Special interests keep expanding defense budget

Freedom New Mexico

One thing you can say about the defense budget presented as part of President Barack Obama’s $3.8 trillion federal budget — it’s marginally more honest than some previous budgets.

In years past Defense secretaries have pretended the costs of waging active wars are separate from the “baseline” military budget and have not included those costs in annual budget figures, leaving them to supplemental appropriations.

However, the figure for the projected 2011 military budget is forthrightly estimated at $708.2 billion, which consists of $548.9 billion in the “baseline” budget and $159.3 billion for “overseas contingency operations,” e.g., the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Almost as an afterthought, however, there’s an additional $33 billion to pay for the 30,000 extra troops President Obama is sending to Afghanistan, bringing the grand total to $741.2 billion.

The Center for a New American Security calculates that, when adjusted for inflation, this military budget is 13 percent higher than at the peak of the Korean War, 33 percent higher than at the peak of the Vietnam War, 12 percent higher than at the peak of the Cold War and 64 percent higher than the Cold War average. To be sure, military pay is higher in the all-volunteer military than during the era of conscription, but the military is also considerably smaller.

What we have is a military still built to meet the challenges of the Cold War some two decades after the Cold War ended. With no prospective enemy that comes close to posing a challenge in air or naval power, in an era when the challenge comes from stateless terrorists who can best be countered by improved intelligence, nimble special forces and relatively inexpensive unmanned drone aircraft, we are spending as if the Soviet Union were still around and threatening us on every front.

To be sure, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is cutting some weapons programs he and many others consider unnecessary or ineffective, including the Air Force’s F-22 fighter, the Navy’s DDG-1000 destroyer, elements of a high-tech Future Combat Systems program that has shown dubious value, and phasing out the C-17 cargo-transport plane.

However, other big-ticket weapons programs are on the rise: $25 billion for 10 new ships, another $10 billion for missile defense, and $11 billion for 43 more F-35 fighter planes.

Secretary Gates has shown signs of wanting to refashion defense spending to meet the challenges of today rather than yesterday. But he faces a Pentagon that has become a cumbersome bureaucratic monster buttressed by special interests and defense contractors in almost every congressional district that defends and seeks to expand every program, no matter how expensive or unnecessary.

We had hoped that an Obama administration would hold the line on military spending rather than increasing it beyond the excesses of the George W. Bush years. Silly us.