The Pentagon's $496 billion budget request released Tuesday contains a laundry list of weapons systems and troops' benefits the military wants for next year. What the massive request does not include, however, are any details about how it plans to spend money on its most important function: fighting wars.
Instead, the Defense Department is tossing out $79 billion as a "placeholder" request to Congress for spending on wars, known as the "overseas contingency operations" account.
That is the exact amount the military asked for last year. But, given that the Obama administration is in the process of winding down the war in Afghanistan, officials are insisting their placeholder should not be taken seriously. "It's not a real number," Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox said last week.
So why can't the Pentagon tell Congress how much it needs to fight the nation's wars?
For one, the pace and future of the Afghan drawdown remains in flux.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is defying expectations by refusing to sign the U.S.-Afghanistan security pact, which could allow the United States to keep 10,000 troops stationed in the Central Asian country. But if Karzai refuses to sign the agreement, and if his soon-to-be-elected successor refuses as well, the White House has said it is making plans for a complete pullout of U.S. forces.
The eventual number of troops stationed there obviously will greatly affect how much military operations will cost in 2015, and so Congress may get a much clearer picture if the next Afghan president signs the security pact following the upcoming elections.
And Congress may not, in fact, be in any hurry to find a rigid ceiling for the war-spending account. The fund is not subject to Congress's strict budget caps, and in the 2014 budget, the Pentagon and Congress added some $30 billion for items not directly related to war—including depot maintenance for major weapons systems, and pay and benefits for service members who may or may not be deployed.
This article appears in the March 5, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.