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Breaking Down the Pentagon's Budget

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Breaking Down the Pentagon's Budget

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Breaking Down the Pentagon's Budget

Breaking Down the Pentagon's Budget

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The Pentagon says Congress must allocate another $100 billion for the war in Iraq, or the military will face significant cutbacks. Can the Department of Defense and its $500 billion budget really still be strapped for cash?

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Pentagon is watching the fight brewing between president and Congress over continued funding of the war in Iraq. The House has voted to provide the military with an additional $100 billion in emergency money for Iraq on the condition that troops start pulling out beginning early next year. The president promised he'll veto the bill if it comes to his desk as is. And the Pentagon now says if it doesn't get the money by the middle of next month, the military may face a partial shutdown.

NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz explains why.

GUY RAZ: Say our Defense Department was an independent country. If it was, the Pentagon would be the 11th richest country in the world - richer than India, richer than Brazil, richer than almost every country in the European Union. Now if you count the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon's budget this year will top $600 billion.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HELLMAN (Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation): One of the ironies is is that even though we're spending, you know, $500 billion in the annual budget and then an additional about $140 to $150 billion just to fund the war, is that that's not enough.

RAZ: This is Christopher Hellman, who works at the Center for Arms Control. Like everyone I interviewed for this story, Hellman points out a staggering detail: We actually spend significantly less on defense today than we did at any point over the past 60 years.

Here's retired Army General John Batiste with the numbers.

General JOHN BATISTE (U.S. Army, Retired): Back during World War II, the Defense budget was 34 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. During Korea, it was just under 12 percent. During Vietnam, it was 9 percent of our Gross Domestic Product.

RAZ: Today it's only about 4 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. Now that's comparatively small, but even so, it still averages out to about $4,700 a year for every taxpayer in America. That's according to the Boston-based National Priorities Project.

Now late last week, the defense secretary, Robert Gates, gave a press briefing. And he said if the Congress doesn't send the Pentagon another $100 billion fast, the result might be…

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): …delaying or curtailing the deployment of brigade combat teams to their training rotations. This, in turn, will cause additional units in theater to have their tours extended because other units are not ready to take their place.

RAZ: Translation: The surge of troops to Iraq may have to be put on ice for a few weeks. But if the Pentagon already gets about half a trillion a year, can't they find money somewhere else? That's a question I put to Christopher Hellman.

Mr. HELLMAN: As large as the defense budget is, because of the way it's structured - the commitments that you take on over a long period of time and personnel costs which are basically fixed costs - you don't have as much flexibility as one might imagine.

Mr. DOUG ZAKHEIM (Former Pentagon Official): It would be impossible to shift because of the way Congress manages the budget.

RAZ: And Doug Zakheim should know. He worked at the Pentagon for three years. He was the comptroller overseeing the budget.

Mr. ZAKHEIM: In fact, Congress allows the comptroller the ability to move less than three-quarters of one percent of the entire budget.

RAZ: So because most defense spending is actually locked in - sometimes years in advance - the Pentagon is spending money on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that it doesn't actually have, with the expectation that Congress - acting out of political expediency - will simply bail it out.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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