The Department of Defense is requesting a base budget of nearly half a trillion dollars for the coming year.
That may sound like a lot of money. But that figure doesn’t even count the Pentagon’s multibillion-dollar slush fund — known to policy wonks as the “Overseas Contingency Operations,” or OCO, account.
The OCO fund has been around since 1997, when the government used it to reimburse the military for the costs of operations in the Balkans. The idea was “to meet operational requirements” in military missions “without disrupting approved program execution or force readiness.”
Since then, it’s become the default piggybank for “war spending,” which is supposed to be distinct from ongoing departmental costs like compensation, training, and weapons research and development.
Historically, the fund rang in at between $1 billion and $2 billion per year. By 2008, however, it had ballooned to $187 billion. Even now, with the occupation of Afghanistan winding down, it hovers around $85 billion.
That’s a lot of slush.
The dirty little secret of the OCO account is that it’s “off budget.” That means it doesn’t count against the defense spending caps imposed by Congress as part of the Budget Control Act.
The military is now trying to use the fund to pay for items that have nothing to do with the current fighting overseas — like the F-35 jet.
In early September, the Pentagon asked Congress for permission to “re-program” $1.3 billion of funds from two particular OCO accounts dedicated to operations and maintenance. The military wanted to spend that money instead to buy eight F-35s to “replace” other fighter aircraft lost years ago by the Marines and the Air Force.
Since the exorbitantly expensive F-35 isn’t even operational — and certainly isn’t being used overseas — this seemed to be an odd way to spend Overseas Contingency Operations money. The House Appropriations Committee agreed and denied the request — something it rarely does.
So, that particular $1.3 billion must have been unneeded, right? Why else would the Pentagon try to spend that money on airplanes that it can’t even use yet?
Fast forward two months.
As part of its $5-billion OCO request for funds to help “degrade and ultimately defeat” the so-called Islamic State, the Pentagon says it needs more money in the exact two accounts it would have happily raided in September.
Together those two line items come to around $1.24 billion. That figure is eerily similar to the $1.3 billion the military said it didn’t need just two months ago and could instead shell out on F-35s.
So which is it? Does the military have $1.3 billion too much in those accounts, or does it need $1.24 billion extra to fight the Islamic State?
Before we shovel another few billion in the slush fund, I’d suggest a quick check under the sofa cushions at the Pentagon.