By David Axe
The U.S. Defense Department believes it has found a way to sneak $2 billion worth of new weaponry into its budget. The special funding request, dated Sept. 8, would add eight F-35 stealth fighters, 21 new Apache gunship helicopters and a secretive bunker-busting bomb to the military’s arsenal.
Lawmakers approved the Pentagon’s 2014 budget in December 2013. Nine months later, the military wants to move around $2 billion from that budget to pay for things it didn’t originally ask for.
The budgetary shenanigans reflect the Pentagon’s desperation after years of automatic “sequestration” spending cuts—and also the confusing ways military officials try to justify new weapons.
Bureaucrats have proposed to “reprogram” $2 billion from the Pentagon’s 2014 war budget. The war fund—technically, the “Overseas Contingency Operations” request, or OCO—is an extra budget that the military sends to Congress every year in addition to its normal spending proposal.
The OCO is an artifact of the post-9/11 war on terror. The Pentagon convinced Congress to pay for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere without subtracting from the military’s routine annual budget, which in 2014 exceeded $550 billion.
The price of the OCO add-ons have varied hugely since 2001. The war budget swelled to a staggering $187 billion in 2008 before decreasing to $80 billion in 2014. The 2014 OCO budget “supports activities including continuing the responsible drawdown of forces in Afghanistan,” according to the Pentagon’s budgeteers.
But the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has happened faster than the military expected. And planners see that as an opportunity to spend OCO funds on things Congress didn’t originally approve them for—namely, the eight F-35s, 21 AH-64Es and a special version of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator bomb.
Specifically, the 2014 OCO included nearly $2 billion for supplies and linguists that the Army says it no longer needs—“the result of the accelerated drawdown.”
So the Navy wants to devote $880 million of that cash to buying six F-35B vertical-takeoff stealth fighters for the Marine Corps. They would join another six F-35Bs the Navy paid for in the regular 2014 budget. The F-35 is still in testing and won’t enter front-line service until 2015, at the earliest—too late to deploy to Afghanistan before the final withdrawal of NATO troops.
But the Navy justifies the F-35Bs as a war expense by describing them as direct replacements for six AV-8B Harriers that the Taliban destroyed during a daring infiltration of a NATO base in southern Afghanistan in 2012. “These battle losses resulted in the early stand down of one aircraft squadron,” the Pentagon asserts. “This is an OCO budget requirement.”
Likewise, the Air Force wants to spend $256 million in leftover 2014 OCO funds on two F-35s—in this case the conventionally-landing A model, 19 of which the flying branch bought in the normal budget.
The Air Force’s justification is thinner than the Navy’s is. In March 2012, an F-15E fighter-bomber crashed while en route to Afghanistan for a combat deployment. The following May, an F-15E from the same wing crashed during a mission in Afghanistan.
The Air Force claims the two F-35s will replace the F-15Es. But in fact, the single-engine, single-seat F-35A with its modest payload is nothing like the twin-engine, two-seat F-15E, which can haul a heavy bomb load over long distances. The Air Force plans to replace lightweight F-16s with new F-35As, but doesn’t actually have specific plans for replacing the F-15Es.
Instead, the flying branch is upgrading the heavy-duty F-15s to keep them flying well into the 2030s. None of the F-35s the Air Force buys today or in the near future will take the place of an F-15E. The OCO money-shift for F-35s is based on fiction.
As is the Air Force’s request to divert $104 million “to procure a specific mission-critical modification” for the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator. MOP is a 15-ton bomb that the Pentagon developed to destroy underground bunkers in the event of a major war with, say, Iran or North Korea. Its specs are classified.
The Air Force has around 20 MOPs in storage at the main base in Missouri for B-2 stealth bombers—the only planes compatible with the huge bomb. The military has never dropped a MOP in combat—not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not anywhere.
The Taliban doesn’t possess facilities that warrant the deployment of a weapon so powerful that it’s very nearly a strategic weapon … like an atom bomb. And yet, here it is in the Pentagon’s war-budget reprogramming request.
The Army for its part wants to spend $404 million from the OCO in order to rebuild 21 old AH-64D gunships as more sophisticated AH-64Es—on top of the 42 remanufactured AH-64Es already in the baseline budget. “These 21 Apache helicopters will replace 21 OH-58D Kiowa Warrior battle loss aircraft, as the Apache now assumes the armed scout role,” the Army claims.
Now, it’s true that the ground combat branch has lost scores of the single-engine OH-58Ds in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s also true that the twin-engine Apache is taking over the OH-58D’s scouting mission, allowing the Army to retire all 300 or so of the aged Kiowa Warriors over the next few years.
But the truth is that the Army was determined to get those extra Apaches, one way or another. The OCO reprogramming represents just one attempt at convincing Congress to sign the check. Note that the Army included 23 AH-64Es in its wish list of “unfunded priorities,” budget line items it didn’t manage to include in its 2015 budget proposal.
And surprise! The Air Force’s wish list for 2015 includes … two F-35s, which now appear in the OCO reprogramming.
Just a few years after then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates squashed the practice, the military has resumed drawing up these wish lists, in the hope that Congress will scare up some extra cash above the normal budget.
The unfunded requirements lists are budgetary back-up plans—and they’re not the only ones. For 2015, Pres. Barack Obama has asked Congress to spend an extra $56 billion on his so-called “Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative.” Again, this is a request that exists outside the routine budget.
Shocker, it includes $600 million for Apaches. Roughly the same as in the war-fund reprogramming and the unfunded list.
Congress has to approve the OCO shifts and the $56-billion spending initiative. It may reject some or all of the proposals. Point is, the Pentagon—feeling the pinch of sequestration cuts—has devised lots of tricks for buying extra weapons.