The day of reckoning has arrived at the Pentagon.
This Götterdämmerung — also known as the end of supplemental budgets — is being met with a mix of anxiety and resignation. Everyone knew they would not last forever but were somehow still hoping for a miracle.
The 2011 defense budget will end the practice of funding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by supplemental appropriations requests, which are separate from the department’s annual “base” budget. Between 2001 and 2010, the Pentagon will have received more than a trillion dollars outside the normal budget process. The funds pay not just for war operations but also personnel costs and procurement of new equipment.
Technically, it is not free money, but it sort of feels like it.
Even before the Obama administration decided to stop funding war costs outside the normal budget process, critics on Capitol Hill had vociferously opposed it. Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., spoke about the “corrosive” impact of the over-reliance
on supplemental appropriations through the years. “Deliberate calculations and planning in anticipation of supplemental appropriations undermines budget and fiscal discipline,” Levin said
recently. “Congress has called for many years for this practice to end.”
In theory, there is no reason why war expenses for Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be estimated and budgeted like everything else at the Defense Department. Supplementals were designed for emergencies such as hurricane relief or military operations that were never anticipated.
The ongoing wars, now heading into their eighth year, no longer qualify as such.
But even those who agree that the wars have gone on long enough to be part of the Pentagon’s regular budget worry about the zero-sum game. If war expenses are plugged into the base budget, will that require equivalent cuts elsewhere, in non-war related programs?
“We’ve all been concerned,” said a senior military official who spoke at a private defense industry gathering. “The biggest challenge in 2011 is moving OCO [overseas contingency operations] expenses into the base budget,” he said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress that the Army and the Marine Corps have already shifted war-related personnel costs to the base budget. But the Navy still keeps 2,400 sailors in the OCO budget.
The Air Force has billions of dollars in equipment and depot maintenance, flying hours, contractor logistics support, training and readiness costs as part of OCO requests. “How does the base accommodate that?” asked the senior official. “Where does the money come from? …
That’s the hot topic of discussion at the Pentagon right now.”
The military services have been spoiled for too long, he admitted. “We’re hooked on the supplemental.”
There was already a groundswell of criticism against the use of supplementals during the final two years of the Bush administration.
Eyebrows were raised in October 2006 when Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England wrote a memo that gave the military services nebulous guidance regarding what they could include in supplemental budgets. The memo said they could request funding for equipment and training that were associated with the “larger war on terrorism.” Budget analysts called attention to the England memo and said it was encouraging the services to pack war budgets with items that belonged in long-term modernization plans.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said in his confirmation hearing that the Defense Department should “avoid including predictable costs in supplemental requests.”
But one top military official recently complained that the termination of supplemental budgets might be premature. “The tension that I see is the pressure to drive into the baseline … predictions on something that describes the world that we just can’t predict,” Adm. Patrick Walsh,
vice chief of naval operations, told the readiness subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. “The challenge that we have is trying to articulate for national leaders what the operating tempo of the new normal is for the fleet.
Walsh’s comments bring home the deep cultural shock that Gates caused by asking the services to treat the wars as a routine expense. “This doesn’t fit into a neat accounting scheme in terms of whether or not we’re actually operating in support of the war or not,” Walsh said. “So
trying to describe ‘routine’ in this kind of world that we’re in since 9/11 becomes especially problematic for those who are trying to exert discipline in the baseline as well as trying to define what the wartime overseas contingency operations really involve.”
The Army and the Marine Corps continue to rely on OCO funds to fix and replace weapons and vehicles. “We have a significant amount of money in the supplemental for ‘10 and ‘09 that deals with modernization,” said Gen. James Amos, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. “The reset of the Marine Corps is hinged almost exclusively on the supplementals.”
The Pentagon already estimated a $130 billion OCO budget for 2010. The 2011-and-beyond budget deliberations are under way. Is there a 12-step program somewhere to help break the addiction to easy money?