Twelve ways to rethink the defense budget.
Why bulk up now?
By Lawrence Korb and Katherine Blakeley
The recent engagements against the Islamic State and Khorasan groups are another chance to ask for more money for the Pentagon, and sure enough, the regular assortment of defense budget hawks is looking for a fresh new rationale to raise the defense budget. But while calling for more defense funding might be a way for politicians to answer the calls to “do something” (anything!), it is less challenging and politically risky than considering the specifics of our strategy in the face of the messy situation on the ground.
The fact is, adding more overseas contingency operations (OCO) money, or war funding, to pay for the campaign against the Islamic State (also known as ISIL) is premature. The Pentagon estimates the cost of the president’s current operation in Iraq and Syria at $7 to $10 million a day. The entire campaign has cost about $1.1 billion from June 16 through October 6, paid for with leftover funds in the fiscal year 2014 OCO appropriations budget. By comparison, the 2011 campaign against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, which lasted seven months, cost about $1.1 billion in its entirety.
Neither sum is chump change, but even now the Pentagon still has plenty of OCO funding left: A few weeks ago, the Defense Department had the chutzpah to ask Congress if it could use $1.1 billion in extra OCO funding to buy eight F-35s to replace planes that crashed in Afghanistan … in 2012. As we approach the end of the fiscal year, it’s hard to say exactly how much extra fiscal year 2014 OCO money is left. But last fiscal year, there was nearly $9 billion remaining at the end of the year—plenty to pay for more than a year of the current level of strikes against ISIL. Given the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, there is likely to be even more extra money this year.
What happens if the air campaign against ISIL is sustained, stretching well into fiscal year 2015? Even if there were no leftover OCO funds from the current fiscal year, there is already plenty of money for next year. At $58.6 billion, the fiscal year 2015 OCO request is a big request for what will be a small conflict in Afghanistan. While there will be nearly 80 percent fewer U.S. troops in Afghanistan compared to Fiscal year 2014, , the Pentagon’s request for OCO money has gone down by just a third. Moreover, the continuing resolution keeping the government funded through December 11 maintains fiscal year 2014 appropriations levels—including $85.2 billion in OCO money. Between now and that date in December, the Defense Department will have gotten $20 billion in OCO funds—or more than a third of the Pentagon’s requested war funding for the whole year.
Rushing to add additional money now is not only premature, it undermines congressional prerogatives. The use of existing OCO appropriations to pay for the campaign against ISIL has allowed Congress to sidestep important questions about the use and authorization of U.S. military force. If the Pentagon truly needs additional funding to pay for the conflict against ISIL, it can ask Congress for emergency supplemental funds—paid for by a war tax—with the appropriate budget justification and congressional debate.
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of defense for manpower, reserve affairs, installations, and logistics, overseeing 70 percent of the defense budget, from 1981-1985. Katherine Blakeley, a research assistant at the Center for American Progress, was previously a defense analyst at the Congressional Research Service.