The first budget written by the Obama’ administration institutionalizes spending on the war he inherited - not just in the Department of Defense, but across the US government. In effect, the new budget request is a spending plan for endless conflict.
The budget request for next year that US President Barack Obama sent Congress on Monday included three, count them, separate spending proposals for the Department of Defense.
The base budget request for Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 is $548.9 billion. But there is also the 2011 overseas contingency operations request of $159.3 billion, which will fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan next year. Finally there is a supplemental request for the current Fiscal Year, 2010 - $33 billion - which covers the costs of the president's new strategy in Afghanistan. This is in addition to the $129.6 billion FY 2010 supplemental already passed to support operations there and in Iraq.
The defense budget was unveiled at the Pentagon by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, along with the Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, a long-term defense planning document that outlines the strategic priorities of the US military for the next four years and beyond.
Gates is getting headlines for slashing some congressional pork programs like more C-17 transport planes the military doesn’t need, and publically spanking prime contractor Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon’s own program office for cost over-runs and delays on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter development.
But the defense budget as a whole - exempted from the president’s freeze on non-security related discretionary spending - was up 3.4 percent in cash terms. In real terms, the budget predicts a 1.8 percent growth in defense spending in 2011 and an average of one percent each year after that until 2015.
And, as Gates himself pointed out, half of the research and development and acquisition budget is being spent on “conventional modernization, unrelated to the current wars” – read: big ticket procurement items like the F-35.
No wonder defense shares were up. Even Lockheed got a little bump.
The same but diffferent
When the Democrats were in opposition, they derided the Bush administration for funding the war using emergency procedures for supplemental budget requests - bypassing congressional budgeting rules and helping balloon the deficit.
Nonetheless, the practice continues under Obama’s administration, although the supplementals are generally now presented alongside the regular budget and subject to congressional oversight by the appropriations committees in what lawmakers like to call “regular order.”
But as Gates and other officials said Monday, the programs and costs of the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of its broader conflict with Islamic terrorism, are being transferred into the base budget of departments and agencies all across the US government.
The war on terror is being - in a budgetary sense - institutionalized.
In the Department of Defense, Gates said he planned to move a lot of supplemental spending - like money for Special Operations Command, for example - into the regular departmental spending request, so that those receiving it could argue to have it annually renewed even if the supplemental budget requests eventually dry up.
“My problem when I arrived here [at the Pentagon] was that those fighting the current war had no seat at the budget table at all,” he said. “My goal,” he added, is “to move those capabilities, which we need long term, into the base budget.”
The need for these kinds of capabilities, added Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen - giving as another example increased cash for unmanned aerial surveillance craft and other intelligence-gathering technology - is “going to be with us in the future no matter what our fights are, or what our engagements are.”
Gates said moving this and other spending to the base budget would “help ensure these critical programs receive an institutional home and long-term support.”
The 'new' war mindset
The QDR amended the traditional thinking underlying US defense planning and budgeting - that the country’s military should be able to fight two major regional wars simultaneously - in favor of new doctrine, which stressed the ability to engage in a series of continuing asymmetric threats and conflicts while still being able to fight and win conventional wars.
Rolling out the QDR, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy told reporters, “The bottom line of our force planning approach is this: Just as our forces today are operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti and elsewhere around the world, we must be ready and able to project power in multiple regions of the world at the same time.
“We've broken out of the canonical two conventional wars mindset,” she concluded.
Vice Admiral Steve Stanley, a senior planner with the Joint Staffs, added, “Our ground forces need to be out there, engaged, just as we've come to expect of our maritime and aviation forces over the years, building partnership capacities, working together [with allies].”
But it is not just in the Department of Defense budget that wartime spending and activities are being institutionalized. State Department official Jacob Lew explained on Monday how support for the security services of US allies in the war on terror - like counterinsurgency funding for Pakistan and Iraq and so-called 1207 aid - was being moved from the defense budget to the State Department.
“This budget also begins to rebalance civilian and military roles,” he said.
**Shaun Waterman is a senior writer and analyst for ISN Security Watch. He is a UK journalist based in Washington, DC, covering homeland and national security.