WASHINGTON – As the Iraq war enters a fifth year, the conflict that President Bush’s aides once said would all but pay for itself with oil revenues is fueling the highest level of defense spending since World War II.
Even with past spending adjusted upward for inflation, the $630 billion provided for the military this year exceeds the highest annual amounts during the Reagan-era defense build-up, the Vietnam War and the Korean War.
When lawmakers approve a nearly $100 billion emergency spending bill in the next few weeks, Congress will have appropriated $607 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with about 75 percent going to Iraq, according to a new Congressional Research Service study.
Less than three months after assuming control of Congress, Democrats are moving away from their election campaign pledges to restrict or eliminate funding for Iraq.
“Nobody wants to be labeled anti-military for the crime of cutting the budget,” said Winslow Wheeler, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. “It makes supporting whatever the military services request a political necessity amongst both Democrats and Republicans.”
No one disagrees that a lot of money is being sucked up in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the relentless violence grinds up tanks, planes and other aging equipment.
Beyond the immediate war costs – accelerated by the 30,000-troop increase Bush has authorized for Iraq – defense analysts inside and outside the government cite several factors that they say are driving military spending:
•Pentagon funding declined in the 1990s under the first President Bush and President Clinton after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
•Aging weapons systems fell into disrepair and weren’t replaced at what would have been bargain-basement prices by today’s standards.
•Military health care and pension costs are soaring as the recruits and officers who formed the volunteer armed forces after the Vietnam War retire and begin to age.
•Pentagon planners are replacing several generations of major weapons systems simultaneously in the Army, Navy and Air Force; the new high-tech tanks, ships and planes are as much as 10 times more expensive, on a per unit basis.
•Congress is likely to approve Bush’s request for an increase of 92,000 soldiers and Marines in the country’s active-duty forces, the largest growth spurt since the Cold War ended.
About 300,000 American troops are deployed outside U.S. borders – roughly half in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the other half in 76 other countries.