Unprecedented Pentagon growth comes to halt

Defense request for fiscal 2012 comes in at $13 billion less than earlier spending projections.

After enjoying a decade of historic growth fueled by the demands put on a force at war and the collective assumption that defense accounts were off limits for cuts, the Pentagon is no longer immune to fiscal belt-tightening.

The president's fiscal 2012 defense budget blueprint -- not including the wars -- comes to $553 billion, which equates to just $3.9 billion more than the Defense Department's fiscal 2011 request and $13 billion less than had been projected for next year.

That meager uptick means no real increase in spending, placing an emphatic and definitive end to a 10-year stretch during which the Pentagon's base budget nearly doubled.

War spending is also on the decline as the United States prepares to complete its withdrawal from Iraq at the end of this year. The administration is requesting $126.5 billion for the wars for the next fiscal year, $117.6 billion of that for the Defense Department. That compares with a $164.7 billion spending proposal for the wars for this year, which included $159.1 billion for defense.

But the spending proposal released on Monday tells only part of the story. The budget, the product of months of negotiations between Pentagon and military service leaders, was built around the assumption that Congress would approve a spending bill for this year.

Now, more than four months into fiscal 2011, Congress has passed no budget, and the Pentagon and other government agencies are operating under a stopgap continuing resolution.

The CR funds the Pentagon at last year's spending levels -- which Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said amounts to a $23 billion cut over the request delivered to Capitol Hill in November 2010.

House Republicans released a plan on Friday that would cut more than $15 billion from the defense request, including military construction accounts, for this fiscal year. The Senate is not on board with the plan, lining up a showdown as lawmakers attempt to avert a government shutdown when the current CR expires on March 4.

Failure to approve a Defense request this year would undoubtedly have a ripple effect into next year's budget -- a contingency not factored in the Pentagon's proposal. Until Congress approves a spending bill, the Defense Department has to put on hold any contracts for programs not in the fiscal 2010 request and delay new construction projects.

Gates has said that failure to pass a fiscal 2011 defense spending bill amounts to a "crisis on my doorstep."

But Gordon Adams, who was the Office of Management and Budget's associate director of national security during the Clinton administration, said that the $23 billion hit the Defense Department could have to take this year is "ludicrously small" compared with the overall defense budget.

"Is it fun? No, why would it be fun? You're managing with fewer resources," Adams said. "But it's not like the building doesn't know how to do it, not like they haven't done it before, and not like you can't manage a quality force."