The costly truth of emergency spending in Iraq and Afghanistan

Despite troop reductions, the Pentagon's war budget is increasing

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Soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division perform a security check on their Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles near the Kuwaiti border as part of the last U.S. military convoy to leave Iraq Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011.

Lucas Jackson/AP

Eight years ago, when America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still raging at full force, the Pentagon’s annual budget for those conflicts amounted to $1 million for each troop who was actually fighting.  But today, even as the Obama Administration continues to wind those wars down, the newest proposed Pentagon war-fighting budget would spend $5.9 million per deployed troop, a reflection, critics say, of sleight of hand that puts unrelated spending into a budget that’s supposed to be only for waging war.

The figures come from a new report by the Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington D.C. The report highlights the amount of spending in the special war-fighting account that authors argue should instead be part of the basic year-to-year budgeting for the Defense Department.  

The Obama administration has requested $58.8 billion for that war budget – the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund—in fiscal year 2017. This represents a $200 million increase from the enacted budget in 2016 even though administration plans call for 9,767 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2017, a reduction of roughly 3,500 troops from this year.

“The gulf between troop levels and OCO-designated spending has widened significantly in recent years,” Stimson fellow Laicie Heeley and intern Anna Wheeler write in the 20-page report released May 24. OCO includes a multitude of training efforts for Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, which the Stimson authors argue “no longer require emergency funding” because the initiatives are ongoing and can be easily anticipated year after year. “The funds are actually going to a larger amount of base budget needs,” said Heeley in an interview.

Since 2001, the Pentagon has been issued a separate check for these emergency war  funds, which a variety of critics say have become an unnecessary “slush fund” for a multitude of unrelated defense and non-defense programs;  the Overseas Contingency Operations label was inaugurated in 2009.

OCO now supports projects such as the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) – a program developed in 2014 to prove the U.S. remained committed to Central Europe despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Crimean invasion, and the Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund (CTPF), which supports US Africa Command and US Central Command training programs overseas.

OCO is not subject to the 2011 Budget Control Act that is supposed to cap the Pentagon’s spending, an annual  battle typically referred to as “sequestration.” Experts say this inevitably leads to political games.

“The whole OCO scam has become a subterfuge that allows people to have their cake and eat it too,” Gordon Adams, a former Office of Management and Budget associate director and current professor at American University, told the Center for Public Integrity. “Everybody has decided that this is better than having a disciplined defense budget,” Adams said.

The Center for Public Integrity reported in 2014 that many OCO programs could be delegated to the base defense budget. A 2014 GAO report found that U.S. Central Command was funded in part through the war budget, money that should have been transitioned into the base defense budget.

In 2016, Congress added $7.7 billion to OCO as a way to redirect spending and help the base defense budget comply with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. This year the Obama administration requested $5.2 billion in 2017 OCO funds to meet these “unfunded needs in the Pentagon’s base budget” according to defense officials quoted in the Stimson report.

Adams says that’s just a way of getting around budget caps first enacted by the 2011 control act. Those budget caps have already been adjusted upwards by the Bipartisan Budget Acts of 2013 and of 2015.

Some experts contend that the high price tag of the wars could also in part reflect a changing landscape. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have become equipment and technology heavy, according to this argument. Instead of personnel, the U.S. is increasingly making use of more expensive technologies.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter stated at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on May 6, 2015 that the Overseas Contingency Operations funding is unstable. Carter said that the account makes it difficult for the Defense Department to plan ahead.

“Because it doesn’t provide a stable multi-year budget horizon, this one-year approach is managerially unsound and unfairly dispiriting to our force,” Carter said at the hearing. “Our military personnel and their families deserve to know their future more than just one year at a time.”

Last year, a Center for Public Integrity investigation found that many Senators trying to grow the OCO budget on the Hill received campaign contributions from defense contractors.

The battle over OCO spending has continued during this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) markups.

House Republicans, led by  Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) are currently attempting to direct $18 billion of proposed 2017 OCO war funds on base budget expenses, an action that Carter equated to “gambling with warfighting money at a time of war” at a  House Armed Services Committee hearing on April 27. Carter said that proposed redirection of the money would go to efforts that are currently a low priority for the Pentagon and would cut off funding for troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in the middle of the year.

On May 25, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) submitted an amendment to the Senate’s version of the defense bill that would add roughly $17.8 billion to the OCO fund for aircraft, army personnel, readiness, shipbuilding, cooperative Israeli-US defense programs, and other vehicles and equipment. Heeley equates McCain’s proposal to a Christmas list. “There’s an immediacy to McCain and Thornberry’s proposals that isn’t there from the Pentagon. It’s coming from Congress.”

 Senate Armed Services committee communications director Dustin Walker countered that McCain’s proposed amendment is designed “to reverse short-sighted [military] cuts…It is a carefully crafted set of resources and capabilities that are required to give our military service members what they need to confront growing threats to our security.”

OCO, however, was not the first choice for funding. Walker wrote that Senator McCain “would be the first to welcome lifting arbitrary defense spending caps and returning to a strategy-based, threat-driven defense budget.”

Lauren Chadwick is a Scoville Fellow at the Center for Public Integrity.

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