Debunking the Republicans’ Defense Budget Revisionism

Ignore the warnings from Trump, Bush, and the rest. The Overseas Contingency Operations budget ensures that the bean counters at the Pentagon need never worry.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 15:  Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump (L) and Jeb Bush (R) repond to each other as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) listens during the CNN Republican presidential debate on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is the last GOP debate of the year, with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gaining in the polls in Iowa and other early voting states and Donald Trump rising in national polls.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump (L) and Jeb Bush (R) repond to each other as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) listens during the CNN Republican presidential debate on December 15, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This is the last GOP debate of the year, with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) gaining in the polls in Iowa and other early voting states and Donald Trump rising in national polls. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The time for the annual defense budget drama is upon us. This long-running Washington show re-opened on Feb. 9, when U.S. President Barack Obama released his new budget request and the Defense Department rolled out its usual array of briefers and charts.

It was all very familiar, but less dramatically compelling than in the past. The media focused little attention on the president’s budget (the story made it to page A-17 of the Washington Post), and it was quickly swamped by news from the campaign, Syria, and, eventually, by the death of Antonin Scalia. Reporters in the Pentagon briefing room already knew the lines, because Defense Secretary Ash Carter had delivered them only five days earlier.

The media circus that usually attends a budget release is off in hot pursuit of ardent chanters of presidential campaign rhetoric — both from the left and the right — who are mouthing inaccurate platitudes about national security that fail to meet Hamlet’s test of good acting: “suit the action to the word and the word to the action.” America, if the Republican candidates are to be believed, is afflicted by “weakness,” its weapons systems “gutted,” according to Jeb Bush. Meanwhile, Donald Trump would have you believe our military is a “disaster,” and the good Dr. Ben Carson warns us that our Marines are “not ready to be deployed.”

Their words sound dire. But if we shift our focus to what’s actually going on at the Pentagon, all is well, as this latest budget request confirms. The Cheshire cat of complaint should be disappearing, leaving only its grin behind. Because, in reality, the campaign whiners have missed the reality: the Pentagon is now rolling in dough.

By almost any measure, defense budgets are now rising at a rate well above inflation — just as they’ve been doing since FY 2013, when sequestration took effect and imposed automatic cuts across the federal budget. Defense budgets today are, according to my reading of DoD data, roughly $100 billion above their historical Cold War levels, measured in constant dollars. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the U.S. defense budget is larger than those of the next 14 countries combined.

For all the campaign rhetoric about Obama abandoning defense, and the cries of pain over sequestration (meaning, in reality, the BCA discretionary budget caps of 2011), over the last eight budget years, the Obama administration has provided $4.1 trillion dollars for the base budget at the Pentagon, over $400 billion more than the base budget funding provided by the George W. Bush administrations from 2001 to 2009.

In contrast to the rhetoric, this spending has not led to military “weakness,” or some dire “readiness” crisis. The United States today has the world’s most well-funded, technically powerful military in the world. As vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva testified last week: “I won’t be argumentative but I will take umbrage with the notion that our military has been gutted…I stand here today a person that’s worn this uniform for 35 years. At no time in my career have I been more confident than this instant in saying we have the most powerful military on the face of the planet.”

Over the past three years, I have pointed out repeatedly that the United States has the only truly global military — one that can deploy forces anywhere, fly anywhere, and sail anywhere. Unlike other militaries around the world, it has a truly global network of bases and global logistics, transportation, communications, and intelligence. It has Special Operations forces that, at nearly 70,000 troops deployed in over 80 countries, outnumber the militaries of all but a handful of countries.

As defense budgets now seem to rise inexorably, the tide is lifting virtually all boats inside the Pentagon. Funding for research and development is up 4 percent on last year, including pet projects in the ambit of the technology-oriented Secretary Carter, who created a special organization called Strategic Concepts Organization to host some of them. There is also a $250 billion funding increase for Operations and Maintenance in the budget request to tackle readiness. Heck, we are about to spend more on operations, (and the Pentagon’s massive back office) alone, than any other country spends on its entire defense budget. Only procurement dollars are down from last year, from $119 billion to a paltry $112 billion. That’s due in part to program uncertainty (the new bomber is behind schedule, as is the troubled F-35), and in part to make room for other priorities, like readiness.

But for basic Pentagon operations, these are happy times, not the last gasp before the U.S. military expires. And there is more. Unlike any other part of the federal government (with the small exception of diplomats and foreign assistance providers), the Pentagon completely evades the discipline of the 2011 Budget Control Act, with extra money doled out generously across its activities.

That’s thanks to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget. Once intended to fund the costs of combat, it stands outside budget caps. 2017 will, in fact, be the 17th birthday for defense supplementals — aka, the OCO slush fund. An extra budget residing outside any budget caps is simply unprecedented in post-World War II defense budget history. Normally, after a couple of years of military operations, war spending is folded into regular DoD budget planning. Not any more. In addition to that base budget funding I mentioned above, from 2001 to 2017 the DoD will have received more than $1.7 trillion in less-scrutinized, less accountable funds through supplementals and OCO, or 18 percent of all the budget resources it has received

There’s nothing like a little extra money to warm the hearts of the services and the secretary of defense. At the start, the services discovered how useful that extra funding could be, with the Army using it, in part, to fully modernize its equipment, as a Stimson Center report pointed out in 2011. When the BCA caps were set in 2011, the congressional appropriators discovered the wonders of OCO, using it as a holding place for operational funding, which allowed them to add procurement programs to the base budget. In 2014, the White House discovered it using OCO to fund initiatives for African and European security add-ons and a new counter-terrorism program.

Today, the OCO disease is rampant and widespread. The new budget request makes even more rampant use of the extra funds, buying not only munitions by the thousands for the air campaign against the Islamic State, but more drones, armored trucks for the Army, and F-18s for the Navy. It also doubles down on counter-Islamic State funding overall to $7.5 billion, and more than quintuples funds to rotate brigades into Europe to reassure our allies. Anything new, anything for which there was not room in the base budget, now finds a home in OCO.

Happy Days, indeed! There is no doubt that the campaign rhetoric of “weakness” and “deprivation” will not stop, despite this reality. As if he did not see the happy data, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry is completely on campaign message and schedule, calling for $15 to 23 billion more in OCO.

Politics knows no shame, especially in an election year. But this new defense budget is likely to end up as the law sometime after the election. A small shade of pink embarrassment should creep up congressional and Pentagon faces when they call for even more.

Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan / Staff

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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