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US Defense Expenditures Could Exceed $700 Billion

As the U.S. Congress draws up the 2008 federal budget, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense is focusing specifically on financial requests by the military. At a Capitol Hill hearing on Thursday, subcommittee members questioned Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the costs of war above and beyond those reflected in the budget itself. VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports.

The Pentagon is requesting more than $600 billion to fund the U.S. military in 2008. The figure includes $245 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It does not, however, include supplemental requests to fund operations in Iraq. This concerns subcommittee chairman, John Murtha.

"In the future, however, this committee is committed to ensuring that for purposes of planning and honest account, wartime funding must be included in the base budget," he said. "It's a help when you sent up the supplemental with the bill this year, which gives us an idea of how much money you need, but we still want to see it inside the bill."

Defense Secretary Gates acknowledged that the combined cost of the base budget and additional war-related requests exceeds $700 billion. Viewed in historical context, however, the Pentagon chief says U.S. military expenditures today as a percentage of U.S. national wealth are actually lower than they were during the Cold War or the conflicts in Vietnam and Korea. He attributes the lower percentage to defense cuts after the end of the Cold War. Nonetheless, he says the world has since become more complicated and, arguably, dangerous.

"In addition to fighting the global war on terror, we face the danger posed by Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions and the threat they pose not only to their neighbors, but globally, because of their records of proliferation, the uncertain paths of China and Russia, which are both pursuing sophisticated military modernization programs, and a range of other flashpoints, challenges and threats," he said.

Subcommittee members expressed concern on several occasions that the Pentagon does not have accurate figures on the cost and quantity of private civilian contractors in Iraq. Another issue: how government appropriations are not spent. Democratic Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur read a letter from one of her constituents deployed to Anbar Province, who claims he and other U.S. Marines need to spend their own money on small essentials such as duct tape, rope, and oil to lubricate their rifles.

"I'm asking myself as an appropriator: I'm voting all this money for a war I never believed in and people from my district are being deployed without the proper equipment," she said. "Then he says, 'Recently I found out the gear the unit is issuing us for deployment - an extra pair of boots, fire retardant, pilot gloves and so on - if supply doesn't have it, you're required to buy it yourself.'"

Representative Kaptur declined Secretary Gates' request to name the unit her constituent is serving with. Subcommittee Chairman Murtha explained that the larger issue is not any particular unit, but proper equipment for all combat troops.

On another issue, the Secretary drew the chairman's praise for his definition of victory in the War on Terror.

"The challenge that we are going to face from the Jihadists is one that is going to be with us for decades," he said. "And my own view would be that it will taper off. Terrorism has always been the tactic of the weak against the strong. And I think you won't eliminate it altogether. Ever. But what you can do is over time reduce it to a level that you can continue daily life without feeling imperiled, or putting civil liberties at risk."

Secretary Gates says the war on terror should involve U.S. cooperation with other nations to address the social, political and economic conditions that give rise to despair and suicide bombings.

While Gates was testifying on next year's defense appropriations in the House, the U.S. Senate passed a 2007 supplemental war appropriations bill. It includes a timeline, also passed in the House, for at least a partial troop withdrawal from Iraq. President George W. Bush has promised to veto the bill.