Defense budget reflects cost of maintaining volunteer force in wartime

The high cost of maintaining an all-volunteer military during wartime is reflected in the $515.4 billion defense budget request the Bush administration sent to Congress this week, a 7.5 percent increase over last year's budget. Nearly 30 percent of the request, $149.4 billion, is designated for military pay and health care.

Along with the base budget request, the administration also requested $70 billion in an emergency bridge fund for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. A more detailed request for additional war funding will be sent to Congress this spring, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a Pentagon briefing. Last year, the administration requested $189.3 billion for the wars.

It has been widely noted that the fiscal 2009 request is the largest since the peak years of World War II. It reflects the increased costs of maintaining a large volunteer force during a protracted war.

Nearly $150 billion is directed to military pay and health care. Under the proposal, service members would receive a 3.4 percent pay raise next year. For a staff sergeant, that means an additional $1,289 a year. Civilian Defense employees, like other civilian workers across government, are slated for a 2.9 percent pay bump.

Health care costs for 9.2 million service members and their dependents consume $23.6 billion of the budget request. Vice Adm. Steve Stanley, director of force structure, resources and assessment for the Joint Staff, said the Pentagon was extending additional benefits to service members and their families, such as backing public-private partnerships for child care centers and allowing members of the armed forces to transfer Montgomery GI bill benefits to their spouses and children.

The budget dedicates $20.5 billion to increasing the number of ground forces and improving their readiness. By 2012, the Pentagon plans to add 65,000 Army soldiers, for a total of 547,400, and an additional 27,000 Marines, for a total of 202,000.

The Pentagon's top priority in the budget, Stanley said, was relieving the stress on troops serving repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the surge of additional soldiers to Iraq last year, the tours of some Army units were extended to 15 months. Stanley said combat tours are being reduced to the standard 12 months.

The additional troops will allow units rotating to Iraq double the time spent at home stations to rest, train and repair war-worn equipment. For the Army, that means 24 months home for every 12 months deployed and for the Marines, 14 months at home for every seven months in the combat zone.

The rising cost of fuel has increased operating costs -- forcing the Air Force, for example, to cut back its training flights and increase its use of simulators. The department added $1 billion in the budget to Air Force accounts to cover higher fuel costs, said Defense Comptroller Tina Jonas.

The Pentagon requested $183.3 billion to develop and buy new weapons systems, $104.2 billion for procurement and $79.6 billion for research and development -- an increase of $10.5 billion over 2008.

If Congress approves the procurement request, it would mark nearly a doubling in procurement funding since 2007, and matches the peak year of weapons purchases during the height of the Cold War in 1985, according to an analysis by Steven Kosiak of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Still, the procurement request is below the $6.4 billion increase projected in last year's budget. Kosiak said the increased costs of the war and personnel are causing a shift of funds out of procurement accounts, a trend that "does not bode well for DoD's long-term modernization plans."

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