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Defense Analysts Blast Military Exemption to Spending Freeze


President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union on Wednesday. (White House Photo)

Steve Kosiak has spent much of his career as a defense analyst frustrated by military bloat. In early 2003, he found it was “impossible to say precisely” how much of the Bush administration’s military buildup was actually attributable to the post-9/11 emergency and how much was pre-existing defense pork. A 2005 paper he authored for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a leading Washington defense think tank, warned that rising defense costs could add “some $900 billion to projected deficits.” And in December 2008, he devoted almost 100 pages to carefully itemizing the costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — $970 billion as of then, he found — and placing them in a broader social, economic and budgetary context.

The Obama administration is deeply familiar with Kosiak’s work. A year ago, the White House tapped him to oversee defense spending for the Office of Management and Budget. And that makes President Obama’s decision to exempt the hundreds of billions spent annually on defense and homeland security from a proposed overall freeze in discretionary spending — a policy he formally unveiled in his State of the Union address Wednesday night — particularly difficult for defense analysts to understand.

[Security1]Leading defense wonks, particularly those on the left, have harsh words for the exemption. “Ridiculous,” said Laicie Olson of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “Completely inappropriate,” said Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress. “A political decision,” said Charles Knight of the Project on Defense Alternatives.

Obama’s first defense budget, submitted last spring, topped out at $663 billion when including the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — an overall increase from the final Bush administration Pentagon budget — but also terminated major defense programs hated by reformers, including the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet, the Army’s Future Combat System vehicle and ground-based missile defense. But despite the real-dollar increase, conservatives criticized Obama’s budget when they saw that those program cancellations would bring down future defense spending. Similarly, Obama raised the Department of Homeland Security’s budget to $43 billion from $40 billion.

Reformers had looked to the release of the master Pentagon planning document known as the Quadrennial Defense Review, currently scheduled for a rollout next week, to guide future reductions in defense programs of questionable value, plagued by cost overruns or beset with design flaws, like the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. When announcing his cuts last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates hinted that the so-called QDR would shape future decisions on cuts or program restructuring.

Several defense analysts said they have received indications the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle will survive the QDR relatively unscathed, however. It is unclear if the QDR will indicate any additional program cuts are forthcoming, but the document will be released alongside the administration’s proposed fiscal 2011 defense budget, which is expected to total $740 billion when roughly $33 billion for funding Obama’s Afghanistan “extended troop surge” is factored in. Reports indicate that Obama will seek to fund that through a supplemental budget request rather than one big budget document for all defense requirements — something candidate Obama pledged not to do.

But while Obama did not rule out future defense cuts in the speech, many of these defense wonks could not understand why an effort at deficit reduction would explicitly exclude defense spending. “Defense spending is over half our discretionary spending,” Olson said. “It would be crazy not to include it. It begs the question whether this is a real effort.” Shortly before the speech, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker of the House, told reporters that any spending freeze ought to include defense spending.

The freeze will also exclude spending on entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. As a result, administration officials anticipate the spending freeze will save $250 billion over 10 years — a little more than a third of last year’s defense budget alone.

Korb, the senior defense analyst at the White House-connected Center for American Progress and a former Reagan Pentagon official, said the decision only made sense in terms of politics. “It’s another indication that Democrats are afraid of being seen as quote-unquote soft on defense,” Korb said, noting that no defense reformer was proposing cuts to any programs used for the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Still, Todd Harrison, an defense-budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said he believed the combination of massive defense budgets, massive federal deficits and a weak economy would inevitably compel Congress and the president to cut defense. “It’s likely in the future that everything will come under pressure, defense included,” Harrison said. But he conceded that a variable in that calculation is “political will” for such cuts — which is not in evidence in either the White House or, especially, the Congress, which loves to send defense money back home to individual states and districts.

While that political will may not exist in Washington, there is reason to believe it exists outside of the city. According to a Pew poll from December, defense spending ranked among the most popular sectors of the federal budget to cut. Eighteen percent of respondents identified “military defense” as a target for desired budget reductions, compared to six percent for education and 15 percent for unemployment assistance.

“Its absolutely ridiculous to think that we’re going to cut things like education and spend money on nuclear weapons and programs that don’t work, are faulty, have been faulty for years and continue to waste money,” Olson said.

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