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$3 Billion in Gates’ Defense Cuts Cancelled Out by Rushed Troop Deployment to Afghanistan

As expected Thursday, Robert Gates announced a series of cuts to the Pentagon budget. The numbers, $78 billion over the next 5 years, came in a little lower than the $100 billion expected. A separate $100 billion in cuts would be reinvested in “new weapon systems and programs that benefit troops.” Gates has made no secret of the fact that he wants to free up money in more outdated weapons systems, like the Marine landing craft program, to put to use in modern war-fighting.

And that shift is happening almost immediately. For on the very same day that Gates announced these cuts, he also announced the sending of 1,400 additional Marines to Afghanistan to help with what is expected to be a difficult spring campaign.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has decided to send an additional 1,400 Marine combat forces to Afghanistan, officials said, in a surprise move ahead of the spring fighting season to try to cement tentative security gains before White House-mandated troop reductions begin in July.

The Marine battalion could start arriving on the ground as early as mid-January. The forces would mostly be deployed in the south, around Kandahar, where the U.S. has concentrated troops over the past several months.

Commanders in Afghanistan and advocates of the strategy in Washington say temporarily adding front-line forces could help counter an anticipated spring offensive by Taliban militants returning from havens in neighboring Pakistan.

Commanders are examining other proposals to temporarily boost the number of combat troops in Afghanistan in addition to the Marines authorized Wednesday. If the plans are approved, the front-line fighting force could be increased in total by as many as 3,000 troops.

With a year-long tour, at the customary cost for this war of one million dollars per troop per year, the cost of an additional 3,000 deployments could raise spending in Afghanistan by $3 billion dollars, assuming a year-long tour of duty. Yes, there will be a drawdown, supposedly, by July, but goosing the troop numbers now means you’re drawing down from a higher figure. So I think it’s accurate to say $3 billion, just in troop spending.

So subtract the “cuts” by $3 billion. And in fiscal year 2012, the Pentagon will only offer a $13 billion dollar reduction from their initial budget estimate. So fully 1/4 of it gets offset by troop escalation.

Oh, and how will these cost savings be reached? $7 billion comes from increasing health care premiums for military families.

Supposedly, the topline “reductions,” including a decrease in the size of the military force, won’t hit until after the war in Afghanistan “ends” in 2015. Somehow, I see more stealth deployments of 3,000 troops or more until that time.

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David Dayen

David Dayen