An indefensible defense budget
Army Times
By George C. Wilson
February 25, 2008

As President Bush backs out the White House door, he is asking Congress to appropriate enough money for the coming fiscal year to enable the Pentagon and its government sidekicks to spend $1.2 million a minute on what is loosely called national defense.

Bush does not propose raising taxes, canceling any major weapons or getting out of the Iraq and Afghanistan quagmires to reduce the mountain of debt that this biggest binge of defense spending since World War II will pile up.

So the new president will be waterboarded by red ink next year unless Congress intercedes this year. Which it won't.

Congress will swallow most of Bush's final defense requests without even chewing on them for the same old reasons.

No politician, especially not in an election year like this one, wants to give his opponent or anyone else grounds to call him or her weak on defense.

And the pols shrink from canceling even an obsolete weapon experiencing huge cost overruns because of the jobs attached to it back home.

Defense contractors, rather than try to justify their weapons on the basis of the threat beyond our shores, focus instead on showing state by state all the jobs that would be lost if their widgets were canceled.

So, Mr. Taxpayer, stand by to watch your hired hands in Washington commit your protection money at the rate of $1.2 million a minute between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30, 2009 — the fiscal year Bush's new defense budget covers.

Winslow Wheeler, a sharp-eyed bean counter at the Government Accountability Office and the Senate Budget Committee before joining the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank, pushed through the underbrush in the White House and Pentagon budgets and came up with a much higher number than the announced ones for Bush's splurge.

On his way to reaching the total of $608.6 billion for national defense for fiscal 2009, Wheeler noted that the White House's Office of Management and Budget and the Pentagon gave conflicting numbers to the public.

OMB told the public that the total for defense for fiscal 2009 would be $518.3 billion, while the Pentagon put out a figure of $515.3 billion, a mere $2.9 billion difference. That's how much the Education Department had for quality-teacher grants to the states for all of fiscal 2007.

OMB in its $518.3 billion total rightly included money the Pentagon has to spend for retirements and the like, Wheeler says, which defense officials conveniently forgot to include.

But don't believe OMB's higher figure, either, Wheeler warns.

It does not include the money that will be spent next year on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that Bush will request off-budget in the form of emergency appropriations.

Bush has disclosed that he will ask for a down payment of $70 billion to partially finance those wars in fiscal 2009.

Wheeler predicts the total for the year will be at least twice that. Adding Bush's announced down payment of $70 billion to the $17.1 billion for Energy Department work on the nation's nuclear arsenal — obviously part of national defense — along with the $3.2 billion the president has budgeted for the National Defense Stockpile, Selective Service and other parts of the military establishment, pushes the White House's announced total of $518.3 billion for fiscal 2009 defense programs up to $608.6 billion.

No ordinary person can get a sense of how much money that is. It helps to divide the $608.6 billion by the 365 days in a year and realize Bush's new defense budget will cost taxpayers $1.7 billion a day.

This works out to $1.2 million a minute, counting Saturdays and Sundays.

Yet the main threat to the country as advertised by Bush are terrorists who have no standing army; no warships; no warplanes; no tanks; and no satellites.

Congress's own bean-counting chief, U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, has repeatedly told lawmakers that Pentagon procurement is out of control.

He told Congress last summer: "Because DoD starts more weapons programs than it can afford, it invariably finds itself in the position of having to shift funds to sustain programs — often to the point of undermining well-performing programs to pay for poorly performing ones. Even if more funding were provided, it would not be a solution because wants will usually exceed the funding available. Rather, we have to live within our means, which requires us to make difficult choices between wants and needs."

In crafting his new military budget, Bush obviously paid no heed to Walker's sermon.

In terms of buying what the military needs to meet the threats confronting the U.S., I have never seen a bigger mismatch than the one represented by Bush's new defense budget.

The next president would be well served to name a commission to study this mismatch and recommend changes.

To give the president both a reality check and political cover, the commission should include broad-minded military officers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If priorities are not imposed by the new commander in chief forcefully enough to kill Cold War weapons and ones costing more than they're worth — considering the depressed economy and new kinds of threats — the new president not only will be taking the citizens to the poor house in Cadillacs, but will fall victim to that old military axiom:

The commander who tries to be strong everywhere is weak everywhere.

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