Why military escaped Obama’s budget axe



President Barack Obama released his budget this week. Everyone seems to be saying it’s dead on arrival. I’m here to tell you that the military part of the budget is doing no better than limping along.

Even before the sequestration took hold, the word in national-security circles was that great change lay ahead for the Pentagon. The end of the Iraq war, the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, the “pivot” to Asia, and the overwhelming fiscal pressures — all foretold drastic cuts and dramatic restructurings in the defense budget.

In fact, the Fiscal Year 2014 defense budget doesn’t look much different from the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. It’s only about 1 percent smaller and in substance is holding steady. Not much change here.

First, though, let’s look at how big the military budget really is. The White House and Pentagon announced this week that it amounts to $526.6 billion. However, this leaves out an estimated $88 billion for overseas military operations (mainly in Afghanistan), $17 billion for nuclear-weapons programs in the Department of Energy, and $7 billion for defense-related programs in other federal agencies — for an actual total of about $638 billion. That is about the same as last year, or what last year’s would have been without sequestration.

And the sequestration points up to one way in which this budget marks a huge evasion. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted at a news conference that sequestration has forced him to cut $52 billion from the budget — but this applies to the budget for Fiscal Year 2013, which was passed last year and is in effect now. The budget documents rolled out this week are for FY 2014 and are meant to go into effect next year.

Two things are worth noting about this distinction. First, the Pentagon’s managers haven’t yet figured out where to cut the $52 billion from current programs. (Furloughing civilians and a scattershot of administrative reforms don’t quite make it.) Second, these same managers are assuming that, by the time this new FY14 budget takes hold, everything is back to normal, and all the funds cut by sequestration have been restored. Certainly there’s nothing in the FY14 budget that assumes anything cataclysmic has happened with the FY13 budget.

Where are the major cuts that President Obama and Secretary Hagel have said are coming to defense spending, even after the crisis over sequestration is settled? The budget documents suggest that these cuts will take place in the “out-years” — halfway or so into the Pentagon’s 10-year plan, which, as everyone knows, is a bookkeeping fiction. In other words, nobody knows where those cuts are coming from.

Meanwhile, nothing — nothing — has been prepared for that fateful day. The FY14 budget preserves every big-ticket weapon system that the Army, Navy, and Air Force chiefs cherish.

For instance, there’s still $8.4 billion for 29 more F-35 stealth fighters, about the same allocation as in each of the last two years, despite the plane’s crippling technical problems and massive cost-overruns. In fact, all three versions of the plane are still being built. (The 29 new planes include four, designed to land on aircraft carriers, for the Navy; six vertical-takeoff models for the Marines; and 19 conventional models for the Air Force, despite the inefficiencies involved.)

There’s still $5.4 billion (almost $500 million more than last year) for the Navy’s new nuclear attack submarines, $1.7 billion ($1 billion more) for a new aircraft carrier, and $2 billion for a new destroyer.

There’s $1.5 billion for more nuclear-tipped Trident II ballistic missiles and $1.1 billion for research and development on a replacement for the Ohio-class Trident submarines that carry them. And there’s $379 million for development of a new penetrating nuclear bomber — all this, despite the president’s stated goal of cutting nuclear weapons.

The budget includes more money for cyber operations — $4.7 billion, up from the current budget’s $3.9 billion. It also allots less money for missile defense ($9.2 billion, down from $9.7 billion) and for the array of drone programs (about $3 billion for the Predators, Reapers, and Global Hawks, down from about $3.3 billion) — but those cuts are due to restructurings, not to a downgrading of the programs.

A case could be made for or against these cuts and non-cuts. The main point is that, despite pledges or warnings of great changes, nothing much is changing.

One of the armed services is taking a serious chop, though — the Army. In active-duty personnel, the Navy is growing a little bit (from 322,700 to 323,600), while the Air Force and Marines are shrinking a little bit (the former going from 329,500 to 327,600, the latter from 197,300 to 190,200). But the Army is taking a substantial hit, from 552,100 soldiers this year to 520,000 next year.

This makes sense, given that the Army bore the brunt of our recent two wars — and now one of those wars is over, while the other is winding down. But the politico-bureaucratic implications might be severe. Until recently, for the past four decades, the budgets for the Army, Air Force and Navy (which includes the Marine Corps) have been split almost evenly. In no year since the late 1960s did each service’s share of the budget change by more than 1 or 2 percentage points. There was a reason for this. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, the Pentagon was a hotbed of interservice strife. Richard Nixon’s first defense secretary, Melvin Laird, changed this by giving each service the same share of the budget and pretty much letting them do whatever they wanted with their allotment. The strife dissipated; a mutual back-scratching society took hold, and thus it has been ever since.

With the FY14 budget, though, the Navy gets 36 percent, the Air Force gets 33 percent — but the Army gets only 30 percent. Again, this makes sense objectively: more money is being spent on planes and ships than on ground troops, tanks and helicopters. But politically this isn’t sitting well with the Army, which is already facing an existential crisis about the nature of its mission. Get ready for a rumble inside the Pentagon.

Of course this is about more than just bureaucratic politics. The world is changing, fiscal pressures are tightening, the security requirements are different from what they were a decade or two ago, yet much of the Defense Department is cruising along as if everything were the same. This is the real budget crisis, and no one is confronting it.

Kaplan is Slate’s “War Stories” columnist and author of the book “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.”

© 2013, Slate

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