This week, House Armed Services subcommittees are preparing their portions of the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that will go before the full committee next week. This year’s NDAA and appropriations process will have to navigate a number of tough issues, especially the addition of more money to the Administration’s $496 billion request for the Pentagon by way of budget gimmicks to skirt the caps on spending imposed by the Budget Control Act. Such back-door increases are unnecessary and fail to appreciate the proper context in which Pentagon spending should be assessed. In a global and strategic context, total U.S. military expenditures remain well above the Cold War average and multiple times larger than the combined spending of combined potential enemies. In a more immediate budget context, it’s worth recalling that last year, Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds – which are not subject to caps and are intended for paying for wars – were used to evade spending limits. This gimmick virtually erased reductions from sequestration and the Pentagon’s obligation to pay its fair share of deficit reduction. Meanwhile, against this backdrop, lawmakers will have to consider bloated weapons programs like the $1.5 trillion F-35 which remains mired in design flaws that calls into question its usefulness.
Pentagon spending more than twice all other “threat nations” combined. Drawing from new data, Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight explains, “The IISS released its data in a publication titled The Military Balance earlier this year [which estimated $600 billion in total military spending for the U.S. last year]; the SIPRI just released its data base this week [which estimated $640 billion total military spending for the U.S. last year]. While the two differ (SIPRI’s estimates include spending outside official defense budgets) and some may disagree with one or the other methodology, the basic picture is the same: US defense spending is more than twice the size of all presumed threat nations combined [of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, and North Korea]. According to the IISS, the US spending is 2.9 times the presumed threats; according to the SIPRI, the US is 2.1 times them all. Notably, the budget year displayed, 2013, is the first year that the sequestration process went into effect in the US.”
Wheeler puts total U.S. military expenditures in historical context, “In order to support its world-wide empire at the turn of the 19th century, Great Britain adopted the ‘two power standard’ which called for the Royal Navy to be equal to the combined strength of the next two largest navies in the world. The US has more than doubled that standard as regards budgets, and yet our politicians and senior defense officials complain such outspending is inadequate.” He also notes that the average level of Pentagon spending during the Cold War was $355 billion. [Winslow Wheeler, 4/18/14]
Abuse of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) war funding has prevented the Pentagon from paying its fair share of reductions as it was supposed to.
- OCO funding remains artificially high despite drawdown of wars: Lawrence Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Reagan and now of the Center for American Progress, explains with coauthors Max Hoffman and Kate Blakeley, “The Pentagon’s budget request includes a placeholder Overseas Contingency Operations request of $79 billion in FY2015 and $30 billion annually from FY 2016 to FY 2010. While these are only estimates, it means that the department is anticipating spending an additional $199 billion in OCO funding – nominally for the war in Afghanistan – over the next five years, over and above the base budget…Indeed, OCO funding actually increased in FY2013 to FY2014 despite decreases in the number of deployed troops in Afghanistan…the $79 billion OCO placeholder is nearly 1.5 times the reductions in spending required by the sequester under the original BCA caps.” [Lawrence Korb, Max Hoffman and Kate Blakeley, 4/24/14]
- Using OCO as a slush fund to skirt reductions in the base budget: Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments explains, “Since the enactment of the BCA, which does not count war-related funding against DoD’s budget cap, Congress and DoD have moved items that had been funded in the base budget to the OCO budget. In FY 2014, this practice appeared to expand. DoD transferred some $20 billion in operations and maintenance funding from the base budget to OCO in the budget request (author’s estimate), and Congress moved an additional $9.6 billion from base to OCO in the appropriations bill.” Mattea Kramer of the National Priorities Project compares the use of OCO funds to skirt reductions from the Pentagon’s base budget and concludes, “All told, that leaves $3.4 billion — a cut of less than 1% from Pentagon funding this year. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in the sprawling bureaucracy of the Defense Department will even notice.” [Todd Harrison, 3/14. Mattea Kramer, 3/6/14]
As big budget questions loom, the effectiveness of the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program – the F-35 – remains in serious question. The Pentagon is planning on spending around $400 billion in producing nearly 2,500 F-35s and spending another $1 trillion in operating the aircraft. Even if it works as intended, one of the F-35’s main selling points – its stealth – has been called into question. Veteran aviation reporter Bill Sweetman recently wrote, “The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the jet that the Pentagon is counting on to be the stealthy future of its tactical aircraft—is having all sorts of shortcomings. But the most serious may be that the JSF is not, in fact, stealthy in the eyes of a growing number of Russian and Chinese radars. Nor is it particularly good at jamming enemy radar. Which means the Defense Department is committing hundreds of billions of dollars to a fighter that will need the help of specialized jamming aircraft that protect non-stealthy—‘radar-shiny,’ as some insiders call them—aircraft today. These problems are not secret at all. The F-35 is susceptible to detection by radars operating in the VHF bands of the spectrum…These are not criticisms of the program but the result of choices by the customer, the Pentagon.” [Bill Sweetman, 4/28/14]