The Pentagon’s Budget Arrives With a $79 Billion Mystery

The Defense Department still doesn’t know how much to request from Congress for spending on wars.

Image has been reviewed by U.S. Military prior to transmission.) In this handout provided by the U.S. Air Force, a HH-60G Pave Hawk hovers over pararescuemen and Brig. Gen. Jack L. Briggs, the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, during a training mission at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Sept. 24, 2010. The training mission provided a glimpse of what the 33rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron brings to the fight and the capabilities it provides to combat commanders.
National Journal
Jordain Carney and Sara Sorcher
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Jordain Carney Sara Sorcher
March 4, 2014, 8:18 a.m.

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.

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