
We have a permanent war budget, and most of it isn't even being used to fight wars - it's mostly a giveaway to the Pentagon and its favorite contractors.
What Can Be Done?
For starters, the Pentagon needs to cut unnecessary weapons systems that were designed to meet Cold War threats that no longer exist. A good place to look for these kinds of cuts is in the Unified Security Budget, an analysis provided annually by a taskforce organized by Foreign Policy In Focus. Its most recent recommendations call for over $55 billion in cuts in everything from unneeded combat aircraft to anti-missile programs to nuclear weapons spending.
To their credit, President Obama and his Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have sought to eliminate eight such programs, from the F-22 combat aircraft to the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (a leftover from the old "Star Wars" program). An analysis recently produced by Taxpayers for Common Sense indicated that six of the eight proposed program cuts stuck. This is an impressive record, given the need to fight the weapons contractors and their pork-barreling allies in Congress to get the job done. But as the analysis also notes, additional spending on other programs added up to $1 billion more than the amount saved by the cuts.
This shouldn't be surprising. As a candidate for president, Obama told a rally in Iowa that it might be necessary to "bump up" the military budget beyond the record levels established by the Bush administration. And in announcing the administration's proposed weapons cuts in spring 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made it clear that he was seeking to rearrange priorities within the Pentagon, not reduce its budget. Gates sought more funding for equipment that would support counterinsurgency operations - like unmanned aerial vehicles - and less for systems designed to fight a Soviet threat that no longer exists - like the F-22 combat aircraft. And he got pretty much what he asked for.
Reducing U.S. Reach
Another area for savings would be to cut the size of the armed forces. But Obama campaigned on a promise to carry out a troop increase of 92,000, mirroring proposals made by the Bush administration. And his commitment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan might set the stage for even larger increases in the total U.S. forces at some point down the road.
Finally, any real savings in U.S. military spending would need to be accompanied by a reduction in U.S. "global reach" - in the hundreds of major military facilities it controls in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. But - in parallel to the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan- U.S. overseas-basing arrangements have been on the rise, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan themselves but in bordering nations.
So, barring major public pressure, don't expect the overall Pentagon budget to go down anytime soon. We can certainly still achieve some real reforms, from the elimination of outmoded systems like the F-22, to cracking down on war profiteering, to supporting the Obama administration's indispensable efforts to cut back the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. At least for now, though, making the Pentagon do with less when most communities in the country are suffering from the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression is not in the cards. Not unless large numbers of us make it an issue.
© 2009 Foreign Policy in Focus