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The Third Battlefront Print

Money Wars and modernization force a stressed Army to fight for $25 billion more
By Anna Mulrine - October 22, 2006

As fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan continues with brutal intensity, the Army is waging a high-stakes war on the home front as well. While President Bush signed the 2007 defense budget into law last week, Army officials were already pressing their case for 2008 funds in one of the more unusual and intrigue-filled budget battles in recent Pentagon history. It is a fight that highlights the deep stresses on a force tussling for more money and manpower while it struggles to protect expensive modern combat systems-systems that critics contend are overly ambitious in a time when war-worn equipment remains in need of critical repairs and posts across the country are struggling to pay their electric bills.

The Army fired the first salvo in its budget battle back in mid-August, when its leaders skipped a deadline for submitting their budget plan to the office of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Instead, with Rumsfeld's blessing and the backing of Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey, Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker took his case directly to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Schoomaker is pressing for nearly $139 billion in fiscal 2008, some $25 billion more than the Army was offered-a budget gap that is, for example, double the government's annual spending for customs, immigration, and border protection combined.

Rumsfeld's decision to allow Schoomaker to go directly to OMB was "a shocker," says a senior Pentagon official. The move was regarded by some as a Rumsfeldian maneuver to mousetrap the White House and by others as an abdication of responsibility. "If the sec def isn't setting those spending priorities, then what the heck is going on?" the official adds. The bottom line, say Pentagon officials privately, is that the Army is on its own to fight this battle. Says Congressional Research Service analyst Stephen Daggett: "I don't think there's any precedent for it."

Rival services. The question now becomes how much money the Army will get-and who pays. The latter hinges on whether OMB will increase its $462 billion "top line" budget for defense spending or whether the Army's needs will force cuts for the other services. "We're taking bets," says one senior congressional staffer. But with OMB's pledges to reduce the deficit, the odds-on favorite is the latter. That prospect, predictably, does not sit well with the Navy and Air Force, which have each traditionally received 30 percent of the defense budget's pie, versus the Army's 25 percent. Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Moseley has noted that his force had to cut some $12 billion from the budget it submitted in mid-August and 40,000 jobs from its civilian and uniformed ranks.

The Army, by contrast, is pushing to expand, backed by congressional calls last week to increase the force by as many as 50,000 new soldiers. But troops are increasingly hard to recruit, and they're expensive-a rule of thumb is that each one requires $100,000 to find, train, and equip. At the same time, the Army is trying to protect the centerpiece of its so-called transformation plan, the Future Combat System, a network of light armored vehicles as tough as tanks, connected by high-tech communications systems. "That really irritates other senior service members because they're giving up stuff right and left," says Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, who adds that the Army will most likely get "a lot more money, but not everything it wants." In hard budget times, services have long traded troop strength for modernization, adds Steven Kosiak, analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "The question is, do they really need this stuff? The FCS is a very ambitious plan that has a lot of problems. It's probably more ambitious than necessary."

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